Can our students compete?

U.S. athletes will go for gold in the Olympics, but U.S. students aren’t competing well in the global arena, argues Michelle Rhee in promoting a new Students First video.

The U.S. never has scored well on international exams, notes Gary Rubenstein.

In the 1964 FIMS test, we were 11th out of 12. These tests are not predictors of future economic strength, obviously since our students from 1964 have helped make the U.S. economy very strong.

U.S. schools score well when compared to schools in countries with similar poverty levels, he adds.

About Joanne


  1. Averages are a poor predictor when (a) distributions are multi-modal and (b) performance is determined largely by the right tail.

  2. Michelle Rhee piggybacks on a standard – and misleading – soundbite about the state of American education. Competing by comparing scores on international standardized tests like PISA/TIMMS, or even NAEP, serves no purpose. A correlation or cause/effect between scores and legitimate factors on quality of life is simply not present. Rubenstein is correct to call out Rhee on the misleading nature of her criticism.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I wonder how we do at educating the most talented students, compared to other nations.

    It would seem that, with our robust network of free libraries and college scholarships, we would do a better job identifying ‘smart but poor’ kids than countries like India and China, especially in urban areas where there’s access to universities and museums for anyone who can take a bus.

    Most of our K-12 schools don’t let smart kids go as far or as fast as they could, BUT kids can, and do, teach themselves via internet, and the MITX trend may be especially good for precocious high-schoolers in isolated areas.

    We don’t have the same class barriers that many countries do– you can be homeless and get a full ride at some of our top universities, if you have initiative.

    Our problem seems to be that we actually expect our underclass to achieve like our middle and upper classes, while many other countries accept ‘dropping out at 13 to work in a factory’ as a viable option…..

    • Amen. Your comment about schools not letting the top kids go as fast or as far as they can is all too true, especially at the ES level. Mediocracy seems to be the goal and any efforts at providing challenges for smart, motivated kids are scorned as elitest; just look at the constant attacks on Fairfax County’s TJ math/science magnet. There’s almost an article a month in the WaPo, complaining about it; elitist, racist, non-diverse etc. We spend vastly more on educating the uneducable (which the rest of the world doesn’t pretend to do)and/or unwilling than we do on our smart and motivated.

      Regarding your comment about libraries and museums, I recently read A Hope in the Unseen, about a DC student (class of 93) who made it into Brown (and graduated). He said he had no understanding of things his Brown classmates took for granted – subject-area references, allusions etc and had never read anything (other than textbooks) by a white person (DC’s Afrocentric curriculum) or been asked to write anything but a personal narrative. Despite individual tutoring and mentoring by his HS faculty, no one ever suggested that he sould take advantage of libraries, museums, historical/cultural sites etc that fill DC. Just this spring, another DC (charter) student, finishing his first semester at Georgetown, said essentially the same thing. Pathetic, what a waste.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        That’s horrendous, especially since the museums are free! As a suburban kid, I used to regularly take the Metro downtown with friends to hit the museums and the zoo. And in HS we had a deal where, if your parents signed off on it, you could stay at the museum AFTER the Field trip was over and just do your own thing and then take the Metro home. (A lot of us had parents who worked downtown, so if a FT ended at 2, we’d stay at the Smithsonian until 5 or so, have a dinner out with our parents and then all commute home together.)

        This was at Blair, and not just in Magnet classes– the regular classes had the same policy. So 2 schools, at most 10 miles apart, had totally different attitudes to culture in DC. (We used to have Kennedy Center or Wolftrap fieldtrips periodically as well, back when I was in elem school or Junior high. And we saw “Will Rogers USA” at Ford Theatre with our 9th grade history class….)

        The Smithsonian is free. The distance is small. The culture gap seems unbridgeable.

      • I agree, that’s horrendous. :/ Living in the Washington, DC metro area should be field trip heaven for K-12 schools there. Heck, even community colleges and Universities there! And the rest of the story just goes to show you how bad K-12 schools in the U.S. are becoming – and how bad parenting has become, too, lest we not forget…

  4. I believe the issue is that in our society (the U.S. that is) we give athletes more publicity than we do our best and brightest, who are often called various names all throughout school such as ‘nerd, geek, and some other unkind things I can think of’

    As long as our system caters to the lowest common denominator in our schools, the best and brightest in our public school systems will continue to lose ground to the brightest the rest of the world has to offer.

    As a nation, we do quite well when we don’t have to compete against the rest of the world, but when we do, we’re usually average or below average.

    • Again, amen. The disproportionate emphasis on sports is one reason I would like to see them removed from schools (along with the fine arts extracurriculars). The extracurricular tail, especially sports, is wagging the dog. Parks and rec and private clubs can use school facilities to run extracurriculars, but they should be removed from school jurisdiction. It isn’t as if they are doing so well at academics that they should take on other missions. Most of the rest of the world doesn’t have any extracurriculars. BTW. my kids were all serious full-time athletes and they agree with me on this. For them, HS sports were just an extra that they would not have missed, had they been dropped.

      • I asked at an education conference once why K-12 schools couldn’t do exactly that. My response, from a PhD Ed who was also the superintendent of a huge school district in a major U.S. city? “Do you have any idea how much higher our dropout rate would be if we eliminated sports, marching band, and cheerleading? That’s the only reason half our high schoolers stay through graduation, is because they enjoy those programs.”