One of the most popular narratives in the world of higher education has been this one: American students aren't being taught as rigorously as those in other countries, and we're falling behind on tests. This bodes poorly for our economic future, the thinking goes, so we need to make dramatic changes to catch up.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said back in March that "A generation ago, we led the world, but we're falling behind. The global achievement gap is growing."
There's certainly evidence to back that up. Test scores show American students lagging far behind their international peers in the math and sciences, and the gap appears to be growing. Everyone laments that, and bringing the U.S. back to the forefront in education is seen as a priority in both political parties.
But rarely is the question asked: Do the scores of high school students on math and science tests really have anything to do with our long-term economic outlook? I would argue that they probably don't. For one thing, what will really drive innovation and global competition is the ability of our top 1% of math and science students to compete with other countries' top 1%. The scientific skills of a student who grows up to become an English teacher are not important in any macro way.
Forbes columnist John Tamny notes that "Back in the '80s, Japan's supposedly scary economic rise was attributed to better schooling there until the allegedly lax U.S. proceeded to wipe the floor with this formerly threatening nation." Later Tamny adds that "Ludwig Von Mises observed long ago that success in socialist countries wasn't based on one's human capacity, but was instead a function of 'compliance with certain forms, the passing of certain examinations, attendance at certain schools.' Is this the country we want to be?"
None of this is to say that education doesn't matter. But before we start fretting about how much our 15-year-olds know about physics compared with those in China, it's worth asking the question: Is it really that big of a deal? Or are there other factors that are more likely to impact America's economic future?
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