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Tilting at Windmills

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December 4, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE EDUCATIONAL BLUES....Guess what? American kids suck:

The average science score of U.S. 15-year-olds lagged that of students in 16 of 30 [industrialized] countries....U.S. students were further behind in math, trailing counterparts in 23 countries.

"How are our children going to be able to compete with the children of the world? The answer is not well," said former Colorado governor Roy Romer, who is chairman of Strong American Schools.

Now, God knows I'm in favor of our children being able to compete with the children of the world. And I've read just enough about educational problems in the U.S. to be convinced that we really ought to be doing a better job of it, especially among low-income and minority kids. Still, we've been hearing these tales of international woe for an awful long time. Here's A Nation At Risk, the famous 1983 report on the state of American schools:

International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.

Hmmm. "Completed a decade ago" means 1973. I was a sophomore in high school that year, so this is a pretty precise reference to my generation, which apparently sucked too. And yet, despite this vast expanse of mid-70s suckitude, my generation has apparently been helping to power the United States to ever greater international dominance ever since. Ditto for Gen X and Gen Y. Somehow, having teenagers who produce mediocre secondary school achievement scores compared to their counterparts in Europe and Asia doesn't seem to have much real-world effect on actual global success.

I dunno. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a German friend of mine about a decade ago. We were chatting about secondary education in our two countries, and long story short, German kids are better educated than American kids. At least, it sure seemed that way. But if that's the case, I asked, why does the American economy continue to do so well? Shouldn't Germany be kicking our ass? He shrugged and then told me a story about how rigid the German school system was and how long his brother had had to fight to get a decent (i.e., non-vocational) education.

I still wonder about this. If American kids are getting mediocre educations, and if they've been getting these mediocre educations for several decades now, shouldn't this have long since shown up in the business world, the tech world, and the financial world? And yet, it hasn't. So what's the deal? Makes me wonder if maybe American kids don't actually suck all that bad after all.

UPDATE: With the exception of the nitwits claiming that Americans are too stupid because we elected George Bush etc., the comments are pretty good and raise lots of sharp point. Worth looking at.

Kevin Drum 5:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (128)

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Comments

Frequently is the question asked, "Is our children learning?"

Posted by: HydroCabron on December 4, 2007 at 5:35 PM | PERMALINK

And yet, never answered.....

Posted by: Kevin Drum on December 4, 2007 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

One explanation for the paradox is that all those well educated Germans were smart enough to leave Germany and move to the U.S.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on December 4, 2007 at 5:40 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: And yet, despite this vast expanse of mid-70s suckitude, my generation has apparently been helping to power the United States to ever greater international dominance ever since.

It could very well be that the economic might of the U.S. helps to make up for its otherwise poor showing academically. An interesting comparison might use those rankings for non-economic giants and see if it influenced their standing in the world.

Posted by: flagg on December 4, 2007 at 5:42 PM | PERMALINK

Don't European schools diverge into vocational and college-prep tracks at a fairly early point -- I think in England it's when the kids are around 11? I hate to suggest this, because I think a lot of American schools give up on kids way too soon, but I just wonder if the comparison is really apples to apples.

Posted by: Lucia on December 4, 2007 at 5:43 PM | PERMALINK

It may not be the sole answer, but at least some of the difference is the types of high schools we have versus those in other parts of the world. Not all German teenagers go to the same types of high schools. Some go for the more academic schools (which most resemble our schools) while others go for more vocational training with the thought that their schooling days will end without college. If you only test those going to the academic schools, it is virtually certain they will do better on test schools since you've culled the less bright students from the equation. I find it impossible to believe our high schools can be so bad, while our college systems are the envy of the world. As you suggest Kevin, something isn't adding up.

Posted by: Jim on December 4, 2007 at 5:44 PM | PERMALINK

Total proof we need more presidential candidates that believe the Earth is only 6000 years old.

Posted by: Flat Mars Theory on December 4, 2007 at 5:45 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, but it's not the _average_ student that goes on to be a scientist. It's really totally irrelevant. It's the really bright kids that go into science and math. If you compared only the top 10%, it'd mean a lot more. Motivated kids in this country have always been able to learn a lot more than those who just sit there and wait to become smartified.

I don't think that this data is irrelevant - a lower average education makes it harder to catch up later, makes economic mobility harder, and leads us to electing people based on whom we'd like to drink beer with. But it doesn't much affect the talent pool that the Microsofts recruit from.

I think the people who write up stories like this could've used a better education in math and reasoning themselves.

Posted by: Kirby on December 4, 2007 at 5:45 PM | PERMALINK

I suppose the elites are keeping the country afloat. There's certainly no shortage of excellent private and magnet schools.

Also, let's not forget that over half of Americans are evolution deniers, and in order to believe that God's hand rearranges DNA you have to deny all of organic chemistry, and physical chemistry by extension, and then you're back to Aristotelian territory.

Posted by: scarshapedstar on December 4, 2007 at 5:46 PM | PERMALINK

Bruce Bartlett is certainly correct about one of the correcting factors. I am a reserch chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, and over half my colleagues are foreign born- Canadians, Indian, Chinese, and German mostly (though the German contingent is likely due to the fact that I work for a German company.

And like idiots we may be, we make it more difficult for such people to enter and live in this country.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on December 4, 2007 at 5:47 PM | PERMALINK

Prior to NCLB, our educational system has been very good indeed. Rather than sucking, it is much better than almost any other. I work with many persons from many countries. When comparing Americans to Chinese (as I must do frequently), the Americans are MUCH more self-starting, MUCH more able to proceed unsupervised, and MUCH MUCH more innovative. The Chinese are rigid and not innovative. Russians are also often quite unable to be flexible. I was just talking to a Ukranian, and I made a minor suggestion that almost resulted in her leaving. Germans are pretty flexible. BUt I will take an American any time.

Americans did not invent the internet. That was really invented by CERN (European). Once invented however, much of the innovation has been US citizens. Some is foreign-born, but most US.

NCLB is gonna destroy that, since it has substituted an idiotic 'standard' for more flexible methods. It will damage the US educational system very badly.

Posted by: POed Lib on December 4, 2007 at 5:47 PM | PERMALINK

And, yes, it should be more difficult to enter this country. We do NOT need more foreign-born. What we do need is adequate jobs for our own SPEC graduates. A recent study found that there is NOT a talent shortage. There is, rather, a JOBS shortage.

NOT A TALENT SHORTAGE.

JOB SHORTAGE.

We don't need more H-1Bs. We do need more fair policies. We need to hire our own children, who graduate from our own universities.

And, most importantly, we need to make undergrad universities less expensive, so that our supremely talented students can AFFORD to go on to grad schools.

Posted by: POed Lib on December 4, 2007 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK

Just proves that everyone does not have to be proficient in science and math for the economy to prosper, especially if you have a ready pool of well educated and skilled people yearning to come here and work at generally lower salaries.

The only policy prescription that can be derived from this is that we should make it easier for foreign scientists and engineers to come here whenever we have the need.

Posted by: gregor on December 4, 2007 at 5:52 PM | PERMALINK

2 points:

Math and science are not the measure of all things.

As Kirby said, this is the average. What is the standard deviation? Imagine 3 kids in each country with these scores--Germany 14, 16, 18; USA 8, 15, 20. Which country will do better? I'm not sure and I'm not justifying the "8" but it merits consideration.

Posted by: Bush Lover on December 4, 2007 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK

"shouldn't this have long since shown up in the business world, the tech world, and the financial world?"

hmmm, and what makes you think it hasn't??? Read the news lately?

Posted by: anon on December 4, 2007 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

Americans typically don't know squat. Their saving grace is that they're born on third base compared to the rest of the world.

Look at it this way. After the Indians were killed off, the Mexicans thrown out and the slaves brought in, this country was fat-city. Predators kept at bay by 2 huge oceans, weak neighbors, land for the taking, great and varied climate.

You don't need a first class brain to succeed in this environment. Look at George Bush.

Second rate minds is what we have. This has carried us long enough. -- lately the shit hit the fan--oil runs out, energy is a challenge and everyone is gunning for us. Here's where good minds would help. but we don't have them.

Posted by: Dr WU-the last of the big time thinkers on December 4, 2007 at 5:56 PM | PERMALINK

I suspect that part of it is, as suggested above, due to the fact that much of the "information economy" (that driven by high level knowledge and skill) relies really on the smartest 10% or so, and that we do not so badly in that segment.

But I think there's another important explanation. Namely, how well one does up to and including high school is mostly irrelevant. The real intellectual work in the US commences when you enter college. You can be pretty badly educated up until then, and quickly make up ground once you enter college (which is a more relaxed experience in many other countries). Among other things, you're just quicker at learning things when you're at college age, because your mind is more at the proper level of development and maturity. The Europeans might beat us before the college stage, but it just doesn't much matter in the long run -- the greater American work ethic prevails in the university and later in life.

Posted by: frankly0 on December 4, 2007 at 5:57 PM | PERMALINK

Germany is kicking our ass in one important area: total exports. With less than one-fourth of the US population, it exports more than the US.

Speak to people in global industries and you'll find that the US is struggling to provide workers with the skills to match other competitors. It isn't just the lack of computer scientists. Our factory workers lack the literacy and technical training to be globally competitive in many instances.

Fortunately, manufacturing plays a smaller and smaller part of our economy. But the lack of skills in a major part of the population is storing an economic problem for future generations.

We compensate to some degree by still having most of the world's best universities. We ally that excellence to a long-standing ethos that supports risk-taking and innovation. That's fine for the nation's elite, but it isn't going to be a great formula for continued prosperity for the majority of Americans.

Posted by: Lance Knobel on December 4, 2007 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

despite this vast expanse of mid-70s suckitude, my generation has apparently been helping to power the United States to ever greater international dominance ever since

Yes, but in a sustainable way? Could the stupidity of today's political discourse (present company excepted, of course, but on average it's pretty bad) and the gullibility of the average voter be a consequence of the educational failures of generations past?

