Punchback: Answering Critics

The Mindless Fascination of International Comparisons

by Richard Rothstein

Public educators face criticism that American students perform worse than our international competitors. The criticism has some truth: Test scores, especially in math and science, are lower here than in many nations. Some nations have surpassed us in attainment such as high school completion.

But small attainment or achievement differences don’t really affect national economic success. American school reform accelerated 25 years ago when import competition seemed to imply that better schools caused foreign workers' productivity growth. Yet when Japanese and European economies later stalled and American productivity soared, few credited better American schools for the turnaround.

Clearly, the key was macroeconomic policy. Relative school quality (within industrialized nations' narrow range) did not determine economic performance. But now, if runaway American fiscal deficits soon lead to higher interest rates and inflation, we soon can expect to hear again that failing public schools retard international competitiveness.

American Strengths

Today's youth will enter a workforce in which 21 percent of job openings will require a bachelor's degree, while 28 percent of young Americans now earn such degrees, a share that is projected to grow. Our nation probably already produces enough skills for future occupational needs.

A strength of the American system, equaled nowhere else, has been the second chances offered to school-leavers who returned for more education as adults. We should not fail to strengthen these chances from a mistaken belief that staying in school to master a college-preparatory curriculum is always best for everyone.

Test score comparisons also can be misleading. Students’ achievement scores in some nations surpass ours, but the picture is mixed. American children rank at the top on some international comparisons. For example, in 1990 when concern about American academic inferiority was at its height, U.S. 4 th graders scored second only to Finland on an international reading comparison conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

Certainly, American students' low performance on math and science measures are well-known. On the 1999 administration of the Third International Math and Science Survey, our 8 th graders scored below their peers in almost every industrialized nation, with students in Japan and Korea ranking near the top. In math, average Americans scored below the 25 th percentiles of Japanese and Korean students.

But the study also asked if students liked math and science, thought them important and would want to use them in careers. Here, Japanese and Koreans scored at the bottom. Only 9 percent of their 8 th graders had positive attitudes toward math and only 10 percent about science.

In the United States, 35 percent felt positively about math and 32 percent about science, more than in almost any other industrialized nation.

Different Competencies

Of course, we wouldn’t want to ride in an airplane designed by someone who enjoyed math but didn’t know it. But it is also true that someone who doesn’t enjoy math is unlikely to pursue an engineering career or use mathematical skill creatively.

Americans have been trying to remake schools, partly to be more like high-scoring Asians, by raising graduation requirements, increasing testing and expanding instructional time.

While we try to imitate Japan and Korea, those nations have been trying to copy us. Asian leaders are reforming schools so students will learn fewer facts and do less test preparation but, like Americans (they think), be more willing to take risks and be more creative in applying what they know.

Japanese and Korean employers also believe that economic survival demands education reform, but they say that disciplined and highly skilled workers are not what they need most. Instead, to develop new products for new markets, business executives say they now seek workers who are unafraid to question authority or take initiative.

A 1994 Korean presidential commission proposed less testing, more course electives that depart from standard curricula and college admissions based more on recommendations and overall high school records than on standardized tests.

In Japan, too, policymakers are relaxing standards. The government has reduced textbook content, cut study time and dropped Saturday school. Officials hope by covering less material, teachers will encourage more student inquiry.

Japanese officials now argue that traditional education emphasizing obedience and high test scores are ill-suited for students adapting to rapid change in the modern economy. These educators care less about rankings on international tests because, they say, exams emphasize memorization skills valued by an outmoded education system.

Elusive Medium

None of this means American school reform is misguided. Americans may have veered too far from high standards, just as Asians veered too far from developing the individuality they now find lacking.

The apparent inverse relationship between nations' rankings on skills and their students’ love of math and science should be a warning. Can American schools inch up the skills scale without sacrificing their place on the attitudinal scale? Mindless imitation of schools in other nations is not the way to find out.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a visiting lecturer at Teachers College, Columbia University. E-mail: rr2159@columbia.edu. He is the author of Class and Schools (Teachers College Press).