Just before I left for a recent visit to China, one of the leading stories in domestic news was that U.S. high school standardized test scores had dropped to 15th in reading among 60 nations, 23rd in science and 31st in math. And as I departed for the nonstop 13-hour flight from Detroit to Shanghai, I was hearing and reading the predictable analysis that U.S. education has fallen out of leadership and is tending toward mediocrity.
I’m not so sure we can make any reliable comparisons as the percentage of students tested in the U.S. is greater than the percentage tested in the tiered educational systems of many Asian and European countries. And I’m most suspicious of the results from China – the first time that country has participated in the testing comparisons. In the first place, only the municipality of Shanghai was tested – not the nation of China.
The report is that test results from Shanghai ranked No. 1 across the board. That is not surprising to me; for at great cost to much of the rest of that massive nation, the Chinese government has invested billions of Yuan into a finely focused and rigorously regulated educational system for its major cities – and especially its showpiece of Shanghai – while ignoring most of the country’s educational needs.
Millions of Chinese students receive their education in rustic one-room schools. Millions of Chinese citizens finish their formal education in elementary school, unable to afford even the cost of China’s public education system which, unlike the U.S., is not a free public education.
A fair analysis of the data would ask how students living in rural areas scored or how students in cities north and west of a line from Beijing to Kunming are faring on these standardized tests; or how these people are treated when they migrate southeast and attempt to gain access to urban educational opportunities; or how people with disabilities are treated in the Chinese educational system anywhere in that massive nation.
An appropriate analysis of what’s happening in the world of education would ask why it is that students in foreign secondary schools are seeking in record numbers to attend U.S. high schools, and why it is they are seeking to do so not just for a single academic year as an exchange student, but for multiple years – in fact, for all four years of high school. This analysis could not ignore the finding that high school age students throughout the entire world see a U.S. high school education as the key to the balance and critical thinking skills that U.S. colleges and universities look for in their incoming students and the world’s businesses value in their employees.
If it is a negative comparison we should make with educational systems elsewhere, it should be insufficient emphasis in U.S. schools on multilingual fluency in early elementary schools so that our students could be better prepared to converse and compete in the modern and future global society.
There are critically important shortcomings in the educational system of the U.S. that comparisons of standardized test performances do not help reveal or remedy. Far more troublesome to me than a rank of 15, 23 or 31 is the resegregation of urban education in America resulting from “specialized” charter schools, and the metastasizing of an urban underclass for whom educational and economic opportunities are limited and the American dream is impossible. But the gaps in the Haves and Have-Nots in American education are nothing like the canyons of disparity in China.