In 1983 the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report titled A Nation at Risk sounding an alarm that U.S. education was falling behind compared to international systems and our children were at risk of losing out to competitors throughout the world. Thirty-five years and numerous education reform movements later, many still echo the same alarmist rhetoric that U.S. schools continue to lag behind international competitors and most are doing little to bring about meaningful change or produce measurable educational gains.
While schools can certainly improve and there are important shifts that need to be enacted to better meet the needs of students in the 21st Century, I think the doom and gloom has to be taken with a grain of salt and mitigated by a bit of perspective. Having spent the past 7 years in Asia, an area often held up as academically superior, I have observed more impact from a cultural emphasis on education than any specific instructional practice or model of schooling. Additionally, I think it is important to consider what data is being referenced to support the claim that other countries’ students are outperforming U.S. students, or more importantly, what data is not being referenced. It may be true that many countries outperform the U.S. on standardized tests, but these tests only measure a finite set of academic skills and content. It is no surprise that students working through school systems that place incredibly high value on passing standardized tests outperform students in school systems and cultures that value a more well-rounded approach to educating the whole child.
So how does the U.S. stack up in terms of actual progress and innovation compared to the rest of the world? According to Patent Cooperation Treaty data, in 2017 the United States still ranked number one in the world in total new international patents filed. While a number of other countries outrank the U.S. when figures are adjusted to indicate patents filed per capita, the fact remains that U.S schools are still producing a population of innovators who are creating more new things than any other country on the planet. Likewise, the U.S. leads most of the world in research & development spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (see graphic below). The USA also does well on scientists and engineers per capita and led the world in total research and development spending.
When factoring multiple measures such as per capita patents, and the political, business and regulatory environment of a country, Switzerland, the UK, and Sweden have retained their positions as the top three most innovative countries for the past three years; however when it comes to innovation quality, which measures university performance, the reach of scholarly articles and the international dimension of patent applications, the US holds the top place within high-income groups, followed by the UK, Japan, Germany, and Switzerland.
So, what’s my point? Education is a messy business. As much as we would like to organize it, systematize it, and find a way to easily measure the outcome, no national or international testing data gives the whole picture. After all, what is more important to an employer, your student’s test score or their ability to think critically and creatively to solve the real and complex problems they have hired your student to tackle? Beyond this, have our educational institutions helped students develop ethics and the perseverance to stick with difficult jobs? Are we graduating students who value others and are able to work well in teams? It is only when we combine these soft skills with meaningful, rigorous academics that we provide our students the competitive advantage to succeed in an increasingly global workforce.
The University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute explores the necessary requirements to achieve a prosperous future for all. They write:
As America loses its vast stable of routine high-paying manufacturing jobs, two worlds are emerging: the small faction of creative class workers whose work offers autonomy, creativity, and high wages and a much larger group of routine service-industry workers facing disruption, disengagement, and economic decline. To improve our existing system, we must turn routine, replaceable, and low-paid work into creative, engaging, secure, and well-paid “good jobs.” This shift benefits workers, the system and, notably, business. Sources once integral to success –access to financial resources, product and process technology, market regulation, and economies of scale – are no longer as influential as they once were. The employers who maximize the skills and creativity of their workers, while still achieving the scale and efficiency of the old model, will win.
If our schools are looking to improve, they shouldn’t place too much focus on test scores, but instead, need to develop instructional models that value deeper learning and the ability to creatively apply learning in meaningful contexts. It’s not a zero-sum game. We need students with strong academic skills, but we also need students who have the innovative spark to succeed in a global workforce that is continually and rapidly changing. It is this creative spark that has fueled the U.S economy for the past 200 years, and if valued and encouraged, will continue to give our children a competitive edge.