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U.S. Failing to Meet Global Education and Competiveness Challenges

Education in the U.S. and Declining Global Competitiveness

The United States has fallen to "average" in international education rankings released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. America has received scores around 500 on a scale that goes up to 1,000: 487 in math, 500 in reading and 502 in science.

The three-yearly OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics.

A sobering report on the performance of American students relative to their peers in other countries should be a wake-up call for the nation, Secretary Duncan said Tuesday.

 “The mediocre performance of America’s students is a problem we cannot afford to accept and yet cannot afford to ignore” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He provided this summary of U.S. students’ performance on the 2009 PISA:

  • In reading literacy, 15-year-old American students were average performers. The U.S. effectively showed no improvement in reading since 2000. Overall, the OECD’s rankings have U.S. students in 14th place in reading literacy among OECD nations.
  • In mathematics, U.S. 15-year-olds are below-average performers among OECD nations—ranked 25th. After a dip in our 2006 math scores, U.S. students returned to the same level of performance in 2009 as six years earlier, in 2003. U.S. students outperformed their peers in math in only five OECD countries.
  • The most encouraging finding from PISA is that our average science score is up. In 2006, American 15-year-olds had below-average skills in scientific literacy, compared to their OECD peers. Today, U.S. students have improved enough to become average performers in science among OECD nations, earning 17th place in the OECD rankings.

“The hard truth,” Secretary Duncan said at Tuesday’s PISA announcement, “is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades…In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground.”

PISA’s high-scorers include South Korea, Finland and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, and Canada.

At the same time our students are failing to meet the grade, foreign immigrants are sought after in high technology, science, and mathematics. The H1B Visa Program brings in less than one-third of the more than 200,000 applicants. Businesses are clamming for a simpler system that works faster to keep America competitive in these highly-skilled fields.

Throwing money after the problem will not work unless it is targeted to invest in homegrown talent that is educated and trained in the critical science, technology, and engineering and math fields.  On the other hand, we have to wonder why American students are not choosing to study in these fields. I agree with something President Obama said on September 30 that:

"The way I think about it is … this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and, you know, we didn't have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track."

The U.S. education system must be improved, top to bottom, so that our most precious resource – our children – can compete in the increasingly global world economy.  Statistically our K-12 students are falling farther behind students in Korea, China and elsewhere in the physical sciences.   We can and must do better.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 9, 2011