Last week, another revelation about America's school system made headlines and became the topic du jour for cable news pundits across the television wasteland. The results from the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment were released, and according to the scores, American teenagers under-perform in all subjects.
For those not familiar with the Programme for International Student Assessment, it's a comprehensive, standardized test created by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and it measures the performance of 15-year-old students around the world. Once that information has been gathered, OECD ranks nations according to how well their students scored on the tests. The first PISA was conducted in 2000, and it's given every three years in enough countries for the OECD to say it reaches "80 percent of the world's economy."
The results of the most recent PISA are fairly disturbing, at least for those Americans who are disturbed by these matters. The U.S. isn't No. 1. It's not among the top five or the top 10 nations. It's not even among the top 20. In fact, the U.S. ranks a sorry 36th out of 65 "countries," right behind Spain, Russia, and the Slovak Republic. At the top in the 2012 PISA are Shanghai, China; Singapore; Hong Kong, China; Taiwan; and South Korea. Two of those, Shanghai and Hong Kong, are actually cities in the People's Republic of China. Interestingly, China as a whole is not a part of the survey.
But as odd as it is that China only tested students in three cities — the above two and Macau — it's just as odd that America's test scores come from students in just three of our nation's 50 states, Connecticut, Florida, and Massachusetts.
Now one might wonder why only three states were surveyed? Could it be for the same reason that China only releases the results from three separate cities? Of course, this begs the question, why would any nation want to skew the rankings like this?
Well, obvious questions have obvious answers. For China, the U.S., and the other nations that are ranked in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's test, PISA is nothing more than a competition, and it's very important that there be winners and losers, a notion that creates a major stumbling block for humanity when it comes to helping us craft a path toward the future.
The notion that competition is the way of the world and that we must fight to get to the top — or stay on it — is rooted in misguided Malthusian ideas about the evolution of societies, peoples, and life itself. If you still believe that competition is a key element in evolution, you should probably pick up a more current scientific text on the subject. The truth is evolution is more about cooperation than competition. And with good reason.
Competition is expensive, both for individuals and for societies. Saying otherwise is the job of those lucky individuals who are already at the top, and they are more than happy to try to convince the rest of us that these erroneous theories about evolution are why they are on top — instead of perhaps admitting that they merely had the good fortune of being born into a "good family."
If competition was truly the driving force behind the evolution of life, then perhaps we would all live in a libertarian fantasyland where individuals themselves are sovereign states. Unfortunately, if that happened, humanity would cease to exist. There's a reason why some people are farmers, some are builders, and some are public servants. No single person can do all things, and so the survival of our species depends on cooperation.
Education should not be a competitive project, anymore than America should have to "compete" in the global economy. The simple fact of the matter is that far more of the world's population are not and never will be players in the great global shell game of capitalism. Sure, you might find a certain percentage of your high school friends working at a call center for imports and exports or some low level of international finance, but most of us are not part of that worldwide competition.
Instead of worrying about how American children rank in the world, perhaps we should begin by figuring out — again, it seems — what we want education to achieve and the best way to get there. Certainly, there are problems, but focusing on meaningless tests is not part of the solution.