December 8th, 2010

Gil Marsh cover

It's more than who ranks first

The New York Times reports that an international standardized test showed Shanghai students ahead of all other students in the world, in the core subjects of science, reading and math.

The article points out that Shanghai is not representative of all of China, but still, the results are important since the United States ranks 23rd in science, 17th in reading, and an abysmal 31st in math (this last score being below average). Chester E. Finn who served in the Department of Education under President Reagan, said, “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan viewed it as a wake-up call. “I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better.” President Obama described it as a Sputnik moment.“America is in danger of falling behind.”

With all this hand wringing, comparisons have begun between the educational systems in the U.S. and Shanghai.

Now I don’t question that the United States is doing poorly. But let me ring a note of caution. China is a country with a powerful authoritarian bent and different social mores from the U.S. Schools teach more than the basic subjects. They also teach a way to think and behave in society, basic societal values. This last point has not been lost on the radical right who has tried to hijack the school curricula in the U.S. and has frequently succeeded—proving to be a blight on the country’s educational system, particularly in science. We should not make the additional mistake of importing other educational systems wholesale without considering the social effect.

Take a look at the table that ranks the top 32 country scores. In the top ten, in every category, you’ll find Canada—8th in science, 6th in reading, 10th in math. Now there’s a country with slightly closer cultural values. Perhaps the U.S. should take a good look at their system (or Finland’s for that matter, 2nd in science, 3rd in reading, 6th in math). Take what works there and bring it to the U.S.

I’m not saying the U.S. shouldn’t study Shanghai’s system. To the contrary. It should. But be wary. Democratic mores are important and must not be forgotten when we consider the methods we chose to teach kids. Other democracies have been successful. Let’s look at them, too.