A Sputnik moment for U.S. education

Fifty-three years after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China has delivered another shock. On math, reading, and science tests given to 15-year-olds in sixty-five countries last year, Shanghai’s teenagers topped every other jurisdiction in all three subjects—by a sweeping margin. What’s more, Hong Kong ranked in the top four on all three assessments.

Though Hong Kong took part in earlier rounds of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the 2009 test marked the first time that youngsters anywhere in China proper participated. To be sure, it was only Shanghai—the country’s flagship city on which Beijing has lavished much investment and attention, many favorable policies, and (for China) a relatively high degree of freedom. But Americans would be making a big mistake to suppose that this Shanghai result is some sort of aberration.

If China can produce top PISA scorers in one city in 2009—keep in mind that Shanghai’s population of 20 million is larger than many countries—it can do this in ten cities in 2019 and fifty in 2029. Or maybe faster.

I have misgivings about PISA—about how it defines knowledge, what it tests, and how it tries to divorce itself from school curriculum. But its international rankings are widely trusted as a reliable barometer of how young people in different countries compare on core academic subjects.

How did Shanghai accomplish this? The OECD folks offer some explanations, terming Shanghai a “leader in reform.” They specifically cite the city’s near universal education system, its competitiveness (measured by students’ admission to universities and to the best secondary schools), a very high level of student engagement, a modernized assessment system, an ambitious curriculum, and a program of intervening in weak schools.

Right now most cities and towns in China don’t have these resources. But tomorrow is apt to be a very different story.

Also near the top on PISA were five countries that should come as no surprise: Singapore, Taipei (called Chinese Taiwan in PISA nomenclature), Finland, Korea, and Japan. In reading, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands also did well. The United States was, once again, in the middle of the pack in reading and science and a bit below the international average in math. So we’re not getting worse. Mostly we’re flat and our very modest gains were trumped by many other countries.

Plenty of experts have been pointing out this trend for a long time now. But until this week we could at least pretend that China wasn’t one of those countries that was a threat. We could treat Hong Kong as a special case—the British legacy, combined with prosperity. We could allow ourselves to believe that China was only interested in acquiring African minerals, buying up our currency, making fake Prada bags, underselling everybody else, and coating our kids’ toys with toxic paint, while neglecting its education system.

Yes, we knew they were exporting Chinese teachers to teach Mandarin (and who knows what else) in our schools while importing native English speakers to instruct their children in our language. But we could comfort ourselves that their curriculum emphasized discipline and rote learning, not analysis or creativity.

Today that comfort has been stripped away. We must face the fact that China is bent on surpassing us, and everyone else, in education, and acknowledge what the consequences of this may be.

Will this news be the wake-up call that America needs to get serious about educational achievement? Will it get us beyond excuse-making, bickering over who should do what, and prioritizing adults over children?

I sure hope so. You should, too.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) in the Wall Street Journal.

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