(BTW this is not boomer sour grapes. The case could be made that the decline began with my generation -- I graduated HS in 1967 -- and I would be the last to argue.)

Posted by: thersites on December 4, 2007 at 5:59 PM | PERMALINK

I see no inconsistency in the apparent suckitude of even our generation. The same dumb little bastards studied in the report you referenced grew up after their shitty education, and elected Reagan twice, Bush1, and Bush2. That same generation of maleducated oafs stood in line to get subprime mortgages without reading or understanding their terms. And while the world runs out of oil and becomes ever more polluted, the same generations of dimwits filled the garages of those subprime mortgaged homes with SUVs that get 16mpg.
I'd say that 1983 study is fully vindicated.

Posted by: labradog on December 4, 2007 at 6:00 PM | PERMALINK

One anecdote doesn't make a trend, but here goes.

My sister had a friend in elementary school who immigrated from Japan to California with her family at around age 7. About three years later, the family was all set to go back, and my mom asked the girl's mom about school in Japan and whether it would be better for her there. The girl's mom said that while some types of rote learning were more rigorous in Japan, the open-ended, critical thinking exercises were much better in the California public school she went to. On balance, she thought the schools were better in the US.

Posted by: gaucho on December 4, 2007 at 6:02 PM | PERMALINK

"helping to power the United States to ever greater international dominance ever since."

Um, this is just plain uninformed and wrong. I'm an almost 30 year veteran of big Fortune 100 corporate America at a fairly senior level, and the prestige and desirability of American managers has been nose-diving about as long as Johnny hasn't been reading so well.

We are in fact failing future Americans on a pretty profound level.


Posted by: Jim Pharo on December 4, 2007 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder how much population size comes into play. From what I can tell the results describe the percentage of students reaching certain proficiency levels. Yet with the exception of China, India (not tested), and perhaps the Russian Federation no other countries attempt to educate as many children as the American public school system. Across such a large population base it is not surprising that a lower relative percentage of our students would reach the highest proficiency levels.

As far as why we can under perform in these types of tests but still dominate in other endeavors I don't think the open nature of our nation can be ignored. The fact that we attract the "best and brightest" from other countries is certainly to our net benefit.

Posted by: MBinNC on December 4, 2007 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

America still has one part of education many parts of the developed world do not: adult education. It is my understanding few other nations allow adults access to university educations.

Posted by: Brojo on December 4, 2007 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

labradog said it better.

Posted by: thersites on December 4, 2007 at 6:11 PM | PERMALINK

Could it be that the decline in American student's understanding in science and math can partially explain the rapidly expanding rift between rich and poor?

There will always be some top tier kids that will go on to be successes - these are usually the kids with excellent analytical skills - which comes with the hard sciences curriculum. Maybe these are the ones raking in the bucks, while the ones weak in sciences and math are those that end up as what used to be called middle class, but is now more like the economically depressed class?

And for POed Lib - Graduate school in the science fields is "free" - students get their tuition paid and a stipend in return for doing research and teaching. So expensive undergrad education is not really going to limit their access to going on.

Posted by: optical weenie on December 4, 2007 at 6:15 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, here's the deal.

Todays high school kids don't really Kevin, here's the deal.

Today’s high school kids don't really need to succeed like their European counterparts, especially in California, because of Junior Colleges,
A kid who gets all “Fs” in high school, flies the bird at all his teachers, can still go to college. In the county where I live we have a highly funded JC that nearly every kid goes to, and it is more or less free. (County population 250,000, JC enrollment 30,000).

No grades. No SAT. No payment. Just sign up and go. On top of that, a kid gets priority admission into the UCs and State Schools.

There’s no urgency to study hard in high school for the average kid so the average kid doesn’t bother. Where we should be measuring education is where the real learning starts: college.

So here’s the $64,000 question for all of you: what country can compete with the America in terms of colleges?
need to succeed
like their Europiean counterparts.

Posted by: Percy on December 4, 2007 at 6:16 PM | PERMALINK

Immigration would explain how America can continue to compete effectively in world markets while providing a second-rate education to those who grow up here. Cherry picking well educated foreigners is a strategy. Maybe its a good one.

Posted by: Harry B on December 4, 2007 at 6:19 PM | PERMALINK

27 posts and no one's started railing against teacher's unions?

I'm disappointed....

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on December 4, 2007 at 6:21 PM | PERMALINK

And for POed Lib - Graduate school in the science fields is "free" - students get their tuition paid and a stipend in return for doing research and teaching. So expensive undergrad education is not really going to limit their access to going on.

Not always true, and irrelevant anyway. My training was paid for, but all training is not. And besides, when you are carrying 20K in loans from undergrad school, you need to pay those off, and cannot afford the 4-6 years to do grad work.

Posted by: POed Lib on December 4, 2007 at 6:22 PM | PERMALINK

I have a hypothesis for this:

Suppose US education sucks 2x as hard as Japan, but since it has 3X more people, it has a better chance of hitting a genius/entrepreneur/inventor jackpot than Japan, in spite of its educational shortcoming.

Posted by: clone12 on December 4, 2007 at 6:24 PM | PERMALINK

Two reasons for the US's mediocre showing on high school exams despite its decade-long dominance:

1.) For the majority of kids, the US assumes a 17 year education track (through college). Europeans assume 11-13. Comparing someone who, on average, has completed all of the education that he or she is expected to with someone who still is expected to receive 4 more years is not apples to apples.

2.) Unlike most European countries, we have a massive underclass of students that make up 10%+ of that population. Add thousands of nonperforming inner city schools to the German system and see what their averages look like.

Posted by: Joe on December 4, 2007 at 6:26 PM | PERMALINK

I would not be proud of your educational system based on the type of analysis you presented. Perhaps you meant to write a tongue-in-cheek commentary but what came across was a self bloated opinion devoid of facts. Without further pontificating, if you read economic journals, you will find that without factoring East Germany, the per capita hourly GDP of Germany is close to equal as the U.S. But whereas roughly speaking both country's are economically similar, the social safety net of FGR is much greater. So who is raising better humans beings? But even transcendentally more important; why must one seek approval of one's system based on other's system. To be sure, comparisons serve a purpose, but fundamentally, whether we are satisfied with modern education is determined by factors here, and your off-handed rhetoric is an insult to the conversation. Finally, I would not hold the members of the current administration, or its voters, as an exemplar of scholastic reasoning, but hopefully we are witnessing an aberration and not some dark streak of mendacity and stupidity on part of the country who elected them.

Posted by: Raoul on December 4, 2007 at 6:28 PM | PERMALINK

Knowledge in America has always been on a need to know basis. Americans students specialize in what they absolutly have to know to function either in college or in the job market and that goes for a scientist or an auto mechanic. Few Americans have ever had a broad educational background despite its promotion. When you see all those dummies who Jay Leno interviews, do you think they can't answer simple questions because they truly are dumb and cannot function or because they don't know the material because they do not have to, they do not need to and thus do not want to?

Also factor the U.S. is larger and more diverse than many of the nations it stacks up against. That tends to affect the scores.

Posted by: Sean Scallon on December 4, 2007 at 6:28 PM | PERMALINK

Kirby: it's not the _average_ student that goes on to be a scientist. It's really totally irrelevant. It's the really bright kids that go into science and math. If you compared only the top 10%, it'd mean a lot more.

Indeed. The irony makes me want to laugh, cry or scream. People talk about the poor math skills of students by citing means or medians, without realizing that they should be talking about the top percentiles.

To all such folks: if you don't realize that a distribution is not completely defined by mean or median, please get thee to an elementary statistics class. Until then, please shut up about anything having to do with numbers.

Posted by: alex on December 4, 2007 at 6:29 PM | PERMALINK

We suck academically. That's obvious. Wtf does that have to do with economic success?

Posted by: kevin m on December 4, 2007 at 6:30 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think our success in business has much to do with our scores in science and math, which have little to do with the entrepreneurial spirit. Anyway, we've been worrying about our low math and science scores since Sputnik, after which we knew we were way behind not only Europe, but even the Soviet Union. I guess we never did catch up with the USSR on those matters, but who cares? One thing did work out for us, sort of -- after Sputnik there was a huge push to help our kids compete by having them learn foreign languages such as German. It didn't work out well in the sense we're probably even worse in foreign language now than in math or science, but everyone else learned English, so we're fine

Posted by: Steve on December 4, 2007 at 6:36 PM | PERMALINK

Dr WU-the last of the big time thinkers: Americans ... saving grace is that they're born on third base compared to the rest of the world. ... Predators kept at bay by 2 huge oceans, weak neighbors, land for the taking, great and varied climate. ... Second rate minds is what we have.

Being able to take it easy and live off the fat of the land explains why we've always been a country whose economy has always been based entirely on agriculture and resource extraction. The American invention and development of the telephone, phonograph, movies, large scale electric power generation and distribution, making the electric light practical, assembly line production, radio, television, airplanes, transistors, integrated circuits and lasers were all just flukes. What a bunch of dummies!

Now I understand why "big time thinkers" are a dying breed.

Posted by: alex on December 4, 2007 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

I think the answers to Kevin's question are:

1) We could be doing a lot better. We've basically got a brilliant system of political economy in the US -- maybe the best ever designed by human beings to govern a large country and large economy -- so we can get away with a fairly high degree of bad K-12. Imagine how great things could be if we could ever get our schools sorted out.

2) We easily have the world's best post secondary education system, so this makes up for a lot of poor quality in K-12.

3) We've traditionally attracted lots of foreign talent -- all them easy pickings in the land of milk and honey.

Posted by: Jasper on December 4, 2007 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

I think the answer is clear, Kevin. To maintain a modern society requires a pool of extremely well-educated people (US private schools and universities supply those, with many of them being foreigners) and an adequate supply of people who can operate cash registers.

Where this mass lack of education will raise its ugly head and really hurt the US is when the theocracy takes over. Its time will come, and the results will not be pretty.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on December 4, 2007 at 6:47 PM | PERMALINK

The Japanese educational system is almost totally dedicated towards maintaining high scores on tests. It's not working out so great for them.

