Relax, America. Chinese math whizzes and Indian engineers aren´t steeling your kids’ future.
Only partly true.
The biggest headline from the recent PISA results concerned the first-place performance of students from Shanghai, and the inevitable “the Chinese are eating our lunch” meme was hard for American commentators and policymakers to resist. “While Shanghai’s appearance at the top might have been a stunner, America’s mediocre showing was no surprise,” declared a USA Today editorial .
China’s educational prowess is real. Tiger moms are no myth — Chinese students focus intensely on their schoolwork, with strong family support — but these particular results don’t necessarily provide compelling evidence of U.S. inferiority. Shanghai is a special case and hardly representative of China as a whole; it’s a talent magnet that draws from all over China and benefits from extensive government investment in education. Scores for the United States and other countries, by contrast, reflect the performance of a geographic cross-section of teenagers. China — a vast country whose hinterlands are poorer and less-educated than its coastal cities — would likely see its numbers drop if it attempted a similar assessment.
What about perennial front-runners like Finland and South Korea, whose students were again top scorers? These countries undoubtedly deserve credit for high educational accomplishment. In some areas — the importance of carefully selected, high-quality teachers, for example — they might well provide useful lessons for the United States. But they have nothing like the steady influx of immigrants, mostly Latinos, whose children attend American public schools. And unfortunately, the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic demographics of the United States — none of which have analogues in Finland or South Korea — correlate closely with yawning achievement gaps in education. Non-Hispanic white and Asian pupils in the United States do about as well on these international tests as students from high-scoring countries like Canada and Japan, while Latino and black teens — collectively more than a third of the American students tested — score only about as well as those from Turkey and Bulgaria, respectively.
To explain is not to excuse, of course. The United States has an obligation to give all its citizens a high-quality education; tackling the U.S. achievement gap should be a moral imperative. But alarmist comparisons with other countries whose challenges are quite different from those of the United States don’t help. Americans should be less worried about how their own kids compare with kids in Helsinki than how students in the Bronx measure up to their peers in Westchester County.
As published in Foreign Policy