Forgetting What Education Is About


While there should be no doubt that, on the whole, there are economic benefits to education, the international competitiveness one strikes me as foolish. Not only are there serious methodological issues, we often use education as a proxy for competitiveness when there are perfectly good measures of competitiveness (boldface mine):

But Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, said hand-wringing over international tests is misguided.

“What’s really peculiar about the whole test-score hysteria is that they use it as a proxy for the U.S. ‘competitiveness and innovation’ as though we don’t have actual measurements,” said Salzman, an expert in science and engineering labor markets and the globalization of innovation. “The country continues to lead on innovation, economic performance and all the results that these things are supposed to indicate.”

There are more than enough strong math and science students in U.S. classrooms to fill future jobs in this country, he said.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t want to improve education,” Salzman said. “But the fear that’s driving it is unfounded. The problem we have is not at the top or at the middle. It’s at the bottom. That’s what gets lost in averages and rankings.”

While we’re suffering from Fearmongering by Proxy, it’s interesting that no one (including the quoted story) is looking at the recently released science scores. The U.S. does really well, and the high scoring states (e.g., Massachusetts) not only have high averages, but a high proportion of advanced-level students. If we’re worried about science education (TEH SCIENTISMZ!!!), we could look at that directly. It’s even more encouraging when one considers that science is not a federally used criterion (only math and reading are). In other words, in a non-‘essential’ subject–one that doesn’t determine funding–the U.S. does very well.

The kids are alright–even if we still want them to do better. Let’s not panic and reduce education to performance. Safeguarding the order and liberty of the commonwealth matters.

An aside: In the early 1960s, the U.S. scored much worse–usually at or near the bottom–on international tests. These were the kids that would grow up to land men on the moon and develop the internet.

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