Posted by: mc_masterchef on December 4, 2007 at 6:49 PM | PERMALINK

My brother taught in a private German school and later in an American public high school. In many ways he preferred the German school. In particular there was less absenteeism (kids weren’t pulled out of school to go hunting or to visit Aunt Jane in Oklahoma). He also felt that as a teacher he enjoyed a higher social status in Germany than in the US (perhaps due to better relative pay).

It is sort of troubling that we have a president and a major political party that are deeply committed to anti-intellectualism. As far as Bush and the Republicans are concerned, Bible School teaches you everything you need to know.

As someone who works in technology companies I can say German companies are known for a German management style, typically more rigid and hierarchical compared to American companies. The German management style seems to work well with German workers, but not so well with Americans.

Posted by: fafner1 on December 4, 2007 at 6:49 PM | PERMALINK

Several other people made the point I wanted to make: our educational system doesn't provide the talent we need, so we import it. However, we're now killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, by going down a route that says foreigners have no rights. It's a lot less attractive now than it was a few years ago to come here, with visa hassles, bad treatment by law enforcement, oh, and you get paid in funny money (dollars).

If this keeps up, top talent from India and China will be going to school in Canada and Europe instead; other countries are starting to learn how to do venture capital and the like.

Posted by: Joe Buck on December 4, 2007 at 6:51 PM | PERMALINK

Americans did not invent the internet. That was really invented by CERN (European). Once invented however, much of the innovation has been US citizens. Some is foreign-born, but most US.

That's not really true. The world-wide web is not the same thing as the internet. The basic protocols and mechanisms of the internet were developed in the 1960s through 1980s in the U.S., at several universities and government contractors, mostly funded by DARPA (hence the internet's precursor ARPANET.) Tim Berners-Lee of CERN developed the HTML markup language and the http transport protocol, which caused the initial development of the web. Other people did similar things that didn't get traction earlier, mostly because they weren't as decentralized as the http server model. The browser that arguably caused the first giant explosion of the web beyond a few hundred academic sites was Mosaic, developed at UIUC by Mark Andreesen (who later lead the team that developed Netscape.)

Posted by: me2i81 on December 4, 2007 at 6:51 PM | PERMALINK

There was an article in the Washington Post a few months ago about officials from countries such as Singapore coming to the US and studying our (excellent) public schools here in Northern VA. They were hear because they had the opposite question that Kevin is asking:

"If we are at the top of the adolescent math and science test results, why aren't our students going on to achieve greater things?"

Posted by: geml on December 4, 2007 at 6:52 PM | PERMALINK

I came to the USA 32 years ago and this is my adopted country. I went to graduate school at Berkeley getting my Ph.D. in engineering and have to endure this country's high school trying to educate my two sons. One of them had a liberal arts major woman teaching pre-calculus; go figure! She did not understand the fundamental concept of what a function is. But then I realized rather sadly, how many kids have someone at home where a highly educated parent to sort out the dumb instruction the kids receive at school. I tutored several of my son's classmates for a month before their international baccalaureate (IB) exams.

This country's university education is one of the finest in the world. Lately, I am seeing a fall-off there too. But at the K-12 level, it is simply abysmal. The K-12 is going to be only as good as the teachers. When I was in India, I never had a substitute teacher (baby sitter basically); also, I never had a teacher who did not have at least a degree in the subject matter taught and most of them had master's degrees. The greatest failure of this country's K-12 system is probably due to the proliferation of Schools of Education - which award useless degrees.

Posted by: RV on December 4, 2007 at 6:54 PM | PERMALINK

Linking education and economic success may be precisely where the problem lies. Is education is fancy word for job training? Shouldn't what we like to call education include a far better acquaintance with the rest of the world, its cultures and languages? Would George Bush have been elected (to the extent that he was) in 2000 if we had a better educated public? And isn't our economic success due in considerable measure to our natural resources. That includes smart, well-fed and healthy people. But let's face it, we appropriated and then inherited the water, the soils, the forests, the climate, constant supplies of fresh immigrant labor, and a multitude of goodies that no other nation has had in such abundance. Maybe we should add to all our good forture a little less self-satisfaction and a little more willingness to see we could be doing a lot better, given our huge inheritance? First let's separate the concepts of job training and education -- they aren't the same and they don't produce the same results. Then let's stop measuring the worth of everything in economic terms, okay?

Posted by: PW on December 4, 2007 at 6:58 PM | PERMALINK

One issue is that the US teaches some subjects in different school years than other countries do, so a kid may be asked questions on geometry before taking a class in geometry.

Posted by: anandine on December 4, 2007 at 6:59 PM | PERMALINK

We also give the tests to lots more kids, whereas others test only the upper track.

Posted by: anandine on December 4, 2007 at 7:05 PM | PERMALINK

Joe Buck: our educational system doesn't provide the talent we need, so we import it

That's a wonderful myth that supports the H-1B racket. For the real deal, see "The Science Education Myth" in Business Week. For the gory details, try Prof. Norman Matloff's writings.

The bottom line is that the limiting factor in the number of Americans who actually work in science, math, engineering and programming is the limited supply of jobs, not a limited supply of talented citizens graduating.

I'm all for having the best and brightest immigrate here - that's what the 'O' series visas are for. But the H-1B (a guest worker visa, not an immigration visa) is just a way to reduce the pay and job security of rank-and-file people in these fields. Want to know why more Americans don't enter these fields? It's because too many of them have wised up. Like every other engineer or programmer I know, I strongly advise my kids not to follow in my footsteps.

Posted by: alex on December 4, 2007 at 7:14 PM | PERMALINK

Err, We, as a nation, are 'debating' the merits of Intelligent design vs. Evolution. Touting "abstinence only" as an effective birth control/anti AIDS-STD policy and continue to fight (and export) the War on Drugs - even when this includes State sanctioned Medical MJ to Grannies in wheelchairs.
We also (More or less) finally elected Bushco as presinit.
I could go on and on - but do I really need to?

"Res Ipsa Loquitur" Roman saying

"Our president's crazy, Did you hear what he said?"
Talking Heads - 'Stop Making Sense'

Posted by: jay boilswater on December 4, 2007 at 7:16 PM | PERMALINK

"We also give the tests to lots more kids, whereas others test only the upper track."

This is what I've always thought. Can anyone confirm this?


Posted by: zenger on December 4, 2007 at 7:17 PM | PERMALINK

RV's comments above really nail it. Teacher training/competency is really key, especially in these highly technical fields. If you look at the kind of education, training and certification math and science teachers in Japan and Germany, for example, have to go through to get a high school teaching job, it's pretty much equivalent to something between an M.A. and a Ph.D. Talk to any public education administrator in almost any part of the country and they'll tell you what a headache it is to hire and retain anybody with formal science/math training. Salaries are the biggest problem, but it takes a rare saint indeed to forego a nice, lucrative engineering career for daily battles with apathetic students and adversarial bureaucracies in the public school system.
Looking at the survey, it's also obvious that economics, race and class are a major factor in all of this. At the higher end of the scale, our students surely compete just fine with Scandinavia and Asia's best. But the US has an enormous underclass that remains poorly served by the educational system and whose scores are no doubt a significant drag on our overall performance. Small, wealthy and culturally/racially homogeneous countries like Finland and New Zealand simply don't have these challenges and can spend their educational resources far more efficiently than we can.

Posted by: jonas on December 4, 2007 at 7:17 PM | PERMALINK

Absolutely right, Anandine. Nearly all American kids (except the drop-outs) are attending high school and therefore subject to testing. But the European kids are split at a much younger age--some to go to the college-prep high school and some on another track.

Not that I don't have plenty of complaints about our educational system and the teeming numbers of clueless and uninformed teenagers, but, trust me, there are plenty of stupid kids over there, as well. They don't usually get sent to the U.S. so we rarely get a chance to meet them. But you can find plenty of British, German, French, and Asian kids who are just as clueless and uninformed as our own.

The exception would be India, of course, which has a phenomenal educational system. What I fail to understand is why the poster known as RV isn't sending his teenagers there to learn properly instead of subjecting them to our terrible schools.

Posted by: LAS on December 4, 2007 at 7:18 PM | PERMALINK

The world is not a meritocracy.

The relative meaning of education changes when you introduce aircraft carriers and stealth bombers.

It's not like we're starting from a blank slate here - children still benefit from actions prior to their entering the adult world.

Posted by: Dennis on December 4, 2007 at 7:19 PM | PERMALINK

PW: And isn't our economic success due in considerable measure to our natural resources. That includes smart, well-fed and healthy people. But let's face it, we appropriated and then inherited the water, the soils, the forests, the climate, constant supplies of fresh immigrant labor, and a multitude of goodies that no other nation has had in such abundance.

Try Brazil or Argentina, and to a large extent most of the countries of the Americas. They had pretty much the same advantages in terms of natural resources that the US does.

Posted by: alex on December 4, 2007 at 7:19 PM | PERMALINK

You don't have to look at test scores to know that the American people are not smart -- just look at their chosen leaders.

Hard-working, well-organized, and greedy? Yes. But smart? Not so much.

Posted by: duh on December 4, 2007 at 7:24 PM | PERMALINK

One explanation is that we import a lot of those brainiacs who have kept our economy booming. We are (or were) the sewer into which the foreign brain-drains empty.

And look around you. The suckitude of your fellow Americans assaults you everywhere. If our students aren't dangerously stupid, how else do you explain the vast numbers of people who consider themselves well edumacated who voted for Bush & Cheney? How about the legions of drivers who switched from cars to SUVs after over 10 years of energy crises? No country in the world has produced such astounding feats of fuckupedness, and I'm talking 'bout your generation, Kevin.

Posted by: jussumbody on December 4, 2007 at 7:25 PM | PERMALINK

LAS: The exception would be India, of course, which has a phenomenal educational system.

That explains their 39% illiteracy rate.

