New York Times commentary: America doesn’t have the world’s best colleges
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“Americans have a split vision of education,” begins New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey in a Sunday New York Times commentary. “Conventional wisdom has long held that our K-12 schools are mediocre or worse, while our colleges and universities are world class.” Yet a recent international study suggests that this view is wrong.
The problem, Carey proposes, is that having many of the best research universities doesn’t mean that higher education in general is succeeding. “We see K-12 schools and colleges differently,” he writes, “because we’re looking at two different yardsticks: the academic performance of the whole population of students in one case, the research performance of a small number of institutions in the other.”
Carey frames a context for the K-12 part of his comparison:
The standard negative view of American K-12 schools has been highly influenced by international comparisons. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], for example, periodically administers an exam called PISA to 15-year-olds in 69 countries. While results vary somewhat depending on the subject and grade level, America never looks very good. The same is true of other international tests. In PISA’s math test, the United States battles it out for last place among developed countries, along with Hungary and Lithuania.
So what about something like PISA for higher education? Carey reports that OECD last year “published exactly such a study”:
The project is called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (known as Piaac, sometimes called “pee-ack”). In 2011 and 2012, 166,000 adults ages 16 to 65 were tested in the OECD countries (most of Europe along with the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea) and Cyprus and Russia.
Like PISA, Piaac tests people’s literacy and math skills.
Carey delivers bad news: “As with the measures of K-12 education, the United States battles it out for last place, this time with Italy and Spain. Countries that traditionally trounce America on the PISA test of 15-year-olds, such as Japan and Finland, also have much higher levels of proficiency and skill among adults.” Later he adds:
Only 18 percent of American adults with bachelor’s degrees score at the top two levels of numeracy, compared with the international average of 24 percent. Over one-third of American bachelor’s degree holders failed to reach Level 3 on the five-level Piaac scale, which means that they cannot perform math-related tasks that “require several steps and may involve the choice of problem-solving strategies.” Americans with associate’s and graduate degrees also lag behind their international peers.
American results on the literacy and technology tests were somewhat better, in the sense that they were only mediocre. American adults were eighth from the bottom in literacy, for instance. And recent college graduates look no better than older ones. Among people ages 16 to 29 with a bachelor’s degree or better, America ranks 16th out of 24 in numeracy. There is no reason to believe that American colleges are, on average, the best in the world.
Not only are American colleges not the best in imparting education to students, Carey declares, but “Piaac suggests that the wide disparities of knowledge and skill present among American schoolchildren are not ameliorated by higher education. If anything, they are magnified”—as suggested by comparisons of the standing of Americans at age 15 and the standing, 12 years later, of Americans who were 12 years older.
Carey ends by declaring that it “will be increasingly dangerous to believe that only our K-12 schools have serious problems.”
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.