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Other Nations Outclass U.S. on Education

January 30, 2011

In every town in America, the back-to-school rush is on, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod.

In Croton, N.Y., the Arturo brothers are already cracking the books.

“I feel we get our money’s worth in Croton,” said the boys’ mother. “Especially for three kids.”

The public schools have done right by the Arturos, but that’s not the case across the board, says education consultant Mark Schneider.

“Our top students are just not world class anymore,” Schneider told CBS News.

And he’s right. Of 30 comparable countries, the United States ranks near the bottom. Take math – Finland is first, followed by South Korea, and the United States is number 25. Same story in science: Finland, number one again. The United States? Number 21.

Problem Solving

Where does the United States outrank Finland? On the amount spent per student: just over $129,000 from K through 12. The other countries average $95,000.

“We have world class expenditures, but not world class results,” said Schneider.

When it comes to high school graduation rates, the United States is 20th on the list. Germany, Japan, Korea and the U.K. all do better with graduation rates of 90 percent or more. In the Unites States, it’s just 75 percent.

It’s not so much that the United States has slowed down in the last half a century, it’s more that other countries sped up.

“We need more octane now,” said Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust. “The rest of the world is running faster than we are because they looked at what we did and they took what was good about us and added to it.”

Education experts like Wilkins say top performing countries recruit teachers from the top of their college classes. South Korea – No. 2 in math – gets teachers from the top five percent of graduating college seniors. Finland – No. 1 in math and science – the top 10 percent.

“The consensus is not surprising, the most important ingredient in what works is the quality of a student’s teacher,” said Schneider.

The U.S. has one of the shorter school years: 180 days versus 220 for South Korea. Research shows teachers spend up to six weeks re-teaching what kids forgot over the summer. So a shorter break may be better.

“We still have an education system that is very much geared for the industrial age, if not the agrarian age,” said Wilkins. “We’ve gotten stuck in the old norms. The world has changed and our schools have not kept up.

Now, the numbers suggest, might be time for a new lesson plan.

It’s not a reassuring picture.

The 2006 Roper Public Affairs-National Geographic Literacy Study revealed that Americans between the ages of 18-24 have a poor grasp of “geographic skills and knowledge,” meaning they know less about the world than most young adults their age living in other countries.

Granted, the study is nearly four plus years old, and conceivably results would be different if the test were given today. No updated, similar report seems available.

Still, even this snapshot provides little comfort to an America seeking a compelling role on the world economic and political stage…especially when 54% tested did not know that Rwanda and Sudan were in Africa.

Ten percent said Sudan was in Europe.

The poll involved several hundred “young adults” and a half-hour, in-home interview covering a range of cultural and geographic topics.

Some highlights:

• Half or fewer than half of the men and women could not find Ohio or New York on a map of the United States (50 and 43% respectively)

• In spite of an Iraq war that began in 2003 and nearly constant news coverage, six in ten (63%) of those tested could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East

• Three-quarters (74%) believe English is the most commonly spoken language in the world. It’s Mandarin

What concerned the researchers, was the indifference of those tested.

About 50% said it was “important but not necessary” to know where the countries mentioned in the news were located, and only 14% said speaking another language “was important.”

While the Americans received high marks for access to Internet tools for research, the report more or less concludes that America young adults are “unprepared for an increasingly global future.”

And, that far too many “lack even the most basic skills for navigating the international economy or understanding the relationships among people and places that provide critical context for world events”

Other highlights:

• Nine in ten (88%) could not find Afghanistan on a map of Asia, and regardless of the intense coverage following hurricane Katrina, two-thirds (67%) could not find Louisiana on a US map and half (52%) could not find Mississippi

It may be that more travel and intense use of the Internet have made this group of Americans more geographically literate today.

But in 2006, only two in ten had a passport (22%), and only seven in ten (70%) had traveled abroad.

Bring back “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”

  1. March 11, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    hurricane preparedness
    Wow – Did you read this post about earthquake california yesterday

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