I don't doubt that India has excellent education for some, but their average is terrible. So, according to the reasoning so many people here are using, they must be incapable of producing good scientists, mathematicians, engineers and programmers.

Posted by: alex on December 4, 2007 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK
And yet, despite this vast expanse of mid-70s suckitude, my generation has apparently been helping to power the United States to ever greater international dominance ever since.

Uh, what? Evidence of this "ever greater intellectual dominance"?

AFAICT, the US is dominant in financial capital, which allows it to capture most of the rewards of labor, whether manual or intellectual, wherever it occurs. But I don't see where you are getting the "intellectual dominance" thing from, much less describing it as "ever greater".

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a German friend of mine about a decade ago. We were chatting about secondary education in our two countries, and long story short, German kids are better educated than American kids. At least, it sure seemed that way. But if that's the case, I asked, why does the American economy continue to do so well? Shouldn't Germany be kicking our ass?

Maybe it is where it matters. What economic measurements capture is a picture of a whole bunch of material flows that are often presumed to be a a reasonable proxy for utility, that is, subjective satisfaction. OTOH, its quite possible that the whole reason that America's material output is so high even compared to the rest of the developed world is that America has managed to deny most people utility (subjective satisfaction) despite the good aggregate numbers, which keeps the hamsters running around on the wheels hoping to somehow get somewhere (or to avoid disaster due to the risk that the US, among advanced societies, does relatively little to mitigate.)

If American kids are getting mediocre educations, and if they've been getting these mediocre educations for several decades now, shouldn't this have long since shown up in the business world, the tech world, and the financial world?

It has (except in the financial world, where the US dominance is not a matter of talent so much as accumulated capital from the past, and the fact that the capital-friendly system of the world under the WTO, etc., guarantees that those that have capital reap the rewards of productivity whereever it occurs.) And, for that matter, in the political world as well.

Posted by: cmdicely on December 4, 2007 at 7:29 PM | PERMALINK

One word: immigrants.

Posted by: Steve on December 4, 2007 at 7:35 PM | PERMALINK

I've only had time to skim through the comments, so I apologize if I'm repeating others and not realizing it. A couple thoughts:

1) I think Kevin's implicit point here is that standardized testing is mostly a joke. If it isn't, it's certainly my point. For example, about a year ago, I took an SAT for a job as a test tutor. Despite having now completed an MA, my test scores were significantly lower than they were in high school. Across the board. Am I dumber now than I was when I was a high school junior? Of course not. I'm just much less good at filling in bubbles on multiple choice tests.

2) I don't buy the idea that filling in bubbles on multiple choice tests is much of an indication of academic talent. But it certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with professional competence. Never in my professional life has anyone asked me to sit quietly and run through a long series of totally unrelated problems; never have I been given a project by a boss where I couldn't ask a question or collaborate with a coworker; etc. I'm willing to grant that standardized tests in math and science at least correlate to high school level skills, but people don't sit down and go through math drills in the office. At work, you need to be able to think through long, involved problems, collaborate and ask questions, and critically think through long term projects. Why would we be surprised that the ability to do an endless series of unrelated problems doesn't correlate very well with professional abilities?

That said, there is an enormous number of American kids who wind up muddling their way through school into dead-end, low paid jobs. I think education gets criticized because it's more politically expedient to criticize schools than it is to do something about the massive inequality that results in some people being undereducated.

Posted by: brad on December 4, 2007 at 7:41 PM | PERMALINK

Easy.

The US secondary system is worse, while our colleges are vastly better.

A European high school graduate is a year ahead of his US counterpart. But US colleges take a more hands-on approach to instruction, and it shows.

(Source: anecdotal, based upon undergraduate work in the US and England a lo-o-o-ng time ago.) YMMV.

Posted by: Measure for Measure on December 4, 2007 at 7:44 PM | PERMALINK

I was chatting with a young German woman who emigrated to the United States.

And I was chatting with a young German woman who had been studying in the U.S. for four years. As a fellow foreigner I leaned over and in a conspiratal voice, "What's it like living here?" She shot back a whisper, "I can't wait to get out." Anecdotes, mhr, anecdotes... They cut both ways.

Gotta say, the self-congratulatory tone of most of this thread is pretty off-putting. The stereotypes of the foreign educational system even moreso. And yes, Brojo, there is adult education in Canada, Japan, Australia, the U.K...

And no, your tertiary system as a whole doesn't shine. Your elite institutions do but much of the rest is pretty sucky. Perhaps for the economy this is all that you need though maybe democracy demands more. Anyway, mhr, please don't let me interupt your wanking.

Posted by: snicker-snack on December 4, 2007 at 8:04 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

It's as simple as the difference between hard and soft America.

Posted by: Brian on December 4, 2007 at 8:15 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

It's as simple as the difference between hard and soft America.

Brian

Posted by: Brian on December 4, 2007 at 8:16 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

It's as simple as the difference between hard and soft America.

Brian

Posted by: Brian on December 4, 2007 at 8:18 PM | PERMALINK

" But if that's the case, I asked, why does the American economy continue to do so well? Shouldn't Germany be kicking our ass?"

Kevin, Kevin, Kevin ! We may make a Republican out of you yet. We had a young German couple over for dinner at our place in Tucson a few weeks ago. They have saved 120,000 Euros to come here and start again. He wants his own business (He's a master plumber and she is a midwife) and there is no chance in Germany that he could ever have that. They waited until their names came up in the lottery for visas and green cards. And we make the Europeans enter a lottery while 12 million Mexicans with second grade educations flood across the border.

Posted by: Mike K on December 4, 2007 at 8:19 PM | PERMALINK

I would like to see how great our secondary schools would be if they had to take every single person, regardless of income, disabilities, 504s, IEP, SLPs, Behavior plans, etc. etc. Remember, the american school system takes everyone and has to meet every students needs.

Posted by: PVD on December 4, 2007 at 8:25 PM | PERMALINK

Don't underestimate the brute power of US capital. Sure the employees are remarkably ill-educated on any number of fronts, sure they do not understand the odd Latin bon mot, and surely they do not understand the historical pattern of American predation on the real world. But cash on the barrelhead makes up for a lot of this. Boors with bucks it is. The great unwashed with greenbacks to flash. Ignoramuses with financial gravitas. Thats how it looks to the real world. Thats also in part why Americans are loathed, dare I say it, just about everywhere. No class, no savoir faire, no style, just money and attitude. God save us, every one.

Posted by: anon on December 4, 2007 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

Some people seem to be doubting the intellectual dominance of the US.

How about using Nobel Prizes as an indication? I don't know the exact numbers, but if half of Nobel Prizes in the sciences these days don't go to Americans (if sometimes immigrant Americans), I'd be pretty surprised. Given that the US represents 5% of the world population, that's pretty remarkable.

And, of course, Nobel Prizes represent the tip of the iceberg -- underneath Nobel Prize winning work lies vast quantities of absolutely first rate American science that never achieve that distinction. And when it comes to technology, the only place that occasionally gives us some real competition is Japan, in the case of consumer electronics (OK, Airbus ain't bad).

And then there's the cultural dominance of the US, as represented by the box office success of American movies? Why do so many people want to pay good money to see an American movie, and not so much, say, a German or French or British or Japanese movie? Maybe they just don't find them so, well, entertaining?

Are things different in the fine arts and music? I won't pretend to know so much about that, but, given what I can surmise, I'd be pretty surprised if we don't dominate there as well.

Point is, this dominance needs some explaining.

Posted by: frankly0 on December 4, 2007 at 8:39 PM | PERMALINK

PVD,

and we don't?

Give me a frickin' break.

(there is nothing more boring than listening to a bunch of people - whether Canucks or Krauts or Wops or Yanks or Poms - drone on about how their country is clearly superior / has the superior system... Jeez some of you guys need to get out)

Posted by: snicker-snack on December 4, 2007 at 8:40 PM | PERMALINK

I remember commenting, during the tech boom of the late 1990s, that something must've gone right with the A Nation At Risk generation.

I've been a lot more skeptical of those "our high school seniors are being outscored by Japanese middle school cafeteria food!" stories ever since.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on December 4, 2007 at 8:40 PM | PERMALINK

KD>If American kids are getting mediocre educations, ..shouldn't this have long since shown up in the business world, the tech world, and the financial world?
Frankly0>...Point is, this dominance needs some explaining.

Simple - america is the current center of the western empire. It creates the conditions for success of the best and brightest, and has a winner-take-all society.

But it's hard to optimize for two things at once. The cost is poor public education, a less-secure upbringing for most young people, an overall lazy/distainful attitude to science and engineering by young people, and citizens at the low socio-economic end being abandoned.

The result, is that US citizens aren't the top talent, but have the nativist connections and grounding to manage the society. While the prime creative producers (the talent) are foreign-born or the parents of immigrants (one step away), the best & most ambitious from the whole world, and/or people from places that do a better job of public education and equality. "Hybrid vigour" also helps, the initial energy boost of mixing cultures.

This applies to Canadian, European, Indian, Chinese talent, what have you. "Go to Rome, my son, and make your fortune". Look at any list of nobel prize winners.


Posted by: Bruce the Canuck on December 4, 2007 at 8:54 PM | PERMALINK

Alright, I'm just an ESL instructor at a South Korean university, and have been for over five years, but:

1. Test scores on the CSAT account for almost 3/4 of a high student's application to university. To get a good score, students:

A. Cheat: by using cellphones, or other electronic devices (like cameras and microphones in pencils); or pay successful students to test in successive years for them (let's not debate the quality of South Korean security here). The cheating curve increases each year. ETS even threatened to eliminate testing due to this phenomenon.

B. Or, Families send their children to cram schools generally until 11:00 pm or later in every subject, or find tutors, both foreign and Korean. There are no extracurricular activities at school, and schools let out earlier than American ones. Emphasis: Parents pay money for cram schools because the public education system is dyfunctional, but the unions thwart both teacher evaluation and curriculum review. Most cram schools are mal-administered, fly-by-night, corrupt hack jobs full of illegal tourists and underpaid, overworked Korean teachers. Some are good, with good curricula (but with no way to evaluate their success, even against the CSAT), with properly documented ESL personnel working in good conditions and paid adequately. But foreign ESL teachers make more than Korean staff, even in cram schools other than ESL, like math or computers. Families also provide offspring with individual apartments and multiple tutors, for further cramming usually near exam time.

