Tuesday, December 07, 2010

PISA Confirms: U.S. Education in Need of Moonshot

By Daniel Goldfarb at Americans for Energy Leadership


In conjunction with today's "Innovation for Education: A Digital Town Hall" hosted by ITIF, PBS, and the Aspen Institute, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released findings for 2009's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The results are hardly shocking to anyone who has followed the decline of American STEM education or competitiveness policy. Compared to the 65 countries in the study the United States ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science and a below-average 25th in math. The best educated students - those in Korea, Finland, Shanghai-China, and Hong Kon-China - by age 15 are a year ahead of their American counterparts in math and science.

The report's results come at a time of heightened attention to America's competitive posture. Recently Secretary of Energy Chu and President Obama have warned of a "Sputnik moment", a parallel which was again invoked by Secretary of Education Duncan. Just as Sputnik symbolized the U.S.S.R.'s lead in the space race, the Administration is looking to frame China's economic and education triumphs as calls to action. During the town hall, Secretary Duncan framed the results as such a challenge to America, "We have to see this as a wake-up call," that, "maintaining [the] status quo is effectively losing ground.”

America's STEM education woes could provide an ideal topic for bi-partisan efforts to improve America's competitiveness. In the past education has been a subject of cooperation between the two parties, as was the case with No Child Left Behind, and it seems that both sides are willing to recognize the urgency of PISA's findings. Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education and has visited schools all across China, said of PISA's result,"'Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik. I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.'"

It is important that we fully understand the magnitude of the challenge facing the U.S. so we can realize the gravity of the moment. Not only is America's education system as a whole lagging behind its competitors, the most successful U.S. states within the U.S. can't even compete. The New York Times notes:
"If Shanghai is a showcase of Chinese educational progress, America’s showcase would be Massachusetts, which has routinely scored higher than all other states on America’s main federal math test in recent years.

But in a 2007 study that correlated the results of that test with the results of an international math exam, Massachusetts students scored behind Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Shanghai did not participate in the test."
The imperative is becoming clear, America must reinvest in its STEM education and do it now. Just as we avoided being beat to the moon under Kennedy, today we must avoid being beat to a 21st century economy and work force. President Obama has repeatedly put it best, "The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizen."

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