Declining Empire, Declining Exceptionalism.

Obama’s approval rating may be going down, but Uncle Sam’s remains strong. A Gallup survey in 2001 found that 87% of Americans were “extremely” or “very” proud to be American. Last year; despite just triggering an international financial crisis; 86% responded the same way. In 1992, with the Cold War still recent history, 85% of Americans agreed that “whatever its faults, the United States still has the best system of government in the world.” In 2007, while sinking billions in unpopular wars, 81% concurred.

Americans consider our country the leader of the free world, and for a long time, they were right. When our founding fathers ratified this democratic republic in 1788, Europe was still chafing under monarchy and imperialism. The USA, we remind ourselves, rescued the world from fascism, turned around, and quashed communism too. And today, we’re still the world’s largest economy, still three times larger than either Japan or China. The world’s brightest still flock to American universities, and where does R&D happen but the good old United States?

But as the Ancient Greeks once said, and then found out, “the only thing that’s constant is change.” The world is changing, getting better, and catching up. We used to be the beacon of liberty. But is our self-assured moral superiority deserved, anymore? Despite a change in the White House, Guantanamo is still active in detaining “enemy combatants” in a state of legal limbo. While America stubbornly clings to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and traditional marriage between a man and a woman, the Vice-Chancellor of the Fourth Reich is openly gay and 22 out of 26 NATO countries allow gays in the military; in January the state newspaper of China even reported on the country’s first gay marriage. Virtually all of Europe has affordable, universal healthcare, yet we still do not. Capitalism and rugged individualism were once great liberal ideas–in the 19th century–but while the world’s values have evolved along with newfound wealth, ours have not and even gone backwards. “Progressive” used to mean something good–now it’s a hate word. The American political system that inspired Tocqueville has become sclerotic and painfully partisan; budget reform seems impossible to accomplish.

Yet no where is America’s fall from grace more clear than in our failing schools. Yesterday, the New York Times reported the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam in 2009, which was given to 15-year olds in 65 countries. The results speak for themselves: the United States placed 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math. In a blow to the recently China-paranoid United States, Shanghai placed at the top of all three subjects. Despite the numbers, there is a disconnect between performance and satisfaction. American students, for example, are more likely than students from other countries to think they are good at math, even when their scores do not justify it.

The New York Times quoted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s reaction to the PISA 2009 results: “We have to see this as a wake-up call. I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate andreliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better. The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.” The Paris-based OECD, which administers the PISA assessment, took careful steps to proctor the exam so that the results, as described by Mark Schneider, a former official in the Dept. of Education, are unassailable. “The technical side of this was well regulated, the sampling was

"Visitors and teacher trainees can peek at how it's done from a viewing balcony perched over a classroom at the Norssi School in Jyväskylä, a city in central Finland. What they see is a relaxed, back-to-basics approach. The school, which is a model campus, has no sports teams, marching bands or prom." --WSJ, 2008

O.K., and there was no evidence of cheating,” he said.

Yet quibble and assail they did.

1. The Times noted that Shanghai is the richest city in China, and students were apparently told that the test was important for China’s national image, motivating them to study. “Can you imagine the reaction if we told the students of Chicago that the PISA was an important international test and that America’s reputation depended on them performing well?” Mr. Schneider said. So what? Shanghai’s per capita GDP is $11,000, far lower than any state in the U.S. It is larger in size than any U.S. city, yet would we care to test New York or Boston kids against Shanghai? And if the Shanghai students wanted to do better knowing that their results might bring acclaim to their homeland, why is it that Chicago students would quaver and perform worse? Are they any less patriotic?

The OECD did note, however, that even isolating the U.S. based on region, we still rank below the top-performers:

Unlike other federal nations, the united States did not measure the performance of states individually on PISA. however, it is possible to compare the performance of public schools among groups of states. Such a comparison suggests that in reading, public schools in the northeast of the United States would perform at 510 PISAscore points – 17 score points above the OECD average (comparable with the performance of the Netherlands) but still well below the high-performing education systems examined in this volume – followed by the midwest with 500 score points (comparable with the performance of Poland), the west with 486 score points (comparable with the performance of Italy) and the south with 483 score points (comparable with the performance of Greece).

The comments on the NYTimes article continue with the complaints:

2. The Shanghai students must have been cheating. #34 “It is no secret that the Chinese use the internet to crowd source the GRE and other standardized tests”

Yet the article said there was no evidence of cheating. And regardless, what of Finland, Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, and Canada?

A PISA math question

3. Standardized Testing is not important. #18 “So they score high on standardized tests, what else can they do? We are obsessed with testing. When will learning matter?”

