In Vivek Wadhwa’s January 12, 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek article entitled “U.S. Schools Are Still Ahead—Way Ahead”, he claimed that America’s alarm about international rankings of students overlooks some critical components of our education system, further stating that “let’s get over our inferiority complex. America is second to none. Rather than in mastery of facts learned by rote and great numbers of accomplished martinets, its strength lies in the diversity and innovation that arise in an open, creative society.” While I trust Dr. Wadhwa’s data and observations, his conclusion does a disservice to America, giving our school system high marks, ie. way ahead.
Yes, it is true that our innovative culture allows the brightest to excel, and that innovation is a critical success factor for our country. Yet, in the end, the innovations of our brightest are fungible and transferable to the highest paying nation. Rather it is the education of the students who will make up the working middle class that is most important if we are to compete globally.
International capital is invested in countries that are best able to support operations with a well educated people, and with investment comes jobs. China knows this all too well. During the 1970’s, when they formulated their national strategy for global competition, they mandated education for all students, including college prep courses emphasizing globally competitive science and math, and technology courses for those not participating in college. Education at the college level was provided by highly competitive scholarships. China’s focus on education from that point until today has resulted in having a well educated workforce, so well educated that when for the first time mainland China participated in the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) this year, they placed first among participating nations.
To compensate for our working class demanding among the highest wages globally, and to prepare our country to compete for future investment, America must strive for the best educated working class across the spectrum from the brightest to less bright. Sadly, in this metric, we have allowed our educational system to collapse. We fail to keep a third of our children from even graduating high school, and among those that do, proficiency is lower than in many other industrialized countries. In that same Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) in which China placed first, America placed 23rd. We are losing the race.