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America’s Shanghai Surprise
By Bill Costello
Education Columnist
Chinese students in Shanghai

American students are lagging significantly behind their peers from several countries in Europe and Asia according to new results from a key international assessment. They are the furthest behind students from the Chinese city of Shanghai, who received the top international test scores in math, science, and reading.

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview. “The brutal fact here is there are many countries that are far ahead of us and improving more rapidly than we are.” He added, “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 most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measured the math, science, and reading literacy of 15-year-olds in 65 countries and economies. Roughly 470,000 students around the world took the test.

Scores from the PISA show American students performed below average in math and average in science and reading. Out of the 34 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), America ranked 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading.

In math, Shanghai students scored an average of 600 points—113 points higher than American students’ average score of 487. The international average score was 497.

In science, Shanghai students scored an average of 575 points. American students scored an average of 502 points, just barely above the international average score of 501.

In reading, Shanghai students scored an average of 556 points and American students scored an average of 500 points. The international average score was 494.

While several countries have made significant improvements in recent years, America has not. It is slipping further behind its competitors.

American test scores have remained flat despite the fact that American spending on public education, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled over the last three decades. Per-pupil spending went from $4,489 in 1970-1971 to $10,041 in 2006-2007—an increase of 124 percent.

Not only is America slipping in terms of test scores, but also in terms of graduation rates. Of the 34 OECD countries, 25 have a higher high school graduation rate.

Some argue that Shanghai is a showcase of educational progress and not representative of all of China because the city is a magnet for the best students in the country. However, an interesting picture emerges when comparing Shanghai to Massachusetts—America’s showcase of educational
progress. A 2007 study found that Massachusetts, which consistently scores higher in math than any other state, ranked below Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan—all of which scored below Shanghai on the PISA. America’s best and brightest students can’t compete with their peers in China or the other aforementioned Asian countries.

What is China doing right? According to a 259-page OECD report on the PISA results, schools in China “work their students long hours every day, and the work weeks extend into the weekends.” Because the culture of education in China is centered on competitive examinations in core subjects, Chinese students spend more time than American students studying and less time participating in extracurricular activities like sports.

Moreover, China has raised the status of teaching as a profession by making entry into teacher training very selective and by raising teacher pay. These strategies attract the strongest candidates to the teaching profession, which is important because teacher quality significantly impacts student outcomes. In China, teaching is increasingly becoming a prestigious profession and a preferred occupation.

That student performance on the PISA and other international assessments is relevant in today’s world was noted by Duncan: “We live in a globally competitive knowledge based economy, and our children today are at a competitive disadvantage with children from other countries. That is absolutely unfair to our children and that puts our country’s long term economic prosperity absolutely at risk.”

America’s current public education system is not preparing students to succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy. In America, this will ultimately lead to growing unemployment rates, a decline in Gross Domestic Product, unsustainable levels of national debt, and reduced
military capability.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said, “We can’t have a strong military if we have a weak economy.”

Three decades ago, China’s education system was far behind that of America’s thanks to the turbulent era of China’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1977 when Chinese leader Mao Zedong devalued education. It wasn’t until Deng Xiaoping came to power following Mao Zedong’s death that
education began to become a priority in China. Three decades later, Chinese students are receiving the top international test scores in math, science, and reading.

That China could significantly reform its education system within such a relatively short span of time suggests that America could do the same.

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Bill Costello, M.Ed., is a U.S.-based education columnist, blogger, and author of Awaken Your Birdbrain: Using Creativity to Get What You Want. He can be reached at






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