Jay Matthews of the Washington Post recently posted an interesting column titled “The myth of declining U.S. schools: They’ve long been mediocre” based on a Brookings Institution study by Tom Loveless that looked at U.S. performance on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS. While far from reassuring, the study does challenge much of the rhetoric around a lost golden age of K-12 education. I’m a data guy and in taking a look at the Brookings report, there is some interesting evidence providing support for the claim that places the U.S. squarely in the middle of the pack with flat or even modest improvements over time. Interestingly, most coverage of the recent PISA results released in December largely focused on the performance of Shanghai (as a proxy for China as a whole) which placed first among all countries that participated. Popular reactions were ones of shock with even eminent education experts such as Chester Finn being quoted as saying, “Wow, I’m kind of stunned. I’m thinking Sputnik.” So am I, but I’m thinking more of Werner Von Braun than Nikita Khrushchev.
OK, maybe you’re thinking this is turning into more of a history lesson than a conversation on the current state of education in the U.S. and, in full disclosure, I was a history major in college. But hang in there with me. Matthews goes on reflect on these trends and raises the following question, “If we have managed to be the world's most powerful country, politically, economically and militarily, for the last 47 years despite our less than impressive math and science scores, maybe that flaw is not as important as film documentaries and political party platforms claim.” It’s an interesting question that took me to a different conclusion than Matthews. Few would argue that being the world’s most powerful country has enabled the U.S. to run up an outsized financial debt, but the same can likely be said of human capital, where the U.S. has been able to import talent from around the world to compensate for the mediocre performance of our K-12 education system.
That brings me back to Sputnik and Von Braun. Would the U.S. have rebounded from its Sputnik moment and beat the Soviet Union to the moon without Von Braun and his colleagues? Foreign nationals have played an important role in the success of the U.S. economy: coming to take advantage of the world-class higher education system and staying afterwards to provide an important source of brainpower, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In my mind, this seems like a more likely explanation for the disconnect between U.S. stature and educational performance. Like the economic parallel, we have “borrowed” human capital at will from around the world and have taken that for granted. But like our financial situation, the world’s appetite for lending the U.S. their human capital may be waning. A 2009 study entitled, “Losing the World’s Best and Brightest” provided some survey data supporting the anecdotal perception that foreign nationals studying in the U.S., particularly from emerging markets such as China and India, may increasingly be more likely to return home after graduation than in the past. In many ways this is a good thing, as it points to the fact that these students are much more optimistic about prospects in their home countries.
But what does that mean for the U.S.? It means that a world-class K-12 education system is more critical than ever for the prosperity and well-being of the U.S. The efforts of the Obama administration to transform K-12 education in the U.S. should be viewed as a solid first step, not to restore a lost golden age of K-12 education but to address the fact that the U.S. may need to rely more and more on “homegrown” talent in the future. That could be a win-win for the global economy, with U.S.-educated foreign nationals contributing to the growth and prosperity of their home economies while offering Americans the opportunity to create a world-class educational system that produces graduates that are ready to contribute to the creative and technical expertise necessary to “stem” the tide of this STEM gap.