U.S. Does Poorly in Math and Science. Again.

Today yet another international comparison reaffirmed that the United States is failing to prepare its students to compete successfully in the new flat world. PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, was administered to 15-year-old students last year by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). This is a highly respected group whose conclusions are sound and reliable.

The results of the PISA assessments showed the U.S. performance in math, science, and reading is mediocre compared to stellar performance by most Asian and European countries. In the first time participating in this exam, Shanghai students stunned the world by taking first place; in math they scored 600 on a scale for which the average was 497 and the U.S. scored 487.

Unless dramatic measures are started now, in one decade America will be unable to turn to its talented workers, inventors, scientists, and financial wizards to rescue the country from debt, pollution, and soaring energy costs. This is a national security issue as important as any.

We know how to fix the problem. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently issued a comprehensive plan for addressing the problems in mathematics and science precollege education. They provide a detailed blueprint for tightening standards, improving teacher preparation, and exploiting technology for new, research-based curricula, assessment and professional development.

The cost of the PCAST recommendations would be at most $0.3B per year. This is a trivial expense compared to the total Federal budget of $3,550B (0.008%) or even the National Science Foundation budget of $7.4B (4%). The Sustainable Defense task force has shown how we could save $100B/yr from the Defense budget with no reduction in military security, 300 times what PCAST needs.

One may wonder why the $100B already spent annually on education at the federal level is insufficient to fund the PCAST agenda. The quick answer is that there is an inbred fear of a national curriculum that would impinge on State’s rights and local control. Thus, the Department of Education is not allowed to create curricula. PCAST addressed this concern by advocating that any curricula created be available in three versions and be freely available online so that it could be modified. PCAST also recommends that a mission-oriented organization be created to implement its recommendations—not the Department of Education, which is not allowed to, or the NSF which is research oriented.

Is it impossible to imagine that Congress would fund any new initiative given the tax and budget cutting frenzy in Washington? One group looking at the rather terrifying future is the Administration’s bipartisan Deficit Reduction Panel, which just released a report “Moment of Truth” that shows how to balance the budget while still supporting educational initiatives like PCAST. It says, “At the same time, we must invest in education, infrastructure, and high-value research and development…”

Perhaps this latest PISA results will push lawmakers to finally focus on meaningful improvements in our educational system. It would be good politics, inexpensive, and absolutely essential to our national security.

4 thoughts on “U.S. Does Poorly in Math and Science. Again.

  1. Dewi Win

    I read today’s article about the PISA in the NYT with great interest (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/education/07education.html)

    I do not doubt that the 5000+ students in Shanghai performed “stellarly” on the test nor do I disagree that the US should spend more money to boost performance an interest in math, science, and technology so that we can remain competitive in this global world.

    When I read statistics such as those presented in the article, I do so with some degree of skepticism. What percentage of school-aged children attend school in China? (I know that many special education students do not attend school at all.) How was the sample selected?

    Regardless, if the US is to solve its education problems, it must also address issues of scale, diversity, poverty, motivation, unemployment …

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  2. Bob Tinker

    On this point, the New York Times says “About 5,100 15-year-olds in Shanghai were chosen as a representative cross-section of students in that city. In the United States, a similar number of students from across the country were selected as a representative sample for the test.”

    The researchers have been careful about just the issues you raise; without good methodology an international comparison like this is meaningless. I recommend looking at the full report, now available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011004.pdf

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