Fifteen-year-old students in Shanghai outperform their peers around the world in math, science, and reading on standardized tests.
Question is, does that make these students better prepared for the global economy of the 21st century? And could it be that U.S. studentswho rank 20th in science and 30th in mathare in better shape than most pundits think?
Apparently Chinese educators are a bit worried that their first-place ranking isn’t as impressive as it first appears.
“What the Chinese are very good at doing is achieving short-term goals,” Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of the elite Peking University High School, told USA Today recently. “They’re good at copying things, not creating them.”
That could be a telling observation. Administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2009, the test results, released last month, reveal that students in several other Asian nationsHong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Japanalso outperformed U.S. students.
Such academic success suggests that Asia is preparing a well-educated workforce for tomorrowand poised to challenge the dominance of the U.S. economy.
That prediction still might prove trueif you’re talking about low-paying manufacturing jobs. But if you think about what it will take to create the high-paying, high-tech jobs of the future, Asia’s economic dominance is by no means assured.
China’s test scores are “the mark of a society that values discipline in education,” USA Today notes. “But critics believe this strength may mask the Chinese education system’s shortfall in producing innovative and creative students.”
That should give us some hope. According to a survey by American Management Association, the workforce of tomorrow will need to be proficient in such skills as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation.
In years past, the U.S. has been much more successful than Asia in teaching these skills to students. And we are conscious of the need to do even better. One of the biggest advocates for this effort is the Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills.
Not that it’s going to be easy to stay ahead of the game. Poverty will continue to drag down the academic success of many students, and today’s emphasis on raising standardized test scoresand meeting those pesky Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goalsis pushing schools to devote more energy to rote learning.
But at least we’re trying to hold onto our biggest advantage over the Chineseand the rest of Asia.
So will we succeed? Can we find a way to improve students’ basic understanding of math and sciencewithout taking time away from the need to push students into thinking more?
It appears that we need some innovative, problem-solving school leaders. Let’s hope the American education system of the 1980s and 1990s did their job.
Del Stover, Senior Editor