We in these United States love to bask in the glory of our “exceptionalism.” We are great, we are wonderful, we dominate the world. Scholars who study “us” say that our exceptionalism is rooted in the fact that we have offered leadership in international affairs. We have committed more resources than other countries to the United Nations, to NATO, and to other organizations committed to international peace. But we do this with a sense of paternal largesse, as if we are the greatest, the most wonderful, the benefactor.
But we have allowed our electoral system to be thrown into chaos because Vladimir Putin has a grudge against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and he used his minions to actualize his grudge. He has had a man-crush with Donald Trump, who asked that Russia hack Hillary’s emails, and obeying Trump’s bidding, the Russians did. This whole electoral drama is a nightmare. Hillary Clinton got nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, but he has (maybe) an Electoral College victory. Is this American exceptionalism? A hacked democracy vulnerable to the intrusion of foreign powers?
If the Russians are hacking now, imagine what they will do in the future. A recent study by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) shows that 15-year-olds in the United States lag behind others in an international context. We talk as if we are number one or number two in achievement, but the fact is that we are number 14 or 15 by many measures. We aren’t exceptional — we’re just average, ranking below a dozen countries, hitting the median mark.
When science literacy is measured, 24 countries rank higher than the United States. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) average score on science literacy is 493, and the US was close to the average, at 496. Singapore, Japan, Finland, Canada, Vietnam, Australia, the U.K., German, Switzerland, Ireland and Portugal were among those with higher scores. Really? These folks will be among those hacking us in a decade if we don’t make better investments in education!
We’re kind of average with reading literacy, as well. The OECD average is 493, and the U.S. average is 497. Singapore, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands outscore us. We’re in the band with France, the U.K., and Spain. What are Singapore, Canada and Ireland doing that we aren’t? In a global economy, how do we compete with them?
Our math comparisons with other countries are especially alarming. The OECD average for math literacy is 490, but the US score is 470. At least 30 countries, including Singapore, Japan, Switzerland, Estonia, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Iceland, Norway, Austria, Italy, Scotland and the Russian Federation have higher scores than the U.S. Why?
The federal Department of Education should deal with the matter of standards. Common Core, while not popular among some educational leaders, is a way of ensuring that those who graduate from our nation’s high schools have a common foundation of knowledge. Implementing Common Core may be challenging, especially when some high schools, especially inner city high schools, lack the resources to offer the broadest curriculum. While many schools off advanced course, including advanced placement (AP) and international baccalaureate (IB), some do not. Every student needs to have an opportunity to access advanced learning.
More importantly, those who do educational policy must look at the ways our students are lagging in the international environment. Are we content to be 14th, 22nd, 34th in international measures, while, at the same time, talking exceptionalism? We aren’t especially exceptional when it comes to learning, we are merely average, and often below average when we review international measures.
There are those who will quibble with the ways that the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures learning outcomes. I think, though, that when students from 73 educational systems tackle the same tests, objections can be pushed aside. Even with a flawed measure, even with adjustments, we must conclude that the United States is not exceptional, just average.
If we want to be exceptional, we need to do more than sell wolf tickets and crow over our competitors. Here’s the bottom line: the Russians were smart enough to hack us and mess with our elections. Are we as smart as they are, or are we average?
Mr. Trump says he will create jobs. He needs to make resources available to the Department of Education. If he wants to “make American great again,” he needs to make American smart again by investing in education.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. Her latest book, “Are We Better Off?: Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available via www.amazon.com.