Fareed Zakaria
Fareed Zakaria
Opinion Writer

Is the U.S. making the grade in education?

The latest international student evaluations, the PISA test results, are out, and one thing is clear: The United States has not done well. Beyond that, the exams have become, professor Jay Greene points out, a Rorschach test. People read into them pretty much whatever they want. So Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers announced that “None of the top-tier countries . . . has a fixation on testing like the United States does.” It’s difficult to see how one could come to this conclusion. The top four slots in all three categoriesmath, reading and science — are taken by Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Japan. They probably have the most test-centric systems in the world.

What’s more worrying is that this particular test, PISA, is not focused on rote memorization but rather on the ability to use skills to solve real-world problems. (I tried the sample test; you can, too, at http://www.oecd.org/pisa/test.) In fact, U.S. schoolchildren do better in the other major international comparison, the TIMSS, which is a more traditional test of the academic curriculum. Does this mean we’re teaching more by rote than are South Korea and Japan?

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If one can put ideology and vested interests aside, I think a fair-minded review of this survey, as well as others, suggests that the United States has reason to be worried, though not panicked.

Let’s be clear, general educational excellence is not the only ingredient to national success. Diane Ravitch, a critic of educational reform, has pointed out that the United States has never done very well on international tests, and yet, the U.S. economy has done better than many higher-scoring countries. Why? Well, the United States benefits from an amazingly flexible free-market economy, a tradition of invention and entrepreneurship, a dynamic society, talented immigrants and a strong work ethic. Those strengths might outweigh poor test scores, on average.

In addition, there’s increasing evidence that it takes a small number of high-achievers to generate a great deal of economic vitality. Scholars Heiner Rindermann and James Thompson have found that the performance of the top 5 percent (measured by IQ) in a country correlates strongly with economic growth. Duke University’s Jonathan Wai argues that, because of its size, the United States’ top 1 percent has a huge impact on the country’s trajectory.

The United States has done very well in harnessing the talents of its top 1 percent and in attracting the top 1 percent from the rest of the world to live and work here. These are the engines of innovation, growth and dynamism. But the country’s vast middle class — and below — has seen its wages stagnate for three decades. And this is getting worse as technology and globalization depress job prospects for people in the middle.

The real story of these tests has been “the rise of the rest.” The United States has muddled along over the past few decades, showing little improvement or decline. Meanwhile, countries including South Korea and Singapore have skyrocketed to the top, and now China, Vietnam and Poland are doing astonishingly well. These countries have workers whose productivity levels have been rising in tandem with their educational achievements.

There are many reasons, but to put it simply, many of these countries are playing to win. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the gap in math between Shanghai and Massachusetts (the top-performing U.S. state) translates into two years of schooling. No surprise; as it turns out, because of the longer academic year in China, by the time the average Shanghai kid gets to be 15, she has spent about two years more in school than the average 15-year-old American.

President Obama said this week that America’s greatest problem is its declining social mobility. Americans are now less likely to move out of their income level than are Canadians or Europeans. Education is the best way to rebuild that ladder of opportunity.

Almost all the research suggests that how much you spend on schools does not predict your performance. The United States spends a lot; many Asian countries spend much less. However, the United States has an unusually large gap between its best and worst students. And it is almost unique in that it devotes less money, attention and energy on its most disadvantaged students. Most countries, certainly most high-performing countries, devote greater resources and attention to poor children. Because education in the United States is funded by local property taxes, the opposite dynamic is at work, which reinforces and exacerbates problems of mobility.

It’s possible that the top 1 percent will continue generating enough growth to keep the country moving, but it’s more likely that the weight of a stagnant middle class will eventually slow the economy. More important, the politics of a country with a tiny productive elite and a massive underclass with low skills, depressed wages and no prospects will not look pretty.

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