Sputnik for the 21st Century

On Pearl Harbor Day 2010, the United States (and much of the rest of the world) was attacked by China.

Too melodramatic? Maybe you’d prefer “Sixty-three years after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China delivered the aftershock.”

It came via yet another wonky study, The PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do, reporting that on a test of math, reading and science given to fifteen year olds in sixty-five countries in 2009, Shanghai’s 15-year-olds topped those in every other jurisdiction in ALL THREE SUBJECTS. What’s more, Hong Kong ranked in the top four on all three assessments.

Though Hong Kong took part in earlier rounds of the OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), the 2009 testing cycle marked the first time that youngsters in China proper participated. To be sure, it was only Shanghai, the country’s flagship city in so many ways, a single megalopolis on which Beijing has lavished much investment and attention, many favorable policies and even (for China) a relatively high degree of freedom. But Americans—and the rest of the world—would make a big mistake to suppose for one second that this Shanghai result is some sort of aberration or unique case.

I have the gravest misgivings about China and the threat that it poses to U.S. interests in the years ahead, but I have the utmost respect for that nation’s capacity to accomplish its own ends and attain its goals, however ruthless it must be. If they can produce top PISA scorers in one city in 2009—keep in mind that Shanghai’s population of 20 million is roughly that of Florida, New York State or one-third of France—they can do this in ten cities in 2019 and fifty in 2029. Or maybe faster.

I admit to misgivings about PISA, too, about how it defines knowledge, what it tests, and how it tries to divorce itself from school curriculum. But its international rankings are widely trusted as a reliable barometer of how young people in different countries compare in core academic subjects. And what the 2009 results show is that China, what it sets out to do well on PISA, is fully capable of doing so.

How did Shanghai accomplish this? The OECD folks offer some explanations, terming Shanghai a “leader in reform” and citing in particular its near-universal education system, its competitiveness (including admission both to universities and to the best secondary schools), a very high level of student engagement, a modernized assessment system, an ambitious new curriculum, and a program of intervention into weak schools.

Most of China isn’t doing those things today. Tomorrow, however, is apt to be a very different story.
Also near the top on PISA in 2009 were a half dozen countries that we’re used to seeing there: Singapore, Taipei, Finland, Korea, Japan, etc. In reading, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands also did well. The United States was, once again, in the middle of the pack in reading and science and a bit below the international average in math. We didn’t do badly. We’re not getting worse. But we’re not getting better, either, and other countries are.
Plenty of people have been pointing this out for a long time now. Our trend lines are essentially flat while others are rising. But until this week we could at least pretend that China wasn’t one of those countries that was a threat in education. We could treat Hong Kong as a special case—the British legacy, you know, combined with prosperity. We could believe that China was only interested in building dams, buying up our currency, making fake Prada bags, underselling everybody else, and coating our kids’ toys with toxic paint, while neglecting its education system. Yes, we knew they were exporting Chinese teachers to teach Mandarin (and who knows what else) in our schools while importing native English speakers to instruct their children in our language. But we could comfort ourselves that their curriculum emphasized discipline and rote learning, not analysis or creativity.

Today that comfort has been stripped away. We must face the fact that China is bent on surpassing us—and everyone else—in K-12 education, too, and that they are accomplishing precisely that goal, today in Shanghai but tomorrow in many more parts of that vast land.

Will this be the wake-up call that America needs to get serious about educational achievement? Will it be the Sputnik of our time? Will it stir us out of our torpor and get us beyond our excuse-making, our bickering over who should do what, our prioritizing of adult interests and our hang-ups about the very kinds of changes that China is now making while we dither?

I surely hope so. You should, too. This is serious.

— Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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