2. The CSAT measures only short-term retention: I recall a study where college applicants were given the CSAT again right before matriculation (the CSAT is given in November, and matriculation occurs in March), and the applicants performed as much as 25% on average worse than their November performance. The last months following the test in high schools is also wasted time, because students stop studying once they have completed the CSAT. Teachers teach the CSAT also.

3. University students consider university a break between the CSAT and work. Corporations routinely complain of grade inflation and having to train workers for up to three or four years before they can assume full responsibilities. English ability is particularly lacking, even in those employees with high test scores.

A. The TOEIC and TOEFL tests contain errors, and are often tutored by Korean instructors (foreign instructors teach conversation) who do not speak English and use texts and curricula by rote method. I've even seen texts written with King James English (thy and thou's). Students obsess over picayune grammatical distinctions and vocabulary lists, but cannot speak in complete sentences, either from ignorance or lack of exposure. Expression, in public schools where corporal punishment still exists, is not encouraged, and students at college refrain from talking, preferring lectures.

4. Students do not choose majors, but are assigned majors based on CSAT performance. There is a shortage of engineers in the ROK, too, and it's not related to choice. Also, based on earlier scores, students are shunted into vocational or academic public schools before even encountering cram schools and CSAT prep.

5. Korean students have little critical thinking skills. I tutored grad students who could write paragraphs in Korean, let alone English. They spent their days copying advisors' work all day, and their advisors had done the same. Test-takers memorize essay questions and answers for the TOEFL. The one way I can teach essay-writing is to have groups of five work together, or have them mimic models. But, they can't do basic grammatical analysis, even in Korean, like I learned in elementary and middle school. They just memorize models and look for easy short answers, copy from the Internet, or use translation matrices.

This is just a slice of the problems. So, if Americans are concerned about the US educational system, they shouldn't compare it to foreign systems. It's apples and oranges. America's problem is funding. But, South Koreans come to America to study, some families sending children alone or with one parent who sacrifices (well, his family life, because he probably has a lucky job with a foreign company) his/her career to live separately from the rest of the family.

So, Korean parents are virtuous, but because they're desperate. If their son or daughter does not pass one test, the CSAT, his or her career is ruined. There's a choice between going this route, or going to America, and taking the American route. Many parents choose the latter. Or, they emigrate completely.

Also, as has been pointed out by some other expat bloggers in E. Asia, you can compare this system, (which is a modern form of the ancient Chinese exam system where applicants took a test once a year for government employment) to the sort of upbringing a Michelle Lie or Park Seri endured. These parents subjected their kids to golf lessons, and removed them from public school. Park's and Lie's, and innumerable other young students right now, are expected to make money by sport, not the CSAT.

I think Americans need to get over their respect for test scores and, as others commented here, concentrate on curriculum, access, teacher training, and infrastructure. Also, the economy matters. My students want to work for Samsung, because there's no alternative! The large corporations control the economy. They tell me about the onus of a boring life spent in an office, but they have no choice. Ironically, college and my class is the reward for all those years of 17-18 hour days (Saturdays, too-I had a student boarder with a rich parent for a year. I know the schedule). 4 years of wearing real clothes and dyeing hair is all they look forward to. They are less mature than American 20-somethings, have less, or no work experience, do not travel, and spend their days at home or in cram schools. The personal element is missing, which undermines any attempt a service economy. I would take an American student hands down, because they have experience (good and bad), they have worked out their issues, like sex and relationships and how to deal with people generally, and they make an argument and support it.

Posted by: Baltimoron on December 4, 2007 at 9:00 PM | PERMALINK

dr wu, your analysis is about as thorough as the religious right who believe this country's prosperity is the result of divine intervention (we were blessed cause we believed). you can say what you want about my grandfather, who came to this country 100 years ago, and others who came before and after, but they were anything but slaves.

yeah, this country has been blessed with any number of natural advantages, but it's also had the leadership to create land grant universities, workers willing to fight for the right to organize and better themselve, the genius to pass the gi bill of rights et al...

it's not been handed to us

Posted by: mudwall jackson on December 4, 2007 at 9:01 PM | PERMALINK

"I tutored grad students who could write paragraphs in Korean, let alone English."

Correction: I tutored grad students who could NOT write paragraphs in Korean, let alone English.

Posted by: Baltimoron on December 4, 2007 at 9:03 PM | PERMALINK

Snicker-Snack,

Are you an Aussie? A Kiwi? I don't know any other country who uses the term "Pom."

Posted by: Fighting Words on December 4, 2007 at 9:09 PM | PERMALINK

It's probably been said a time or two on here, but let me resay it. In the US, we require ALL children to have access to equal educational opportunities (let's not digress into rural or urban opportunities). But we require all kids to excell within the same parameters. In other countries, they pick and choose who learns, who excels, and who moves on to higher (than 6th grade) education. We are comparing apples to genetically engineered apples!! It is not an equal comparison.

And I just wish Gdub could pronounce nuclear correctly!!!

Posted by: HopefulOkie on December 4, 2007 at 9:10 PM | PERMALINK

Most of this discussion sounds as if comes from people who don't have kids. Children are not little (or not so little) vessels to be filled with information, tested on what they remember, then sent out into the world to buff up our national economic statistics. There's a lot of "the world's gone to hell since I left college" quality about a lot of these posts.

My daughter's high school offers infinitely more choices and stimulation than mine did four decades ago. Teacher training and curriculum development are light years ahead of where they used to be. What do you want, little pressure-packed, suicide-prone drones like Japanese school children? Rote learners like the Chinese? The plodding, authoritan French style designed to turn out future bureaucrats?

I say the kids are all right.

Posted by: jrw on December 4, 2007 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

a Canuck in Asia.

Posted by: snicker-snack on December 4, 2007 at 9:17 PM | PERMALINK

jrw
I have a junior and sophomore in high school. I agree with you completely!! But I think that is the gist of the post, too. OK, so when compared to the world we the most ingenuitive nation doesn't test so well---Ok!!! I accept and embrace that!!

Posted by: HopefulOkie on December 4, 2007 at 9:28 PM | PERMALINK

Good lord, I agree with mhr!

Also, I think the US is more honest about public issues, so the problems are out there for everyone to discuss. In other countries, like mine, Canada, I think a lot of those things get hidden from public scrutiny and discussion. I've seen many, many things get buried myself.

Posted by: Bob M on December 4, 2007 at 9:32 PM | PERMALINK

Uncharacteristically hasty post from Kevin Drum.

Last time I checked we were running a near trillion dollar trade deficit. I don't think Germany has a trade deficit. Oh yeah, and the dollar was falling.

Next question: what percentage of US post-graduate degrees in science and engineering are conferred to foreign nationals? My guess is north of half. Our universities still lead. And how long will that last? Where are our graduates going? Fortunately some of those foreign nationals are still staying to help drive our economy and our universities forward. But more are going back overseas. If we're going to get into some kind of nationalist pissing contest, our ability to attract the best minds from all over the world has been one of our greatest strengths since the War, but that strength too is at risk of ebbing away.

Posted by: chase on December 4, 2007 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK

Snicker snack...I was comparing usa college/universities with our K-12, not other countries. Everyone was going on about how great our secondary schools are but our d-12 "suck". Of course our universities don't have to teach everyone.

Posted by: PVD on December 4, 2007 at 9:50 PM | PERMALINK

sorry PVD, my misreading (demonstrating a thing or two about my non-U.S. reading skills or lack thereof!)

Posted by: snicker-snack on December 4, 2007 at 9:58 PM | PERMALINK

Alex is making the best points in this thread. It is a fallacy to assume that every individual American is below every individual German just because our group mean is below the German group mean.

The US population of 300 million people is the third largest in the world, after China's and India's billions. Russia has a population of 141 million, Japan has a population of 127 million. Germany is 14th on the list, with 82 million people. So, looking just at Germany, our mean scores in science and maths can be lower, but the top 15% of our population is still 3 to 4 times larger than the top 15% of the German population. We simply have a larger talent pool to draw from (with or without immigrants.)

Throw in tons of capital, cheap land and oil, incentives for innovation and the ability to "rightsize" and organize work so fewer talented people are needed--and that's why the US has been able to sustain its lead in many areas. The large number of ignorant Americans, the ones who drag down the means, aren't needed for innovation in the kind of economy that we have.

But I doubt the US will maintain its position for long. Bushco and Republican business leaders have spent the past 30 years trying to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Their obsession with cutting taxes and the free market has resulted in cuts in funding for innovation, they've attacked scientific methods and findings, they haven't provided the leadership we need to secure our future (the infrastructure, sustainable energy, common standards.) It has all been about making a quick buck.

Posted by: PTate in MN on December 4, 2007 at 9:59 PM | PERMALINK

If you read the Nation at Risk, you'll notice that, though there are lots of names of "experts" listed as having provided testimony, there are no citations of actual research articles. The whole thing is nothing but propaganda, as has much of what you've heard since.

In California, in the mid-eighties, we actually tried to improve the already good public schools. Tests scores raised for several years in a row as the funding to public schools increased. Educational frameworks (goals and expectations for students) were published that were actually based on research in what's appropriate to teach at which age and in which sequence.

All that ended when the superintendent of instruction was done in by his political enemies, removed from office, and we returned to education prescribed by the text book companies, as it always has been and still is.

I recently read of a study where all schools with greater than 10% of the kids in poverty were factored out. The remaining schools were either number one or close to it in all subjects. This shows me that poverty is the problem, and that if we had poverty rates as low as those in other advanced countries, then our average students would be doing just as well as theirs.

Instead of crucifying public education via NCLB,it would probably be more effective to work towards getting the poor kids' parents to have better-paying jobs.

