There’s no shortage of informed people on The Dope and elsewhere whom, when queried about the status of the United States educational system, will reflexively offer up the opinion that our schools, particularly in the fields of math and science, are universally and atrociously inadequate for the future needs of a service based global economy.
I was very privileged to attend some excellent public schools that I found to be plenty challenging. A significant portion of my graduating class had launched into differential equations, electromagnetism, and molecular biology by the time they had graduated from high-school. None the less, the prevailing opinion of educators and the Wall Street Journal editorial page alike seemed to assure me that the United States’ schools were in a state of perpetual crisis churning out graduates that were overwhelmingly completely unprepared to compete with much smarter, much better educated children from other countries. I recall the phrase, “laughing stock,” being a fair part of the dialog on American achievement in primary education, and to add insult to injury, half of the population probably couldn’t point to Alaska or whatever nation we happened to have half of our army stationed in at the time on a map. From the National Foundation for Science and the National Center for Education Statistics regarding the American populace:
“• Two-thirds do not understand DNA, “margin of error,” the scientific process, and do not
believe in evolution.
• Half do not know how long it takes the earth to go around the sun, and a quarter does not
even know that the earth goes around the sun.
• Half think humans coexisted with dinosaurs and believe antibiotics kill viruses.”
• Eighty-eight percent believe in alternative medicine.
• Half believe in extrasensory perception and faith healing.
• Forty percent believe in haunted houses and demonic possession.
• A third believes in lucky numbers, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, and that
UFOs are aliens from space.
• A quarter believes in witches and that we can communicate with the dead.
• Seventy-eight percent cannot explain how to compute the interest paid on a loan.
• Seventy-one percent cannot calculate miles per gallon on a trip.
• Fifty-eight percent cannot calculate a 10% tip for a lunch bill."
Is this view about the poor quality of American schools accurate?
Today the American Institute for Research published a fairly comprehensive report that compares standardized testing scores in math and science between all 50 American states and a number of other nations and generally found that American achievement on these tests was comparable to other nations. Rather than lagging far behind other developed nations, I would say that as a whole the United States did alright. Also, in many cases, the variance between states seems much larger than variances between other countries.
Here are a few of the key findings from the executive summary and some selected results:
“At the national level, several Asian countries generally outperform the United States in
both mathematics and science, while many African and Middle Eastern Countries
performed significantly below the United States. The United States was generally
comparable to other English-speaking nations and European countries.”
“There are 31 countries that are significantly below the United States in their percentages of
proficient mathematics students. These are …
5. New Zealand,
Ten countries have science performance similar to the United States. These are
- New Zealand,
- Slovak Republic,
- Russian Federation,
- Belgium (Flemish),”
So, although the general state of knowledge in the United States on math and science might be atrocious in some abstract sense, it seems as if we’re about typical for other developed nations.
I’m not suggesting that there isn’t room or a need for improvement, certainly there is both. It’s a separate debate, but I feel that federal legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act has generally put us on the right track for accurately measuring and further improving education in this country. The tone of the debate needn’t be about radically overhauling a completely broken system, but making incremental evidence based improvements in education to further improve education in the United States.