Our Borders, Ourselves?: Rethinking China’s Test Scores

Be Afraid: China’s “stellar” performance on recent standardized tests, described in yesterday’s New York Times (“Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators,” by Sam Dillon), is apparently another sign that America is being “out-educated.”  We are at our very own “Sputnik” moment, President Obama tells us, our nation once again threatened by the academic attainments of another.  Only a vast increase in our educational efforts (and in our anxiety, apparently), can correct this dire situation, according to a host of  commentators who have lately weighed in on the matter. Disaster looms: The Test Scores Prove It.

It’s pretty much axiomatic that where standardized test results are invoked for political purposes, arguments will be reductive.  And if we already suspected that the prevailing Sinophobia was about as well thought out as a toddler’s tantrum, last week the writers of “The Office” confirmed it: Can anyone seriously hold onto a geopolitical perspective once  it’s come from the mouth of the supremely illogical, trend-riding, Newsweek-wielding, Michael Scott?

Unfortunately, in the real world of STEM education, sound bites about our national science and math deficiencies continue to inhibit creative reform. We are our own worst enemies.

First, how much of this political fretting about U.S. intellectual inadequacy relative to China, India and other economically rising nations has included plans to implement the steps that educators know would improve math and science education in America? For example,  vastly increasing teachers’ training opportunities and salaries, expanding public school budgets and facilities, and instituting rewards for post-secondary STEM faculty who make teaching their priority?  Hand waving and furrowed brows we have, meaningful interventions, not so much…I guess the tax hikes such reforms would require are even scarier than China’s growing mental might.

 Second, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, citing David Sirota’s  insightful commentary,  those who most anxiously demand a more highly skilled American workforce almost universally omit any mention of the powerful disincentives that global wage structures (the worldwide “race to the bottom”),  including American policies that support the outsourcing of industrial labor, offer to just this sort of educational expansion on our own shores.  President Obama’s way too smart to have missed the connection here but he apparently fears to tread on corporate toes by calling those policies into question; sadly, the more tidily packaged White House jobs and training  initiatives become (“Skills For America’s Future”? As opposed to what?),  the more I worry about that reluctance.

Finally, the idea that China’s educational growth is best framed as a problem for America (or at the very least, a “wake-up call,” according to Arne Duncan)  is downright depressing.  Not only are Cold War-worthy nationalistic sentiments fueled with these kinds of comparisons (“It’s our brains against theirs!”), with not a small racial element easily following on that fear (“It’s our brains against THEIRS!?”) …but any vision of collective innovation or shared scientific priorities among nations is also completely suppressed.  We have our brains, they have theirs.  Promoting trade linkages is one thing, but intellectual collectivities across countries, let alone hemispheres?  Too touchy-feely, too retro, too soft for a time when America’s military-industrial powers are “at risk.”

No coincidence, of course,  that science-based challenges like sustainable production, a halt to global warming, worldwide health improvements, and a reduction in world hunger (all of which would  realign flows of global capital and power) would best be met through concerted multi-nation address.   Sorry: There will be no team projects on this syllabus.

But even from a less radical ideological stance,  global scientific competition just seems like such a stale idea, no? So 20th century! Instead, I wonder: Why not throw a big, inclusive, pot-luck Invention Party for brains both Chinese and American? What about massive student and teacher exchanges?  Global summits for excited 8th graders, or innovative engineers, or creative public health experts, or start-uppers and garage tinkerers of all nations?  

Of course, we have vast differences in our national values and interests; China’s STEM attainments are achieved in a society less open than our own.  Industrial capitalism shakes out with a huge variety of undemocratic results; we can chart these in every nation where it has been tried and they are of course not all equivalent.  Very messy stuff, morally: As Scott Gabriel Knowles wrote recently after a visit to Shanghai’s World Expo, modernization today is, as it always has been, all things to all cultures as each strives to sustain its own cultural priorities, 2010’s globally shared ideals of material accumulation and flourishing financial networks notwithstanding.  

But can’t we imagine scientific and technological activity, approached carefully, critically, and equitably, transcending some of this nation-centered self-interest?  If math and science have any progressive social potential at all (and yes, that’s a big “if”),  surely earnest transnational exchanges could nurture that potential, no? Couldn’t our governments, universities and even corporate R&D labs try to pool global capacities for discovery and invention, rather than just insistently sorting and delineating which nation does what better? Perhaps using the heightened educational attainments of a given nation as a shared benchmark, for shared educational and knowledge-creating goals? 

 Probably not. Because as the many very worried voices in the Times piece show, that’s not really why such standardized testing regimes come to be. Because that’s not why we quantify and rank educational achievements. Because the whole idea of collaboration and the pursuit of mutual good is no more likely for nations comparing their standardized test scores than for high schoolers.  It’s every brain for itself.

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