Posted by: pmacfar on December 4, 2007 at 10:16 PM | PERMALINK

Anecdotal, but may add a point. I used to volunteer as a docent at a tourist spot in Mass., one which attracted quite a few foreign tourists and also groups of school-age children on outings of one kind of another. I can't tell you how many times tourists from various other countries -- England, Japan, Germany, etc. -- would remark how spirited and curious these groups of children were in comparison to similar groups in similar situations in their own countries.

There are a lot of things I dislike intensely about my own country, but I've traveled widely in Europe, at least, and there's a distinct "American spirit" that we take for granted but is quite noticeable when you see it in other countries. For good or ill, Americans seem to have few inhibitions about charging ahead, whether we have a clue what we're doing or not, and I think that has a great deal to do wiht the entrepreneurial spirit, economic success, etc.

Posted by: gyrfalcon on December 4, 2007 at 10:16 PM | PERMALINK

American kids certainly do lag behind those of many other countries in K-12 educational performance. The usual estimate is that (on average, not every student) they lag about two years in educational attainment at the end of secondary school.

America does not fall behind economically for several reasons, as noted above. One reason that has not been mentioned is that the United States sends a much higher percentage of students on to post-secondary education of some kind. If performance is measured at age 25 instead of 18, the average American attainment has caught up to or surpassed attainment in many other countries.

This is done, of course, at great cost. The financial and time costs of sending the majority of students on for an additional 2-6 years of post-secondary education is enormous. Or, conversely, if we accomplished K-12 what others did and still sent such a large number of Americans to post-secondary school, we would be much farther ahead.

Posted by: TNDem on December 4, 2007 at 10:44 PM | PERMALINK

If you're interested in seeing some data, try this link: http://www.cesame-nm.org/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=15

"The PISA tests assessed the ability to apply classroom knowledge to real-world problems. This was particularly true for the problem-solving test. Solution of the problems was only possible with original thinking. Logical processes had to be creatively applied to novel situations and the students had to explain the reasoning behind their solutions. The United States came in dead last among 20 advanced nations and well below the international average, as shown in Figure 4. In contrast, students in many Asian nations performed superbly."

"Figure 5 shows the average PISA math scores of the very best students – the 95th percentile – in 20 advanced nations. The United States most advanced students did not do very well. They were next to last of the best students in 20 advanced nations. The reality check is that our very best students did not do as well as the best students of most other advanced nations."

"The myth that tracking caused a relative disadvantage for the United States is completely without basis. In fact, it is false that most countries tested only academic students."

Posted by: reino on December 4, 2007 at 10:45 PM | PERMALINK

Be wary of these ratings:

http://english.chosun.com/cgi-bin/printNews?id=200712050011

Note, the ROK slips 11 places, but is still 18 places stronger than the US in science achievement. But, the US ranks on all levels, whereas the ROK only places below the fourth level (according to this test).

I've listened to the results, as reino mentions, but perhaps American students are lousy test takers, and South Koreans do nothing but prepare for and crunch test results? But, what about the overall quality of employees and the overall quality of the corporate sector? What about the legal structure (witness Samsung's et al scandal-ridden, insular corporate culture? The US Army does well with less individual quality, and achieves high aggregate quality. The US does the same, whereas the ROk perhaps cannot even accommodate the quality of its high school students. I would argue that American college students exceed the quality of their competitors in other countries, but it's after a leap that takes place in the four years after high school graduation. South Korean students might start well, but the CSAT culture, gender segregation, the overal Confucian culture, the corporate corruption, and the political situation might make that quick start meaningless. So, rich, fortunate South Koreans send their kids to the US or emigrate outright, and all those immigrants boost US productivity even higher. Who cares if it's immigrants--it's a measure of the health of the educational and the political culture of the US!

Posted by: Baltimoron on December 4, 2007 at 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

reino, thanks for the nicely depressing link....so American kids even come in last in tests of original, creative, logical thinking. It's discouraging support for our suspicion of why those idiots could elect the Big Bozo in 2004.

Sort of related, Andrew Sullivan had a post in the last week or so about how thin-skinned Americans are. At dinner in the UK (or France) the conversation will be intellectual and demanding. Ideas will be criticized and defended aggressively. The topics include religion, sex, politics...perhaps if our culture began valuing ideas again, our education system would also begin to value ideas and intellectual achievement again.

Posted by: PTate in MN on December 4, 2007 at 11:14 PM | PERMALINK

Germans (and most western Europeans) live longer and take more vacations per year than Americans.

Depending on your statistical source, the average German has about 15 to 20 days per year more than the average American and lives more than a year longer.

Over the course of a 40 year working lifetime that adds up to about 2 years and 2 months of more vacation.

Which really means the average German lives more than 3 years longer than the average American.

Using jobs as your proxy for success is a straw man argument. Isn't living longer with more vacations a better indicator of intelligence than company profits?

Posted by: Observer on December 4, 2007 at 11:16 PM | PERMALINK

And no, your tertiary system as a whole doesn't shine. Your elite institutions do but much of the rest is pretty sucky.

Hardly. In the only worldwide ranking of universities I'm aware of, over half of the top 100 are in the U.S. Sure, the good universities are few and far between in fly-over land, but that's still an average of one world-class university for every state.

Posted by: RSA on December 4, 2007 at 11:21 PM | PERMALINK

TNDem:

1. Could the US further subsidize tertiary education by liberalizing educational immigration? How much of college costs can immigrants provide before they stop coming (no other impediments allowed, like quotas)?

2. If corporations gave more for college costs, and tenure reform reduced salaries, would tuition shrink?

3. Tuition might be prohibitive, but colleges are expanding and government grants are in some cases shrinking for research. Again, what about tenure reform and funds both to reform teaching and research?

http://www.economist.com/world/na/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=10216515

Posted by: Baltimoron on December 4, 2007 at 11:24 PM | PERMALINK

National origin of recipients of Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine during different periods

Country.......1901–25 1926–50 1951–75 1976–2000
USA..................4...........27..........72...........106
Great Britain....11..........17..........28.............11
Germany.........24..........15..........10.............10
France.............10............5...........5...............5

It's just horrible how our Nation at Risk has been performing of late, isn't it? I mean, isn't the handwriting is on the wall, here?

Posted by: frankly0 on December 5, 2007 at 12:09 AM | PERMALINK

The American invention and development of the telephone, phonograph, movies, large scale electric power generation and distribution, making the electric light practical, assembly line production, radio, television, airplanes, transistors, integrated circuits and lasers were all just flukes.

um, not to rain on your parade, but a bunch of those things were not invented in America, or by Americans. Just sayin'

Posted by: craigie on December 5, 2007 at 12:28 AM | PERMALINK

Just to provide a complete list of American winners of the Nobel Prizes, through 2007.

I note that 31 additional prizes were awarded to Americans in physics, chemistry, and medicine in the seven years between 2001-2007 (just to add to the list I mentioned above). (So in recent years American domination of Nobel Prizes in these areas has, if anything, only increased).

And, of course, the Nobel Prize in economics is dominated by Americans to the point of near absurdity.

Posted by: frankly0 on December 5, 2007 at 12:36 AM | PERMALINK

We need something like the "Inchworm" song, only for calculus.

I'm serious.

Posted by: ferd on December 5, 2007 at 12:50 AM | PERMALINK

The important point is that it doesn't matter in the least how good our students are at science and math; all that matters is how good our scientists and mathematicians are at science and math.

Posted by: Luther on December 5, 2007 at 12:54 AM | PERMALINK

RSA Hardly. In the only worldwide ranking of universities I'm aware of, over half of the top 100 are in the U.S. Sure, the good universities are few and far between in fly-over land, but that's still an average of one world-class university for every state.

Okay. And using the same source (from 2006) you can calculate the following:

Population (in 1000's) per Top 500 University by Country (2006) (total number of top 500 universities in the country)

1. Finland 872 (6)
2. Sweden 902 (10)
3. Denmark 908 (6)
4. Switzerland 940 (8)
5. Israel 1,059 (6)

6. Ireland 1,354 (3)
7. New Zealand 1,359 (3)
8. Holland 1,374 (12)
9. Canada 1,379 (24)
10. U.K. 1,443 (42)
11. Belgium 1,483 (7)
12. Norway 1,537 (3)

13. Australia 1,842 (11)
14. U.S. 1,854 (161)
15. Germany 1,917 (43)

So pretty good but not stellar (course a top 500 list begs all sorts of questions as to the methodology of selection and doesn't reflect the importance of the importance and effect of the really top universities. The figures above also don't factor in university size).

But as both Alex and PTate have pointed out, you don't need a large creative class to do well economically.

Posted by: snicker-snack on December 5, 2007 at 2:29 AM | PERMALINK

The American invention and development of the telephone, phonograph, movies, large scale electric power generation and distribution, making the electric light practical, assembly line production, radio, television, airplanes, transistors, integrated circuits and lasers were all just flukes.

um, not to rain on your parade, but a bunch of those things were not invented in America, or by Americans. Just sayin'

telephone - Alexander Graham Bell, Scotsman in America
Phonograph, Movie, Electric Light - Thomas Edison
Electrical Distribution, Radio - Nikola Tesla Serbian in America
Assembly Line Techniques - Henry Ford
Television - Philo Farnsworth
Airplanes - Wright Brothers
Transistors - Bill Shockley at Bell Labs
Integrated Circuits - Jack Kilby at TI
Lasers - Theodore Maiman at Hughes

The last three, the concepts and theory were more internationaly sourced, but the first ones were built by American engineers.

Posted by: afgates on December 5, 2007 at 3:57 AM | PERMALINK

"Don't European schools diverge into vocational and college-prep tracks at a fairly early point -- I think in England it's when the kids are around 11?"

No - that system came to an end in the 1960s, and all but a handful of British schools are "comprehensives" where all kids receive the same education to 16 (Northern Ireland is different in some respects). But, in the UK, education is only compulsory to 16 (when students take their GCSEs.) Only a minority study for a further two years (confusingly titled 6th form) and take AS and A-level exams. Most 6th formers will then apply to go on to further education and aim for a degree. Meanwhile, some of their friends who left school to work at 16 might go to college to do a vocational qualification (which might in turn lead to further academic education).

