“Don’t look back,” baseball legend Leroy (Satchel) Paige once said. “Something might be gaining on you.” A new global report shows students abroad not just gaining on America’s high schoolers — but leaving them far behind.
Every three years the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, tests the knowledge of half a million 15-year-olds around the world in math, science and reading. America regularly excels in one measure: spending a stunning $115,000 per student. Just as routinely, we get little in return. Seldom has anyone spent so much to keep so many stuck in neutral, or reverse.
In the new PISA report, running in place charitably describes America’s place among the 65 countries and locales tested in 2012, representing 80 percent of the world’s economy. In mathematics, U.S. students fell to 31st from 25th in surveys conducted in 2009. In science, they dropped to 24th from 20th: American exceptionalism, meet American pedestrianism.
A quarter of U.S. students have never been proficient in math. According to The Wall Street Journal, just 7 percent made the top two scientific performance levels versus Shanghai’s 27. Reading brooked America’s 15-year-olds’ most alarming fall, from 11th in 2009 to 21st now. East Asian Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea were the leading countries. If this were an Olympics, they would monopolize the gold medal field.
In a globe dominated by American culture, why is the U.S. so dumbed-down at home? One cause is that those who don’t read can’t learn. A National Endowment for the Arts study shows the number of teenage non-readers almost tripling since 1984. A cell phone can’t replace Faulkner. An iPod can’t teach you to think. Picture a U.S. of mind-numbed adults who can text-message but not analyze: Other nations gain when we read less — and read less well.
Another cause of angst is other nations outAmericanizing America in their devotion to what sociologist Max Weber called the Protestant Work Ethic. We need more citizens like the Asian-Americans the Pew Research Center says are more likely (69 percent) than other Americans (58) to think “you get ahead with hard work.” More than nine in 10 feel their ethnic group “is hard-working.” Six in 10 say other Americans don’t “push their kids hard enough.” Achievement causes self-esteem — not the other way around.
Historically, most Americans believe that we are responsible for ourselves. As PISA shows, many students now believe that success is entitled, not earned. In class, some think they can coast on a shoeshine and a smile. Outside, fewer high schoolers work part-time to help their parents or financially prepare for college. Sadly, they miss learning time management, balancing many balls in the air, becoming what Lucille Ball described: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” It hurts them down the line.
Finally, American Pedestrianism stems from students taught trend, skin-deep, over learning, deep-down. Many educators — unions, administrators, school boards‚ teach what to think, not how (analytically, dispassionately). Misreading problems, they rarely miss an opportunity to miss real solutions. Their Grail is technology’s bells and whistles, yet tech can be as bad as the effect of using it — teenagers sexting, or bloggers hyping hate. A hood with 100 computers is still a hood.
Competition might right such values turned upside down. Instead, teacher unions trash reform from voucher programs to charter schools. In Washington, D.C., the Opportunity Scholarship Program gave $7,500 vouchers to 1,700 low-income families to send children to private school. Every subset of education, especially reading, rose. Sadly, Congress killed the project, hallucinating that PISA’s results are good enough.
“We spend all this money,” former three-term Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson has said, “and what do we get?” Failure to rival Obamacare, not success worthy of a “Shining City on a Hill.” At this rate, to quote Satchel Paige, we needn’t worry about looking back: Almost no one will be there. Most countries will be ahead, waving to an America which defeated itself, as no foreign invader could.
Curt Smith is the author of 15 books, former speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush, and Associated Press “Best in New York State” radio commentator. He is senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. Email: curtsmith@netacc.net