Education Olympics: Day 1

The Education Olympics has begun with a look at how U.S. mathletes and science jocks compare to the competition.

For many, the team to beat is Finland, a country that possesses an excellent, experienced teaching force that may make all the difference. “Not so fast,” says former mathematics gold medalist and Hong Kong native Lai Ching. “With so many competitions being math-centered, and considering the history of success China, Singapore, and Hong Kong have had in these areas, they could easily walk away swimming in medals.”

Our very best students can compete with the world, writes Eduwonkette.

Take a field trip to Harvard, Yale, MIT, or Princeton and you’ll see that our top students are taking names. Put them in an academic Olympics with students from Oxford, Tokyo University, and Peking University, and we’ll do as well as we do in the Olympics.

Nope, writes Skoolboy, who compares the performance of 15-year-olds in the top 5 percent on the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which includes 57 countries.

In mathematics, the performance of top U.S. students is dismal. In 28 countries, students at the 95th percentile score significantly higher than students at the 95th percentile in the U.S., and the gaps are surprisingly large. Students in Chinese Taipei, Korea, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Finland, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Liechtenstein all score at least .5 standard deviations above the U.S. in this comparison.

Things look a little bit brighter in science achievement. Ten countries have students at the 95th percentile scoring higher than the U.S., and 35 countries have students at this level scoring significantly worse than U.S. students at the 95th percentile. Eleven countries are statistically indistinguishable from the U.S. Still, the best that we can claim is that the U.S. is tied for 11th internationally, although the magnitude of the gap between U.S. elite students and elite students in the top-ranked countries (e.g., Finland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan) is smaller in science than it is in math.

Perhaps the MIT, Harvard, Yale and Princeton students, drawn from the top 1 percent, can compete with elite Finns and Koreans. But it doesn’t seem like a long-term winning strategy. Skoolboy suggests beefing up in the academic weight room.

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