Perhaps the administrators of the test are too glowing, but the questions are not at all rote memorization (you can see sample questions here).

As the OECD describes: “In mathematics, more than a quarter of Shanghai-china’s 15-year-olds can conceptualise, generalise, and creatively use information based on their own investigations and modelling of complex problem situations. they can apply insight and understanding and develop new approaches and strategies when addressing novel situations. In the OECD area, just 3% of students reach this level of performance.”

Studies show that high scores on educational tests positively correlate to performance, and a 2004 empirical study by Sala-i-Martin, Doppelhofer, and Miller of 67 explanatory variables in growth regressions on a sample of 88 countries found that primary schooling was the most robust influence factor on growth in GDP per capita in 1960-96. Testing is not perfect, but it is a proxy of human capital, and employers have always used various testing results in hiring.

4. Of course they did better. All they do is study. #22 “Not only are extracurriculars FUN, especially in the case of team sports, teach students how to communicate and work collectively and productively toward a goal. You will never get that when you’re squirreled away in a small room hunched over books.”

Right, because the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony showed us that China is incapable of working collectively toward a common goal.

5. Methodology complaints. Was a representative sample selected? Were students taught the test? James Fallows at the Atlantic says, “recognize the fallibilities in this study, and don’t go nuts.”

I say go nuts. This isn’t defense spending we’re talking about–it’s education. The writing on the board is clear enough: the boogeyman is right behind us (actually he’s quite a bit ahead of us). Extremism in attaining a better education is no vice, and moderation in pursuit of excellence is no virtue.

6. And my favorite: moral superiority. #4 “When the Chinese can make infant formula without melamine, and toll well crafted our of steel instead of pig-iron, I will start to get impressed by the Chinese collussus, with it’s abysmal human rights record and structurally totalitarian government.”

Our moral superiority should be no substitute for academic failure. And besides, we’re not at the top of the human rights rankings anymore, either.

Forgetting Shanghai and sister city-states, we still lag behind many 20-30 industrialized nations so minor that Americans would frankly struggle to locate them on a map (e.g. Estonia, Slovenia; I’m not sure if that’s more insulting for them or us). The article and comments indicate, to me, that the most pressing problem in America is the inability to recognize that the age of American exceptionalism is over. It is no longer helpful to think of ourselves as powerful enough to defeat any enemy, rich enough to withstand any crisis, possessed of enough moral authority to broker any peace, trustworthy enough to borrow without limit, or bright enough to top our peers in independent assessments of academic ability. We needs to come to terms with the mortality of our dominance. After the Soviets launched the world’s first artificial orbiting satellite in 1957, Eisenhower delivered the following call to arms:

The Soviet Union now has – in the combined category of scientists and engineers – a greater number
than the United States. And it is producing graduates in these fields at a much faster rate.

Recent studies of the educational standards of the Soviet Union show that this gain in quantity can no
longer be considered offset by lack of quality.

This trend is disturbing. Indeed, according to my scientific advisers, this is for the American people themost critical problem of all.

My scientific advisers place this problem above all other immediate tasks of producing missiles, of
developing new techniques in the Armed Services. We need scientists in the ten years ahead. They say we
need them by thousands more than we are now presently planning to have.

The Federal government can deal with only part of this difficulty, but it must and will do its part. The task
is a cooperative one. Federal, state and local governments, and our entire citizenry must all do their
share.

Obama echoed those sentiments in a speech on Monday, saying: “In 1957, just before this college opened, the Soviet Union beat us into space by launching a satellite known as Sputnik. And that was a wake-up call that caused the United States to boost our investment in innovation and education — particularly in math and science. And as a result, once we put our minds to it, once we got focused, once we got unified, not only did we surpass the Soviets, we developed new American technologies, industries, and jobs.”

But as Eisenhower explained, federal investment and spending in education is necessary but not enough–as with healthcare, other countries spend less yet perform better. The change must be cultural and attitudinal. The country must channel these embarrassing PISA results into reforming our schools, inspiring our parents, and challenging our students. Teachers union must be willing to sacrifice some anti-social benefits. Parents must be willing to sacrifice dates and vacations. Children must be willing to sacrifice video games, and maybe even that cranial-crushing game–football. Our kids must be prepared to work harder, study more difficult subjects, start earlier, and end later. We must have the same national hunger as those Shanghai schoolchildren did, redoubling their efforts when given a chance to compete for their country. America needs to feel the underdog fire and first-mover instinct that propelled us to greatness. And we must abandon our former exceptionalism, and be willing to take lessons from China, and Britain, and Germany, not just in educational reform and work ethic, but continue to recruit the world’s best minds by improving our record on welfare/healthcare, civil rights, tolerance, and social justice.