So, comparing 15 year olds in the UK and USA is on the one hand a fair comparison because they are both still in compulsory education, but on the other unfair because a large number of of the UK 15 year olds will leave normal education at 16 and go on to either work, unemployment or vocational education and training.

I was lucky enough to go to school in both the UK and the USA (although the latter was only for a year after I had taken A levels). There were lots of differences that I won't get into now, but one stands out: English kids specialise a lot earlier (Scottish kids less so), whereas American kids keep their hand in a wider range of subjects for longer. This is a little less true now of the English system than it was when I was at school (because of the introduction of AS-levels), but still holds.

Whether or not this has any bearing on the overall discussion I can't say, but be assured that in Britain we also have annual hand-wringing contests about how stupid our schoolchildren are, compared to both previous generations and international peers. Yet the ones I meet seem pretty smart to me.

Toby

Posted by: Toby on December 5, 2007 at 4:07 AM | PERMALINK

One interesting statistic I would like to see is an international comparison of the number of first-time school attenders, by grade in school.

America's school system, it appears to me, is much better at bringing the lowest tier of academic achievers into the mainstream. Many of these students are ESOL students, attending schools where English is not their native language. As statistics prove across the country, schools with high ESOL populations score lower on the NCLB-SOL standardized tests.

Also, what I wonder if the student testing universe varies from country to country. It seems to me that by the time some of these tests are conducted around the world that the college-bound students have already been separated from the vocational students, like in England.

It doesn't make sense to give chemistry tests to kids being trained as hair dressers. I'm guessing that other countries are testing a smaller, select group of students which raises their overall test scores.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on December 5, 2007 at 4:16 AM | PERMALINK

Probably been said above, (only had time to get through about half the 100+ comments)

Our high schools are below average, but our colleges are first rate -and more importantly- broad based in their general quality. You hear about the one university in India or China where, if you can't get into it, Harvard is the safety school. But where does the second tier person in China or India go? In America, the people who lead the country went to the Ivy's. But the people who *run* the country went to state universities.

And as I think has been said above, it has never been easier, cheaper, or more socially acceptable for a person well beyond college years to get some extra higher education or an advance degree and do it while still being able to earn a living. For those who completely punted high school, as stated above the second chances are also available and feasible: the price for a three credit course for the local community college where I live comes out per day just a little over the price of a fast food combo meal.

But why do colleges work and high schools don't? The easy answer (and honestly a large part of it) is that the colleges have the advantages of:
1) Having to compete for students
2) Not having to worry about people who really don't want to be there.
3) Having students with a skin in the game.

N.B. this is not a school choice/ voucher argument the actual solutions to making high schools better are far more complex, and I don't pretend to have a clue how to do it.

Posted by: Kolohe on December 5, 2007 at 4:54 AM | PERMALINK

I think that it probably shows you can do well for a long, long time on stored capital (of all kinds) and that if every major competitor cripples itself in a world war that you manage largely to avoid, that gives you a dominant position that it takes a long time to erode.

If you went back to 1913, would you be claiming that the British educational system was manifestly superior to everyone else's? No. You'd point out that the British had the good fortune to finish the Napoleonic Wars with the only working navy in the world, having destroyed all the others, and the rest was more or less inevitable.

Posted by: ajay on December 5, 2007 at 5:46 AM | PERMALINK

Wow, Kevin, you make a comparison between the US and German economy and completely leave out the fact that Germany is still paying to make up for 50 years of communism in East Germany???
That's either ignorant or deceptive on your part.
Aside from that, you have to take into consideration income distribution, job security, health care, vacation time etc.
And still Germany is kicking our asses in trade balance and many other economic indicators.

Of course there is also the fact that the US hasn't had to deal with a war inside her borders the last century, is vastly bigger in size and has a lot more natural resources. Take all that into account and the comparison is quite silly and question why educational differences are not showing up in the economy are incredibly simple minded and ignorant.

Posted by: MAdster on December 5, 2007 at 6:48 AM | PERMALINK

"Television - Philo Farnsworth"

Welcome to the only country in the world where people don't think the answer to that question is John Logie Baird (or possibly Nipkow for the fundamentalists!).

Also, electric lighting was demonstrated in Dundee in Scotland some 30 years before Edison by a guy called James Lindsay. Edison certainly took it very much further, but Farnsworth & Edison are classics of technology history revisionism.

America's done great, but largely because of free / low cost land, good enough education and the ability to do business (i.e. lack of regulation). In that environment and with 300 million people, enough good people will come out to create globally dominant companies, and it doesn't make much difference if the AVERAGE is a couple of percent worse than a competitive country with 50 million people. Unfortunately, the same principle also means that in 50 years time, India and China are going to be the ones to watch. America's now too protective of the things that don't work, unfortunately, so there's lots of slow deaths ahead - when was the last time you think anyone outside the USA would have considered buying an American built / designed car? (other than the Viper :-)

The point about American colleges in interesting though - it's definitely still a competitive advantage, and not one that's as obviously open to threat as most of the areas where America still leads the field.

Posted by: Ally on December 5, 2007 at 8:16 AM | PERMALINK

Concerning U.S. universities, snicker-snack wrote: So pretty good but not stellar (course a top 500 list begs all sorts of questions as to the methodology of selection and doesn't reflect the importance of the importance and effect of the really top universities. The figures above also don't factor in university size).

All true. I'm always impressed, by the way, at the disproportionate (in the per-capita sense) quality of European universities.

Posted by: RSA on December 5, 2007 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

Welcome to the only country in the world where people don't think the answer to that question is John Logie Baird (or possibly Nipkow for the fundamentalists!).

Except that Baird's invention relied on a mechanical device that essentially rendered the invention only a curiosity.

Farnsworth's invention, in contrast, was purely electronic, and that made all the difference in feasibility as a consumer device.

Details count, especially in invention; feasibility is everything.

My impression is that the invention of the telephone might be a better example of something more rightly attributed to a foreigner -- Antonio Meucci. (But there too, his invention may have lacked crucial features requiring important further invention).

Posted by: frankly0 on December 5, 2007 at 10:02 AM | PERMALINK

IIn the US, we require ALL children to have access to equal educational opportunities (let's not digress into rural or urban opportunities). But we require all kids to excell within the same parameters. In other countries, they pick and choose who learns, who excels, and who moves on to higher (than 6th grade) education. We are comparing apples to genetically engineered apples!! It is not an equal comparison.

The people who put this together were emphatic that they used a sampling of all 15-year-olds, not just the ones still in school. And actually, the US comes out badly when you look at at it that way. We have more 15 yos *not* in school.

A point one PISA expert made: It's not so much that the US is doing more poorly or that its scores have dropped, or its graduation rate has plummeted, it's that the rest of the world has surged ahead while we stayed static.

Another point: we have more disparity in test scores than many other countries and much of those poor test scores are tied to socio-economic status. In other words, the poor are getting the education shaft. We also do a worse job teaching immigrants than countries that have higher percentages of immigrants.

Another interesting nugget: generally the countries that did not track kids or group by ability levels did better than the countries that did.

Posted by: lou on December 5, 2007 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK

(BTW this is not boomer sour grapes. The case could be made that the decline began with my generation -- I graduated HS in 1967 -- and I would be the last to argue.) Posted by: thersites

Yes and yes. Yes it is boomer sour grapes, if you are looking at it this way, and yes it is your cohort's fault because you are a boomer. (Who says we have difficulties with math or history in U.S.?)

Posted by: JeffII on December 5, 2007 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

This has already been in a few of the above comments but it is worth repeating...our saving grace has been our system of colleges and universities...they are still the place to come to for many foreign students. But many countries are now beefing up their higher education programs (look at India)because of the difficulties many foreign students have in getting into the US, and many Canadian schools are on par with all but the top US universities. So the question becomes, how much longer can we maintain this level of higher education excellence compared to the rest of the world, especially when so much faculty time in American higher education is spent on remedial work for students who graduated from their high school with an A average?

Posted by: Roger on December 5, 2007 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

So the question becomes, how much longer can we maintain this level of higher education excellence compared to the rest of the world, especially when so much faculty time in American higher education is spent on remedial work for students who graduated from their high school with an A average? Posted by: Roger

Good question. However, the excellence of American universities (probably all universities in the West - Japan's universities pretty much all suck at all levels, don't know about S. Korea's or Taiwan's, but have read the PRC's universally suck as well) is at the upper levels. Undergrad studies have been pretty mediocre for decades, made all the worse by introducing the business major and allowing people to graduate with a "general studies" degree (sort of the GED of college).

The other thing to remember is that American universities, especially the top ten-fifteen percent, are very well funded in, you guess it, the maths, sciences, including medicine, and engineering. (How much funding does a mathematics department need anyway?) It's generally the humanities and social sciences that get short shrift. For every university that gets gifts to for new buildings or program funding in the humanities or social sciences you probably see ten get new buildings for the "business school," whatever the hell that is.

Posted by: JeffII on December 5, 2007 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

One of the richest men in the world dropped out of Harvard as a freshman. Although B. Gates had a very good HS education, it was the open economy that allowed him and others to create something new that enriched us all.

I know only one person who works for Microsoft, and he was a college dropout also.

Posted by: Brojo on December 5, 2007 at 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

there is adult education in Canada, Japan, Australia, the U.K...

Is it university adult education? My understanding is that in places like Japan and England once a person is tested and they do not make the grade, they do not have an opportunity to attend university.

I know a man who obtained his masters degree in Native American studies after being laid off from a defense contractor, where he worked for twenty years. It may be that other countries have this kind of adult education available to them in public universities, but I think the US leads the world in allowing adults to remake themselves through academic education.

