Shanghai Students Are the World's Best; U.S. Doesn't Crack the Top 15

How worried should we be?

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This week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released its triennial report assessing the relative performance of high school students around the world. The report, known as PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment), measured students' scores on standardized tests for reading, science, and math in 65 countries, with some regions included as well. Shanghai, the largest city in China, topped all three lists, while the United States came in at 17th, 23rd, and 31st place, respectively. The report has raised a number of questions about what, if anything, American schools should be doing differently, and how seriously the nation's educators should take these findings.

  • Results Are Stunning  The New York Times quotes a number of gobsmacked education officials. "I'm kind of stunned, I'm thinking Sputnik," said Chester Finn Jr., a former Assistant Secretary of Education. "I've seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029." Mark Schneider, a member of the Department of Education under George W. Bush, said that "the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning ... Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations."

  • 'A Challenge'  The Times also quotes Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education for the Obama administration, who says: "We have to see this as a wake-up call ... I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better." Duncan added that "we can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we're being out-educated."

  • Don't Expect America to Meet That Challenge, Though  At 24/7 Wall St., Douglas McIntyre strikes a distinctly fatalist note:

There are lessons in the research for the US, although those lessons are old and have not been heeded much. There is no national measurement scale to show how student performance varies from district to district. There is little evidence that weak students are put together with strong teachers. The use of Facebook and smartphones take up much of the time of high school students. Reading is hardly a priority ... There are many reasons and much evidence that America will continue to fail to produce an environment and programs to make student skills 'world class.' The problem is bemoaned and criticized in many quarters. Nothing concrete, however, is done about it.

  • China's Approach Is What Gives it the Edge  Richard Garner at British publication The Independent writes that "Shanghai did not become successful by throwing money at its education system... The secret to its success, as revealed in the report, is that it manages to combine putting emphasis on stretching its brightest pupils to targeting help for those struggling to read or add. By contrast, much of the emphasis in the UK has been about targeting resources at the most disadvantaged students."

  • What Will America's Policy Response Be? wonders David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy. "President Obama called this a 'Sputnik moment' arguing that the quality of education will be decisive in determining which countries surge ahead and which fall behind in the current era," writes Rothkopf. "He is clearly right. And no doubt rather than rallying to his side and recognizing that we are desperate need of a bipartisan push to restore excellence to America's schools and at least give our kids a fighting chance in an increasingly competitive global economy, the 'new exceptionalists' will no doubt seek to gain political advantage instead." How? "They will cast the president as an America-skeptic, try to present his realism as anti-Americanism, and... they will sacrifice America's children rather than giving the president a 'victory' on education reform."

  • Oh, Please, scoffs Allahpundit at Hot Air: "Hey, who's up for a little civilizational-decline anxiety on a slow Tuesday news night?" Allahpundit points out that "the Chinese could be gaming them by letting gifted migrant students reside in the city instead of going home and by motivating them to study with nationalist appeals about how important the results would be to China's international standing." He notices that "the spread between Shanghai and the second-place country in each category is conspicuously larger than it is between second place and third place and so on, so there is reason to be at least a bit suspicious."

  • Let's Poke at These Numbers a Bit, says The Atlantic's James Fallows. "As with just about everything concerning modern China, the results should be taken seriously... But as with just about everything concerning modern China, the results should also be viewed with some distance and possible skepticism." Fallows quotes an unidentified scientist at length who lists a number of ways in which the PISA data doesn't answer key questions, and offers the following takeaway: "Pay attention, and assume that the general pattern shown here is right and significant... But don't take this too literally as the next sign of Inevitable 'Chinese Professor' Dominance."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.