We All Need to Change Our Behavior to Regain Civility in Society
Ethics and the Cancel Culture

Stop the Madness: We Need to Reverse the Widening Achievement Gap Between U.S. and Chinese Students  

PISA Assessment Scores are Troubling

The results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are in and it is bad news for the U.S.  U.S. teenagers still lag much of the rest of the developed world in scores covering math, reading and science. Moreover, there is a widening gap between higher-and-lower performing students in the U.S. in reading and math. This is unsustainable. By 2025, I believe the downward scores, especially in science, will usher in an era where Chinese kids are better prepared than U.S. kids for the technological future, including uses of artificial intelligence.

China had the highest scores in all three subjects, with an average reading score at 555, math at 591 and science at 590, on a scale from zero to 1,000. U.S students had an average reading score of 505, or about 10 percent below. In math it was 478 or about 23 percent below and in science, 502 or about 15 percent lower than their Chinese counterparts.

Why are U.S. teenagers so far behind? First we might look at their desired career choices. Toy production firm Lego recently surveyed 3,000 children between the ages of eight and 12 from the U.S., the U.K. and China about the career they aspire to. In the U.S. and U.K., YouTuber/vlogger was chosen three times more than an astronaut or one-third of the responses. In China, one-half of the kids want to be astronauts.

Why the divergence in career choices? Well, let’s face it, majoring in college in being a social media influencer is easier than science, math and engineering. U.S. kids seek fame and fortune through their chosen profession. Chinese kids seek success by learning a highly-valued skill that can enable the country to grow technologically and surpass the U.S. economically.

I’m not surprised by the declining scores. What I am surprised at (and disappointed, for that matter), is the apologists continue to point to the same old tired reasons for this occurrence. They blame it on poverty, language barriers, low levels of parental education and social ills that plague many urban neighborhoods. Not to mention ill-prepared teachers, large class sizes, inadequate funding for our schools, and so on.

Wake up, America. It’s the lack of a work ethic that causes the decline. Today’s high schoolers are unprepared for the rigors of college not to mention the technologically advanced nature of professional jobs today.

So, the real questions are: (1) What is the cause of the declining work ethic? and (2) What can be done about it?

The declining work ethic is due to an inability to focus in class for more than one or two minutes at a time. Youngsters today are not taught learning skills in high school. They never take notes in class thereby missing a learning opportunity. These kids prefer to surf the “Net” and check social media sites rather than pay attention in class. There is nothing inherently wrong with using social media or learning from the Internet, but their priorities are messed up. It should be to work first, and then play.

We need to accept the fact that as a nation we are losing our global competitiveness to Asian countries, especially China. What can be done to improve the situation? PISA scores

It goes much deeper than improving PISA scores. The disparity with Chinese students is a symptom of a society in the U.S. that has gotten too soft; one that lets high schoolers skirt by rather than demand excellence of them.

To be honest, I see no reason to think it will change in the future, at least in the short run. What we need to do is focus on a long-term strategy to reverse the trend. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have the will to do what needs to be done with respect to educational discipline.

Educational standards are a moving target. First, there was no child left behind. Then a set of common core standards. What’s next? It doesn’t matter. We are focusing on the wrong solutions. High-schoolers and, indeed, all youngsters from K-5 through college could benefit from the following guidance:

  1. Develop a positive attitude.
  2. Get to school or work on time each day.
  3. Write down your daily tasks for each day of the week.
  4. Accept that the results of an effort worth pursuing requires hard work.
  5. Begin to discipline yourself in everyday life and translate it into study and work habits.
  6. Set achievable goals.
  7. Avoid analysis paralysis
  8. Embrace responsibility and accountability.
  9. Evaluate your work; identify your weaknesses and create a plan to improve on those weak areas.
  10. Stop and reflect periodically on what you are trying to accomplish; how can you work harder to achieve your goals; how do you want to be remembered at the end of your life.

Lifestyle expert Scott Young is spot on: “A work ethic is based on habits. Persistence, focus, ‘do it now, and ‘do it right’ are the key habits in building a dependable work ethic."

Erin Cummings, an actress, is quoted as saying: “At the end of the day, you are solely responsible for your success and your failure. And the sooner you realize that, you accept that, and integrate that into your work ethic, you will start being successful. As long as you blame others for the reason you aren't where you want to be, you will always be a failure.”

I would add to the blame game those in the political class who talk about educational reform but just throw good money after bad; the school systems that let our kids down by dumbing down the curriculum; the parents who seem uninvolved in their kids’ education and do little at home to make things better. Oh, and let me add the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 9, 2019. Dr. Mintz recently published a book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, that explains how doing the right thing and being a good person can enhance well-being. The book is available on Amazon. Visit his website and sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Facebook and Twitter.