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Is America’s Status in the World a Concern?

Back to Skills

Politicians and pundits love to bemoan the quality of U.S. education compared to other countries, such as Japan (1990s), Singapore (2000s), China and Finland (now).

Just this past week, yet another new report was released by prominent researchers Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson, looking at the growth rate in U.S. student achievement over at least a decade compared to other countries. The conclusion: We’re in the middle of the pack.

The researchers used complex calculations to compare growth on NAEP to growth on international tests like PISA and TIMSS. It also looked at the progress of various states.

Interestingly enough, the Los Angeles Times editorial board and University of Oregon professor Yong Zhao also both recently published essays questioning the validity of international comparisons based on test scores. They call for American schools to return to a focus on creativity and entrepreneurship.

(As an aside, I would like to note that PISA is designed to try to measure higher-order thinking skills.)

In fact, Zhao notes a negative relationship between a nation’s scores on PISA and its rating on the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, an assessment of “entrepreneurial activities, aspirations, and attitudes of individuals in more than 50 countries.”

Zhao suggests that great test-taking abilities might dampen the entrepreneurial spark. “Standardized testing rewards the ability to find the ‘correct answer’ and thus discourages creativity, which is about asking questions and challenging the status quo,” he wrote.

The LA Times editorial took a different tack. It noted that both China and Singapore are trying to ignite creativity in their students, so they’re trying to reproduce what American schools have the reputation of doing well.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, the editorial notes. “No one in the American school reform movement ever told teachers they had to abandon their own creative instructional skills or drop critical-thinking lessons from the school day, but the relentless emphasis on covering tested material obviously pushed them in that direction,” the editorial said.

Should U.S. schools return to taking risks, as the Times’ editorial says? Has creativity declined, as Zhao contends? Or should we be worried about our middle-of-the-road standing in growing our student test scores, as Peterson and Hanushek found?