A country doing ‘average’ in education, is falling behind

In the super-competitive culture in which most Americans are raised — or at least like to think they are being raised — calling someone average is an insult.

Perhaps no phrase captures the pejorative nature of average better than the line from Garrison Keillor’s radio monologue about Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

No one readily admits to being average.

But it’s becoming harder and harder for American students — as a group — to run away from the label. In fact, when stacked up against students in other industrial nations, U.S. students (and their parents) wish they were average.

Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment released early this month showed average performance by 15-year-old American students in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.

And who are our students being schooled by? The list includes South Korea, Finland and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China and Canada.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The Associated Press this should be a wake-up call for the United States. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”

It’s easy enough to agree with Duncan on the need to be alarmed, but we’re not convinced that “investing in education,” if that’s just another way of saying “spending more money,” is the answer.

Problems of scale

The United States is a huge, diverse nation and that size and diversity make for more anomalies than we can list here. There is a wide disparity in spending on education in the United States, with some eastern states and the District of Columbia spending twice as much per pupil as some southern and western states. But the high-spending districts’ students don’t do twice as well as the low spenders. And sometimes they do worse.

Looking north, a 2009 Canadian study showed that the highest per capita student expenditures in North America could be found in New Jersey, at more than $19,000. That’s more than twice the average in the Canadian province of Ontario. But PISA’s numbers wouldn’t support the contention that New Jersey is investing more wisely than Ontario.

Also, the PISA results don’t show that the United States is getting worse in most cases, it’s that other nations are getting better. And to further complicate matters, when the U.S. results are parsed, they show that students in middle class or wealthy districts do better than the average for other countries, while students in poor U.S. districts do correspondingly worse.

Regardless, all Americans should be concerned at our students being below average when compared as a group to the students from so many other nations. To paraphrase Forrest Gump’s mother, average is as average does.

A nation cannot expect to remain a world leader in science, technology, commerce or prestige when its next generation is doing, at best, average work.

Between 1995 and 2008, the United States slipped from second in college graduation rates to 13th and only eight of the 34 countries in the PISA results have a lower high school graduation rate. A nation whose people stop valuing education is giving up the high ground.

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