Apples and oranges to compare U.S. education
America's mediocre rankings on the latest international student achievement tests elicited the predictable reaction - follow the leader, no matter how incomparable or atypical the top finisher might be.
Actually, it was worse. President Obama hit the panic button, calling the news "our generation's Sputnik moment," because Asian nations and cities topped the rankings. Three Asian cities swept the race - win, place and show. (Yes, sub-national entities participated in the tests - including Connecticut and two other states).
Come on. America, the third most populous nation, should follow three cities? Two are unique and very wealthy city-states, Singapore and Hong Kong. The third, Shanghai, is a classic communist showcase which isn't anything like the rest of China (which did not participate), where many children are no longer even in school at the age of 15 when the tests are given - the triennial Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) tests in math, reading and science.
Nevertheless, even before the results were officially released, a delegation of U.S. notables journeyed to Shanghai, the winner, to seek out its secret sauce. Sure enough, one delegate, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, discovered "The Shanghai Secret": it's the teachers! Specifically, Friedman trumpeted Shanghai's "deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer (teacher-to-teacher) learning and constant professional development." We'll come back to that.
Before the Asian tigers, it was high-scoring Finland which fascinated many observers. America, the most diverse nation - soon to be the world's first "minorities-are-the-majority" nation - should follow five million Finns, 98 percent of whom are ethnic Finns, all native Finnish language speakers? Finland, where all religious Finns are Lutheran? There may be no more homogenous country.
America faces a unique educational challenge in the 21st century. We are a large, very diverse nation - ethnically, racially, religiously, linguistically and economically. There is no other country like ours. So to go abroad willy-nilly to seek lessons on educational methods from the latest darling nation is fool-hearty.
To do so almost blindly is downright dangerous. Take Tom Friedman. Friedman holds up as a model a Shanghai teacher named Teng Jiao. Jiao, an elementary-school English teacher, works a long day, 8:35 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., "during which he typically teaches three 35-minute lessons," spending the rest of his day on professional development.
Wait, out of his 8-hour day, Jiao spends 1 hour and forty-five minutes teaching? There are only three possible explanations for such low productivity. One, Jiao's real job is teacher development - unknown to, or at least unmentioned by, Friedman. Two, if Jiao is a typical teacher, then Shanghai is spending far more on professional development than any American school system could ever afford, something that may be driving the eye-popping results in this communist show-city. Or Jiao may be an undiscovered slacker, soon to be fired for his inefficiency.
While study of educational methods is critically important, it is even more important to first assess the educational challenge we face. America's unique multi-cultural composition makes for a hefty educational challenge.
Indeed, what is consistent over time about the darling nations is the opposite, i.e. their mono-cultural character. Nine Asian cities and nations participated in the 2012 PISA tests and they held almost all of the top spots in all three subjects. All nine are highly homogeneous. The highest-ranking Western nation was extremely homogeneous Finland.
Mono-cultural nations simply cannot provide a relevant model for America in forging a successful cross-cultural/multi-cultural strategy. So, let's stop traveling overseas chasing after the "Shanghai secret" or the "Finland factor" to save the day.
Moreover, let's throw out all the cities, city-states and tiny nations, which outrank us on the PISA tests - 19 of the 30 ahead of us in math have fewer than 20 million citizens. Virtually all are mono-cultural. And even if they were diverse, there'd still be the issue of scalability - really, an entity of 1 million, 5 million or 20 million simply cannot lead the way for a nation of 315 million.
Instead of edu-tourism to exotic overseas destinations, the United States would be wiser just to look north. Canada may be only the 37th most populous nation, but it still has 35 million citizens, and it may be only moderately diverse, but, as the nation whose profile most closely resembles the United States and as the second-highest ranking Western nation on the PISA tests, it is well worth our attention.
Red Jahncke heads the Townsend Group, a business consulting firm in Greenwich and is an occasional contributor to The Day.