Why the vaunted math and science gap doesn’t matter

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images A new study published Thursday by the American Institutes for Research shows that U.S. students still lag behind their peers in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan in the critical areas of math and science education. Numerous other reports over the last several years have purported to show the same mediocre quality ...

598116_071116_math_05.jpg
598116_071116_math_05.jpg

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

A new study published Thursday by the American Institutes for Research shows that U.S. students still lag behind their peers in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan in the critical areas of math and science education. Numerous other reports over the last several years have purported to show the same mediocre quality of the U.S. education system. In 2005, Microsoft founder Bill Gates described the U.S. high schools as "obsolete." President Bush mentioned the need for greater emphasis on math and science achievement in his 2006 State of the Union address. And just last month, an influential group of tech-industry CEOs from such companies as Cisco and Sun Microsystems added their voices to the choir of business leaders demanding changes to the U.S. education system.

But what do these reports, studies, and rankings really tell us? Not a whole lot, according to Vivek Wadhwa, whose recent article in BusinessWeek debunks many of the common misconceptions about U.S. math and science education. Even Singapore's minister of education has downplayed the importance of such rankings, despite Singapore's first-place status:

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

A new study published Thursday by the American Institutes for Research shows that U.S. students still lag behind their peers in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan in the critical areas of math and science education. Numerous other reports over the last several years have purported to show the same mediocre quality of the U.S. education system. In 2005, Microsoft founder Bill Gates described the U.S. high schools as “obsolete.” President Bush mentioned the need for greater emphasis on math and science achievement in his 2006 State of the Union address. And just last month, an influential group of tech-industry CEOs from such companies as Cisco and Sun Microsystems added their voices to the choir of business leaders demanding changes to the U.S. education system.

But what do these reports, studies, and rankings really tell us? Not a whole lot, according to Vivek Wadhwa, whose recent article in BusinessWeek debunks many of the common misconceptions about U.S. math and science education. Even Singapore’s minister of education has downplayed the importance of such rankings, despite Singapore’s first-place status:

[The U.S.] is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well–like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.”

The World Economic Forum’s recent 2007/2008 Global Competitiveness Report supports that conclusion. In it, the United States maintained its position as the world’s most innovative economy despite the shoddy performance of its math and science education, which ranked 45th. Singapore, meanwhile, stayed in first place in math and science education but came in at a disappointing 23rd in capacity for innovation and 22nd for the availability of scientists and engineers—10 places below the United States in the same category.

Even if U.S. math and science education is not completely inadequate, there is still one area in which the United States can vastly improve: geography. Miss South Carolina’s less-than-shining moment earlier this year was no fluke; National Geographic‘s 2006 Survey of Geographic Literacy found that 63 percent of young people in the United States could not find Iraq on a map and 50 percent couldn’t even locate New York.

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