Posted by: Brojo on December 5, 2007 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

Not having sifted through all the above comments, I'll just put in my two cents anyway. I believe the comparisons of US high school students and students in the secondary schools of Europe are unreliable due to the entirely different structures of the secondary education systems between there and here. In Europe, students are separated "high school" entry into academic and vocational tracks. No such culling process occurs here. A better comparison would be of third year university students at comparably rated universities, and testing within major subject material. I suspect that the differences would be quite small. The German man's brother sounds like someone who was streamed into a vocational path and decided to go for the academic one which is, indeed, a tough row to hoe. He would have had to take extra course material to prepare for the Abitur--the make-it-or-break-it pre-university qualifying exam and do well enough to be considered for the free-but-limited-availability public university education.

Posted by: digitusmedius on December 5, 2007 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

"Also, let's not forget that over half of Americans are evolution deniers, and in order to believe that God's hand rearranges DNA you have to deny all of organic chemistry, and physical chemistry by extension, and then you're back to Aristotelian territory."

And statistics tells that IQ is a bell shaped distribution with a mean of 100. I'm guessing that the majority of those who doubt Evolution theory live to the left of that mean. My point being throwing out the "fact" that half of Americans believe in * (*=whatever crackpot idea you wish) only directs me to point out that half (approximately) of all Americans have below average IQ's. Show me a statistic that says that 50% of Americans who live above a +2 sigma from mean IQ doubt evolution and I might pay attention.

Posted by: 1SG on December 5, 2007 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

Much water has flown under this bridge of comparing American schools to foreign schools. I want to point out a few things in perspective.

1. The American model is always individualism whereas a high degree of conformist tendencies exist in other cultures. Conformity tends to stifle creativity. Go back to the homesteaders - you see the trail blazing spirit of Americans. It is this spirit that has given rise to lots of inventions and scientific and technological discoveries. The American education is ideally suited to this development.

2. Having said that, one has to realize that much of this progress has come from an elite few, i.e., like 5% of the population advances the cause of the other 95%, which is perfectly fine. However, for that 5% to continually emerge over generations, the base minimum standards of the population have to be raised. If the basic educational levels and skills of the general population are advanced across the board, there will emerge that 5% or even better. This is where we are failing abysmally.

3. Many commenters have remarked about the rote nature of education in other countries (it took a lot of effort during my undergraduate years in India to unshacle myself). There is a large amount of truth to this if you take any conformist culture. Out of the box thinking is not encouraged in other cultures as much. But the contrary is not true in the American system either, i.e., critical thinking. Today's kids lack analytical thinking to a large degree. This reflects in their voting patterns. Where in the world can you see almost 60% of the population not believing in evolution!!

4. It is true that American schools have to endure a mixture of special ed, head start, and normal kids. But there is no excuse for not teaching critical thinking; the only reason I can think of is that the teachers are not up to the task. Socratic discourse is unheard of in schools. Multiple-choice tests are meaningless; standards are important but they have to be based on problem-solving rather than punching scantron sheets or marking bubbles.

There are goods and bads in all educational systems. Discipline, grammar, spelling, fundamental concepts in math are stronger in foreign educational systems. We have fallen way behind but the american system still encourages innovation. It has to go back to the bootstraps and improve in the fundamental areas as well.

Posted by: RV on December 5, 2007 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

My Chinese tour guide said the Chinese have been asking themselves "Our children get really great math and science scores, and we have a quarter of the world's population, but not a single Nobel prize. Why is that?"

My answer for now is that it's due to authoritarian culture. In order to innovate, to exercise creativity, you must have a certain amount of lack of respect for your superiors and your predecessors. Einstein (not an American, I know) had to say, effectively, "Everyone else is wrong about how light works. I have a better answer than all those people with the great science pedigrees. Light travels at the same speed in all frames of reference, and look here, it makes all these other observations work out."

In an authoritarian culture there are many many ways that the powers that be can keep the talented from having their day, and many motives for doing so. Maybe they would make you look bad, maybe they would stop working for you and stop making you look good. Maybe they would take your own child's slot in higher education. Etc.

But this has a psychological effect on the population. A famous proverb in China says, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." I've worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley for a long time, and there are few Indian or Chinese engineers who will tell their boss, or a lead engineer, "I think you're wrong about this." The American (and the Brits and Canadians too, though they are more polite, generally) won't ever shut up about it.

High school performance is critical to acceptance into the prestige schools, which in turn unlock certain career paths, notably government, and probably Wall Street (and working at the New York Times, I'd guess) But we have multiple paths to success. You can't keep a good man or woman down.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on December 5, 2007 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Authoritarian culture shut down Galileo, too.

Posted by: Brojo on December 5, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

A few things here. First, the US has over 3000 colleges and universities. Of these, only the top 150 are worth shit. The rest are worthless. That said, the reasons for the seeming lack of correlation between US student scores and the US economy are simple.

1) The US is now a service centered economy. The service sector relies much more on interpersonal skills than on rigorous training. If lots of Americans are salespeople, they need to know about popular topics (which they do), not how to skillfully design a piece of furniture or something.

2) The US imports lots of foreign talent, because we pay them the most. This works out quite well. I'm in college right now, and about 2/3 to 3/4 of the PhDs are foreigners. It works the same for unskilled labor. We import lots of Hispanics for construction and other jobs, where knowledge in a theoretical sense doesn't matter so much, and we do fine.

3) Outsourcing helps. Although it might kill US jobs, it bolsters the profits of US firms, which then invest that money either more efficiently at home, or abroad. We also benefit from insourcing.

4) There are a lot of public suburban schools and private schools that are very good at educating the kids.

5) Income inequality self selects in a beneficial way. Those in the upper middle class have the financial resources to ensure that their kids can get into the top high schools and universities. These people can provide the management for the country. The middle class can't really do this, not just because of financial resources, but also because of the culture of the middle class, which does not make children critical thinkers or innovative. The only caveat here is that we should have class based affirmative action; if the kid is brilliant, who gives a damn where they came from. They should get a slot at the Ivies.

Posted by: Alex on December 5, 2007 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

alex != Alex

Ok, I covered my ass on that one.

Other than that, the "Alex" post is so full of shit that it's not worth rebutting.

Posted by: alex on December 5, 2007 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK

Capitalist culture shut down Philo T. Farnsworth, but not his invention. I suppose RCA would say that was progress.

Posted by: Brojo on December 5, 2007 at 6:29 PM | PERMALINK

Is it university adult education?

Yes.

Posted by: snicker-snack on December 5, 2007 at 8:15 PM | PERMALINK
PW: ...And isn't our economic success due in considerable measure to our natural resources. That includes smart, well-fed and healthy people. But let's face it, we appropriated and then inherited the water, the soils, the forests, the climate, constant supplies of fresh immigrant labor, and a multitude of goodies that no other nation has had in such abundance.

Alex: Try Brazil or Argentina, and to a large extent most of the countries of the Americas. They had pretty much the same advantages in terms of natural resources that the US does.

I agree with PW, disagree with Alex. It's not just resources; it's access to them. Neither of those countries has had an infrastructure designed to help with getting resources to market. England, 1830, industrial revolution, trains, access to cheap coal, cheap energy, market: factories, perfect setup to jump start them over the world. Early 1900s, U.S., Texas oil fields, pipelines, cheap oil, cheap energy, market: horseless carriages, perfect setup to jump start them over the world.

Now? U.S. resources relatively inaccessible - pass the torch probably... unless. . .

Education is a resource, too. Is there enough to access? Yes. Our brightest have ideas right there on the surface. But can it sustain for the long term? I'd say no, but I could also be wrong...

Back when the U.S. was the manufacturing king of the world, Chicago was "the city that worked", and a huge manufactuing mecca, and what was the main export from the state of Illinois? Corn. A natural resource, relatively easily accessed. I don't know about currently, but with manufacturing so diminished, I can hardly imagine that corn is not still king in Illinois.

It's all about natural resources, in the long run. And in the long run, we have used our easily accessed natural resources up. And when they got too hard to get, we went elsewhere for them. And America declined. Kevin may not see it, in his equation, but wow have we dropped...

We may appear to be ahead of everyone, but the lead ain't what it used to be, baby. Long term, we will suck. Likely successors? Russia and China will rule the roost, test scores or no.

Infrastructure (a vastly important resource) in both is improving daily, while ours falls apart. They are finding that Neandertals were as intelligent as we are. So why didn't they do what modern man has done? Infrastructure. As resource.

Hmmm... Academic and economic infrastructures as resources might be what is happening in Kevin's paradox. Infrastructures by their nature have some staying power. Maybe what is happening is that we are still coasting to some extent from earlier on, and others' economic infrastructures have not been developed enough yet.

IMHO, one cannot make any argument that we, the U.S., are not in decline overall. Just because it is not apparent in some areas does not mean that those areas are not due for decline, following other areas. At the time Kevin was that sophomore in 1973, the decline was already begun: The U.S. shoe industry was falling apart, following on the heels of the textile industry. I think what Kevin is seeing is like a housing bubble or a stock market fed by speculation, looking good for a long time after the rot has actually set in, just before the collapse actually happens.

Cynical, yes, but don't be fooled by what you see now. A lot of our solvency comes from the boom of the 1990s, when stock prices were fed by foreign money coming here to dodge the Asian Contagion, the Brazil collapse, etc. And now it will b e fed for some time by foreign money buying up cheap U.S. companies, cheap due to the collapse of the dollar, which hasn't really happened yet.

Thus, what Kevin is seeing in the 'real world' is the tail end of the long U.S. infrastructure/resource utopia. IMHO. Education is only part of the equation, and not even a large part. But that is actually what he is coming to realize, isn't it?

Posted by: SteveGinIL on December 6, 2007 at 2:21 AM | PERMALINK

Look. The US can import foreigners who can think, foreigners who can do labor, and we have the capital to build infrastructure in other countries for goods we need. The US is service sector oriented. People can be stupider than they used to be, and it won't effect the economy. So, really, who cares about whether or not the US education system sucks compared to other countries? As long as we can take their best and brightest by paying them lots of money.

Posted by: alex on December 6, 2007 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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