International Tests Show US Teens in 25th Place in Math

The latest results from the OECD  show that while US teenagers are improving in reading, they continue to lag behind their peers internationally in science and especially in math. On the other hand, Asian countries continue to dominate the test (with a fairly stunning result from China in particular this year).

If you haven’t heard of them, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) is a partnership of 34 countries that, via it’s PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) testing, tests fifteen year olds globally and publishes exhaustive statistical analysis on the results. This year, they’ve again produced an impressive analysis of what factors influence success in schools around the world and there’s already been a strong response from the US administration with The New York Times quoting the Security of Education:

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

We agree that the tests underly a problem with the US public education system that is most acute in the teaching of mathematics. Math (like reading comprehension and the sciences) is a basic skill whose foundation needs to be established early and built on every year. There’s a long road ahead, but we hope that initiatives like the Common Core Standards will serve to unify the way math is taught across all public schools and establish clear goals for every grade.

It’s interesting to contrast the PISA results below with historic measures like the number of Nobel prizes by country of origin (i.e. where the laureate was born). As you can see below, decade after decade, the top prizes in fields relating to mathematics are still dominated by the US, Germany, UK, Russia and recently Japan.

Clearly for a gifted few, America’s education system (especially at the university level) has always been able to deliver a world class education. In fact, in many ways America’s education system is tailored to identify the small percentage of students gifted in the math and sciences and accelerate them along a separate track.

From it’s inception, RSM has fought against the idea that a solid foundation in mathematics is only required by a small percentage of students. As the world becomes flatter and competition for knowledge workers becomes global, we believe the question of competitiveness will rest on what a country’s education system can deliver to it’s middle class. As a Howard High (a spokesman for Intel) said:

“We go where the smart people are. Now our business operations are two-thirds in the U.S. and one-third overseas. But that ratio will flip over the next ten years.”

# of Nobel Prizes By Country of Origin

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By: Ilya   Ilya

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