Are American schools really that bad?
Last month's global rankings from the Program for International Student Assessment, a project of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, were discouraging for U.S. educators. The study showed that students in Shanghai were far outperforming American students, and especially in math. U.S. children were ranked 30th in math, 17th in reading, and 23rd in science among 65 countries.
Playing off these insecurities, a recent and controversial Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" encourages parents to emulate what the author, Amy Chua, describes as a Chinese parenting style. Western parents should enforce strict rules and not accept anything less than the best academic performance from their children, she writes.
But skeptics wonder whether some key attributes of American public education may be getting lost in the debate.
Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post writes that many countries ranked above America are more racially and economically homogenous, a factor that complicates straight-up comparisons.
Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at Duke University and former tech entrepreneur, writes that the American education system encourages independence and innovative thinking, while the fiercely competitive Chinese and Indian systems often focus on rote memorization. Americans thus have "a huge advantage when they join the workforce."
Though both countries are graduating four to seven times more engineers than the United States is, Wadhwa says that his own research indicates that "the quality of those engineers ... is so poor that most are not fit to work as engineers." It takes two to three years before they "achieve the same productivity as fresh American graduates," he writes.
Still, Wadhwa -- who says Americans display an unmerited "inferiority complex" about public education -- hasn't taken into account what critics cite as the most persistent problems of the U.S. education system.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that when the education scores came out last month, he was troubled. "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. 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."