December 7, 2010


With 65 countries participating in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) the results are in and the picture couldn’t be sunnier for Shanghai. The New York Times has a wonderful table showing participant results as a sidebar to “Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators.” If there are any doubts that U.S. education has fallen behind that of other nations, this study should dispel that notion. Should.

But many will posit that the China results are somehow skewed or not reflective of the diversity of the population – that the students may have been “cherry-picked.” In the U.S. we educate everyone – other nations don’t do that so any comparison is unfair. To that I offer “Your Child Left Behind” from the December issue of The Altantic. An experiment undertaken by Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, and two colleagues ranked American states side by side with foreign nations based on results from the math portion of the PISA.

How would our states do if we looked just at the white kids performing at high levels—kids who are not, generally speaking, subject to language barriers or racial discrimination? Or if we looked just at kids with at least one college-educated parent?

As it turned out, even these relatively privileged students do not compete favorably with average students in other well-off countries. On a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high performers among white kids than Poland has among kids overall. In Illinois, the percentage of kids with a college-educated parent who are highly skilled at math is lower than the percentage of such kids among all students in Iceland, France, Estonia, and Sweden.

Which means that even the students we deem most advantaged are not competitive on an international scale.

“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,” said Arne Duncan. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

Guest post by Jeanne Bernish

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4 thoughts on “Shanghai

  1. I really phrased that wrong. Should have been something like “besting a population larger than those of 150 nations”. Clumsier, but more accurate. (Sort of.)

    Of course, I was also hearkening back to when the US was higher rated inter-nationally, when the Engineering libraries at OSU, CMU and elsewhere were filled with the indigenous students of Ohio and PA.

    Don’t get me wrong here: I’ve long argued American (non-Asian-) students are being lazy when it comes to studying the hard stuff required to get into and through tough science and engineering programs.

    The above was just to question whether PISA was examining their problem-solving abilities in an appropriate way. Again, I don’t know.

    Wrote more on PISA over at EdReformer.

  2. Always great to see you in the comment section Ed! But I have to point out that your statement “doing well in Ohio equals besting the populations of 150 other nations” is precisely the point of this PISA result and The Atlantic article. Ohio may be bigger than Finland and Denmark together, but that does not give Ohio the right to claim besting anyone. Compared to other states Ohio ranks below average in education nationally (Education Nation Scorecard:

  3. This is an “I don’t know yet”. Here’s the rub:

    If Ed could be sixteen again, would he pursue math with the same intensity? Should he? What are the alternatives?

    Would he be captivated by programming instead? Maybe web programming, maybe games programming, maybe simulations of real-world situations?

    For background, I as a sophomore placed 3rd in Ohio’s geometry competition. (As one of the five largest states, a state bigger than Finland and Denmark together, doing well in Ohio equals besting the populations of 150 other nations.) Scores like that let you do things like go on and get a physics degree from places like Carnegie-Mellon, and further go on to re-design airborne weapons systems-of-systems.

    They would also, in 2014, let you solve problems like landfill-reclamation-engineering, or cancer-cure-proteomics.

    Is programming a substitute for math? We could argue that it requires discipline, attention to detail, and logical rigor. Unlike most humanities classes, there’s no “close” answer, there’s no find-the-teacher’s-point-of-view-and-go-with-that. In programming, get one idea partly wrong–or even one word in 500–and the whole thing breaks. There’s mental discipline in that.

    Is it enough?

    We ask students to do math for two reasons, the first being developing logical discipline. Programming probably does that well. Programming also gives what we haven’t given students for math–immediate feedback. Submit your program to the compiler/interpreter, and you get instant feedback. Another plus.

    The second reason for learning math, though, is that students come to know the world as it is; and form a basis for building the world as we’d like. How are we doing on this vector?

    Some show this week went to Facebook headquarters and filmed the “engineers” at work on the next features of Facebook. Now, no doubt Facebook is changing the world. And there was a huge amount of mental intensity going on in those rooms. We can see that same world-changing and intensity in thousands of similar software companies.

    But I wonder. Are these guys engineers? Is spending 60 hour weeks programming Farmville, or FB’s new Profile layout, really STEM? More importantly, can you make the same contribution to Democracy as you might otherwise?

    I don’t know the answer.

    I do think I have a path to make learning the traditional subjects more interactive, more rewarding. And with a little support, we could probably include those young programming enthusiasts as part of the solution.

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