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See Me After Class: On Int’l Tests, US Students Gunning for Idiocracy

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By HVnews on December 7, 2010

Here’s the ultimate American challenge: How can we convince a nation of young, impressionable minds that education truly matters when a man can become president and ask “Is our children learning?”

How can we expect a nation of young, impressionable minds to perform up to our lofty educational standards when attending four colleges in six years and sending out ring-and-run Facebook notes qualifies you to become a vice presidential candidate and one of the leading faces on the news?

How can we ask a nation of young, impressionable minds to work hard when reality television says otherwise, when the phrase Git R Dun says otherwise, when we treat our high-school athletes like pros, when cable news panders to the lowest common denominator, when everyone thinks their YouTube vlog will lead to overnight stardom? How do we put the genie back in the bottle on dumbing ourselves down?

The sad truth is, we can’t.

The results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment are out, and the United States didn’t exactly fare well compared to the rest of the 34 countries in the Paris-based’s tests. Fifteen-year-old students in the United States ranked 25th of 34 countries in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading. That does not bode well if we’re to compete in the global economy for years to come.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan responded to the report on a conference call by calling this a massive wake-up call to the country: “The brutal fact here is there are many countries that are far ahead of us and improving more rapidly than we are.”

Here’s a breakdown of the results, per Bloomberg:

U.S. 15-year-olds had an average score of 487 in math, below the OECD average of 496 on a zero to 1,000-point scale. South Korean students scored 546 and those from Finland scored 541. On an absolute basis, students from 24 of 34 OECD countries had higher scores than U.S. students, though the Education Department said 17 were better on a statistically significant basis.

U.S. math scores rose from 474 in 2006, when they ranked 25th of 30 OECD countries.

The average U.S. reading score of 500 ranked 14th among OECD countries, which were led by South Korea, Finland and Canada. Only six had scores that were better statistically, the Education Department said. Because of an error in printing test booklets, no U.S. reading results were reported in 2006.

The average U.S. science score of 502 ranks 17th in the OECD, which were led by Finland, Japan and South Korea. Twelve scores were statistically better, the Education Department said. The U.S., which scored 489 in 2006, ranked 21st among 30 OECD countries that year.

Is this the result of a devaluation of education in this country, the result of a systemic wide failure of our education system or the result of schoolkids who simply don’t test well? Likely, all three.

So what can be done to right the ship? Does the answer lie in more charter schools? Do we de-unionize teachers? Do we teach more to the test? Do we teach less to the test? And will our political system allow for real action to be taken in the face of political pressures and ideology?

As Americans we say that we care about education, but given the choice between studying the inherent causes to our educational problems and paying lip service to the issue, we often choose the latter. Given the choice between a new science lab and a football stadium with lights for night games, we often choose the latter. Given the choice between changing how we teach and simply demonizing those that do teach, we often choose the latter.

We need to change the way we look at education in this country. And until we do, we can expect our place in the world to become even more tenuous, until ultimately instead of competing in the new global economy we’re left with what looks like the early stages if Idiocracy.

So what’s to be done? What’s the first thing you would do as president?

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