OECD on Education: Chinese Bury US Students

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 12/08/2010 12:01:00 AM
About the capitalist states, it doesn't depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don't like us, don't accept our invitations, and don't invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!

One of the signature statements of the Cold War was Nikita Khrushchev saying the above phrase to Western diplomats in 1956. While it was certainly enjoyable bluster alike his alleged shoe-banging incident at the UN General Assembly four years later, let's say that history was not on his side. However, let's now turn to an altogether different sort of command economy of the "market authoritarian" sort.

Call it Michael Fay syndrome. I needn't remind readers about the pitiful performance of the American educational system or "K-12" from kindergarten to the twelfth grade. High school leavers' continuously declining performance is certainly no reason to be optimistic about the decrepitude of American education. In international comparisons, American pupils underwhelm--to put it mildly. Now, the OECD has just released its 2009 edition of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparing the performance of 15-year-old students from 65 countries on a standardized test with reading, science, and math portions. While the 2006 edition flagged up the unsurprisingly poor performance of the United States, let's say things haven't gotten much better overall. Despite marginal improvements, the overall picture remains the same. In comparison to its peers, the US lags.

More embarrassingly, this is the first edition of the PISA to include evaluations of students from mainland China. (Note that this is being done for comparison purposes, not because China is an OECD member.) While students from Hong Kong have routinely kicked Yankee student butt for years, we now understand that the youth from the town of Shanghai do a pretty damn good job of doing the same (not that it's so hard given the bedraggled state of modern America). The table above from the Sydney Morning Herland should ram home this point: the sample of Shanghainese students are tops in reading, science, and math. In comparison, their Yankee peers are...near or below OECD average in all three areas. From the Christian Science Monitor:
The latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released Tuesday by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show Asian students – particularly those from China, who participated in the exam for the first time in 2009 – at the top of the pack, with the United States generally in the middle or, in math, toward the bottom.

“We are in the middle of the pack; that’s not where we want to be,” said Stuart Kerachsky, deputy commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, in a call with reporters. “That’s not the goal, but all I see in these numbers is things maybe inching in the right direction.”

The test is given to 15-year-old students in dozens of countries around the world every three years, and aims to assess their reading, math, and science literacy as they prepare to enter college or the workforce. It has long been used in the US to raise alarm bells about American students falling behind in a global world.

And indeed, the most striking result from the 2009 PISA may be the top performance of Chinese students, who participated in the exam for the first time with a pilot program that tested students in several cities. Mr. Kerachsky and others cautioned not to read too much into the comparisons, since they are from cities – those which draw many of China’s top students – and are hardly representative of all of China. But the results from Shanghai, in particular, which came out No. 1 in all three subject areas, were remarkably high.

In math, for instance, Shanghai students scored an average of 600 (on a scale with a 500-point average). Students in Korea, the top OECD country, scored a 546, and in the United States, they scored 487. That score puts them in 25th place among the 34 OECD countries, though the score is statistically lower than just 17 of those countries, and indistinguishable from 11 others.

American students scored below the OECD average of 496. The countries outperforming the US include Finland – perennially a top-shower on PISA, along with Korea – Belgium, Estonia, Iceland, France, and the Slovak Republic, among others. US students scored higher than those in just five OECD countries: Greece, Israel, Turkey, Chile, and Mexico.
Yes, you can complain that Shanghai isn't representative of the educational performance of China as a whole. Then again, why not get American students from the largest US cities of New York or Los Angeles to participate and I'd still wager that the kids from Shanghai will utterly demolish the US kids. The thankful difference between Cold War-era Soviet Union and China is simple: unlike Khrushchev and others full of his sort of bluster, the Chinese don't really brag about their achievements, preferring to be low-key about them. But on a day like this, the world wakes up and realizes that Chinese students seem to be leaving their American brethren far behind in terms of academic performance. With so many near-insolvent US states left with few choices but to cut education budgets, I am not optimistic about future US performance in international education comparisons like PISA.

I do look forward to these OECD reports that tell us what we already suspect but now have hard evidence to back up. Yes, Americans are getting fat as all get-out. And now, yes, American kids aren't exactly the brightest. So actually Nikita, as American students demonstrate, there's no need to bury America. It's doing a pretty damn good job burying itself.