Chinese Test Score Hysteria

China’s ascendancy is inevitable because they’re willing to work for much less than American workers and American consumers are deeply dependent upon inexpensive “made in China” consumer goods. Thus the unprecedented trade imbalance, and as the recent G-20 meetings made evident, our relative loss of leverage.

My self-image isn’t tied to an accident of birth, living in a country long thought to be the world’s economic superpower. The next few years and decades are going to be tough for Americans whose self-image is somehow tied to being the world’s economic superpower. Asia, and China in particular, will continue to gain leverage and we’ll lose it.

Despite many reasons for this gradual reorientation of global economic and political power, the next few years and decades are going to be doubly tough for teachers because they’ll be blamed for it. U.S. citizens are deeply anxious about their waning hegemony and precarious standards of living. That collective anxiety will be projected onto public school teachers.

For educators, a New York Times article titled “Top Test Scores From Shangahi Stun Educators” by Sam Dillon last week doesn’t help matters. Some excerpts:

With China’s debut in international standardized testing, students in Shanghai have surprised experts by outscoring their counterparts in dozens of other countries, in reading as well as in math and science, according to the results of a respected exam.

The results also appeared to reflect the culture of education there, including greater emphasis on teacher training and more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports.

“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.”

In a speech to a college audience in North Carolina, President Obama recalled how the Soviet Union’s 1957 launching of Sputnik provoked the United States to increase investment in math and science education, helping America win the space race.

“Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back,” Mr. Obama said. With billions of people in India and China “suddenly plugged into the world economy,” he said, nations with the most educated workers will prevail. “As it stands right now,” he said, “America is in danger of falling behind.”

Tom Friedman recently wrote a scathing expose detailing why he thinks the U.S. is falling behind China. Friedman is a fairly predictable critic of U.S. education, but this time, to his credit, he said the primary problem is a broken political system and a parochial, lazy citizenry.

Duncan, Obama, and Friedman not only see improving education as an international competition and zero-sum game, but their rhetoric suggests you and I have to see it that way too. But the genius of our political system is we get to decide for ourselves.

I’m increasingly convinced that Duncan is the one in need of a wake-up. Few educators find jockeying for global economic supremacy inspiring. Like me, they tend to be humanitarians who don’t begrudge the Chinese the marked educational and economic progress they’re making. The Shanghai test scores are only a Sputnik moment if we decide to compete in a zero-sum game with the Chinese (and Singaporeans, Koreans, Finns, etc.).

Educators have to let the Secretary of Education, the President, and the opinion leader know that there are alternative starting points. For example, what can educators in different countries learn from one another and how might we capitalize on what each national educational system does best to solve challenging global economic, environmental, social, and political issues?

Educators aren’t parochial or lazy. They’re quite willing to think globally, just not exactly the way those in the bully pulpit might prefer.