I like the latest big report to clog my printer — a 101-page work titled “The Competition that Really Matters: Comparing U.S., Chinese, and Indian Investments in the Next Generation Workforce.” The researchers at the Center for American Progress and the Center for the Next Generation make a good case for what has to be done to make U.S. schools better as worldwide education standards improve.
I just wish they hadn’t used China and India as the educational competitors we most need to fear. They aren’t nearly as threatening as they look.
The report’s authors, Donna Cooper, Adam Hersh and Ann O’Leary, acknowledge that China’s 1.35 billion people and India’s 1.2 billion, most of them in terrible schools, are a drag on their global ambitions. If only the authors could have persuaded their bosses, Matt James of the Center for the Next Generation and Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress, to tone down their giddy foreword to the report.
James and Tanden refer to the mega-nations as “two of our fiercest competitors for the jobs and thought leadership of the future.” They say “simple math suggests that their new initiatives and financial investment can unleash far more qualified young people into the global marketplace than the United States can.”
“Without U.S.-style political constraints,” James and Tanden say, “authoritarian China, and to a much lesser extent, India’s parliamentary system of government in tandem with its five-year planning process, have the ability to enact whatever policies they want and spend whatever amounts they deem prudent” to increase their global competitiveness.
Americans giving credence to big-state economic planning takes us back to the 1950s, when pundits worried that the five-year plans of China and the Soviet Union would bury us with their single-minded energy. They were wrong, for the same reason the authors of this report are wrong to accept Chinese and Indian projections of continued growth and school improvement.
The Chinese and Indians can plan all they want, but market forces have a way of crushing state-supported optimism. When times get tough, the deep inequalities in both countries will make it more difficult to persevere. Because of its stronger social cohesion, economic flexibility and educational strength, the United States will remain the most popular haven for foreign investment.
The recommendations in the report are good. We should prepare more students for college and careers in growing technological industries. We should improve teacher quality. We should invest in early learning and increased parental involvement with their children.
But comparing our situation with China and India fails to give proper weight to the fact that we are light-years ahead of them in providing instruction and opportunity for every child who wants to go to college or adopt a useful trade. Our universities, because of their breadth and depth and friendliness to wild ideas, are also better. China and other Asian countries send delegations to find out how American schools develop such creative thinking and so many Nobel Prize winners.
The authors wisely note that the rise of the Chinese and Indian economies is good for us. It means more middle-class people buying our middle-class goods. Let’s be happy with that alone and not see virtues in underdeveloped educational systems that aren’t there.
When I was a China watcher, I was amused by American reformers who thought the Maoist destruction of educational standards was wonderfully egalitarian and that we should do the same. After Mao died, Chinese leaders realized his school reforms were killing the economy and tossed them out as Mao’s U.S. admirers wailed in protest.
American schools have grown as good as they are through trial and error, mostly locally. This region’s high-performing schools are the result of those local efforts. American schools will get even better if we follow that same course. It might be frustrating at times, but it works for us, as other countries’ methods often don’t.