Why It’s Never Mattered That America’s Schools ‘Lag’ Behind Other Countries

The United States has never ranked at the top of international education tests, since we began comparing countries in 1964, yet has been the dominant economic and innovative force in the world the entire time. Despite this fact, a popular annual education report has once again stoked fears of America’s impending economic mediocrity with fresh stats on how far the U.S. “lags” behind the world in college attainment, pre-school enrollment, and high school graduation.

The reason for the apparent disconnect is because schools don’t prepare students for the real world, so broad educational attainment will have a weak correlation with economic power. Research has consistently shown that on nearly every measure of education (instructional hours, class-size, enrollment, college preparation), what students learn in school does not translate into later life success. The United States has an abundance of the factors that likely do matter: access to the best immigrants, economic opportunity, and the best research facilities.

School Isn’t Educational

The Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development (OECD), a forum of the top 34 developed economies, released one of its annual education reports yesterday comparing each member’s performance on various school metrics. The scorecard for the U.S. is not pretty:

  • The U.S. ranks 14th in higher education attainment at 42% of 25-34 with a degree, 20 points behind the leader, South Korea.
  • The U.S. ranks 26th in early childhood education (69%)
  • The U.S. is the 6th worst in terms of high school graduation, with 23% failing to attain a diploma

“Based on these trends, the U.S. may find that an increasing number of countries will approach or surpass its attainment levels in the coming years,” reads the U.S. report card.

However, the report implies that education translates into gainful market skills, an assumption not found in the research. For instance, while Chinese students, on average, have twice the number of instructional hours as Americans, both countries have identical scores on tests of scientific reasoning.

“The results suggest that years of rigorous training of physics knowledge in middle and high schools have made significant impact on Chinese students’ ability in solving physics problems, while such training doesn’t seem to have direct effects on their general ability in scientific reasoning, which was measured to be at the same level as that of the students in USA,” wrote a team of researchers studying whether Chinese superiority in rote scientific knowledge translated into the kinds of creative thinking necessary for innovation.

In a massive review of research, the Department of Education’s research arm, the Institute for Education Sciences, could not find any evidence that college preparation actually prepared students for college [pdf]. The only effective tools were (sadly) non-classroom-based strategies, such as teaching students how to fill out financial aid forms.

Students’ time in college isn’t much better. Researchers Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded in Academically Adrift that most students float through college without learning much in the way of critical thinking.

“Indeed, the students in our study who reported studying alone five or fewer hours per week nevertheless had an average cumulative GPA of 3.16,” they write, “given such a widespread lack of academic rigor, about a third of students failed to demonstrate significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing ability (as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment) during their four years of college.”

These facts should not come as a shock. When I taught college, it was commonly known among the professors that incoming high schoolers were not prepared with the requisite critical-thinking skills for our classes. Now as a writer in the private sector, I don’t expect incoming employees to have been prepared in their college classes. Determination, raw intelligence, and creativity are the measures of a successful college student and employee — none of those factors are learned in school.

So What Matters?

It’s easier to know what doesn’t work than what does. We know schooling can’t broadly impact innovation much, because we can track learning step-by-step through the life of a student. Tracking the countless variables that go into creating an innovation superpower is more daunting. But, we can make a few educated guesses.

Most importantly, the innovators at the helm of an economy come from the top quarter of students. While the United States has a dismal track-record of inequality, we treat our brightest minds quite well. The “average test scores are mostly irrelevant as a measure of economic potential,” write Hal Salzman & Lindsay Lowell in the prestigious journal, Nature, “To produce leading-edge technology, one could argue that it is the numbers of high-performing students that is most important in the global economy.”

The United States, they find, has among the highest percentage of top-performing students in the world. Whether the abundance of smart students is a product of U.S. culture, an artifact of the genetic lottery, or some unknown factor hidden in our education system is anyone’s guess.

We do know where some of our best talent comes from: other countries. In some ways, the United States steals its way to economic superiority: it rangles the world’s brightest minds to immigrate. The U.S. holds roughly 17% of the world’s International students, compared to 2nd-place Britain (~12%) and far more than education powerhouses, Korea, Switzerland, and Sweden (all below 5%).

A quarter of CEOs in technology and science are foreign born and 76 percent hold key positions in engineering, technology, and management, according to Stanford researcher and TechCrunch contributor, Vivek Wadhwa.

“More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. were founded by immigrants or their children, and these firms alone employ over 10 million individuals. Some of our country’s most iconic brands – including IBM, Google, and Apple – were founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. And nearly half of the top 50 venture-backed companies in the U.S. had at least one immigrant founder,” wrote Aol founder Steve Case (Aol is the parent company of TechCrunch).

And, our brightest native and immigrant minds are greeted with extraordinary research and economic opportunity. After World War II, the United States emerged as an economic superpower. Massive investment poured into universities and scientific research, which became the genesis for the Internet, itself.

While it’s difficult to speculate why the U.S. persists as a titan of innovation, we need not be scared into trying to be like other countries. America has been at the top in spite of a lack-luster education system.