Of all the nations in the world, what do the United States and the Russian Federation have in common? Other than both countries being major nuclear powers and ethnic groups in both countries sharing ancestral ties, they have little in common.
One similarity, however, is their average test scores for math and science literacy among 15-year-olds.
According to the latest available data from the National Center for Education Statistics taken from a study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 25th out of 30 countries in math literacy and 21st in science literacy.
Students in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Finland, South Korea, Netherlands and the Czech Republic are top performers.
In addition, Iceland, Ireland, Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Switzerland and Sweden are also well ahead of the United States in both categories.
Though not listed among the 30 OECD member countries, the Russian Federation ranks slightly lower than the U.S., while some former Soviet Union satellite states (as shown above) have higher literacy scores.
In reading literacy, scores from the United States were not available, thanks to an error in printing proper instructions in the testing documents. However, according to NationMaster.com, the U.S. ranks 15th, slightly higher than the weighted average of a 27-nation comparison, a dubious ranking at best.
Should we be alarmed by the decline in the literacy of our nation’s youth? Why should we not be? Are we not concerned about the social and economic well-being of our children and our children’s children?
Amid the backdrop of the current recession, an opportunity for real change presents itself in a way that we cannot afford to let slip away. State tax revenues are down and budgets must eliminate all but the most important educational components that deliver results.
Closer to home, property taxes are burdensome while proponents for increasing tax levies will face stiff opposition in the future.
The greatest hurdle for change that we face as a nation and as a local community in Marion County is to admit we have a problem that cannot be solved by finding and throwing more money at the educational wall and hoping something will stick.
According to the latest data from NationMaster.com, the United States ranks third in per-student expenditures, a questionable investment considering the 25th and 21st ranking in math and science literacy.
The next challenge for change as a nation, state and local community is to look elsewhere for answers, to see what others are doing well and ask why their students are out-performing ours.
Though we might not enjoy the thought of looking to our neighbors to the north, Canada (No. 5 in math, No. 3 in science) is more successful educating their children and providing them with better opportunities to excel than we are.
Next, we face the task of coming to grips that some programs need to be eliminated or modified to refocus our priority to the primary mission of our schools: To educate our children and enable them to excel in mathematics, reading and the sciences, thus providing them with the fundamental building blocks for a solid future.
Athletics has been an important facet of our educational system for decades. However, though statistics suggest we spend more time providing physical education instruction for our students (12 percent) than other countries, obesity in our nation’s children has risen to between 16 and 33 percent of all children.
I suspect the high percentage of instruction credited for physical education includes instructional time in competitive athletics programs, which fails to address the increasing rate of obesity among students.
Consider the irony of this issue: In competitive athletics, we select top team members based upon their skill level and their commitment to sacrificing social and family time for many hours of practice.
These students earn the right to play on the varsity teams. The rest of the student body must accept their non-chosen lot and move on with life, an increasingly unhealthy, obese life at that.
In education, we expect all students to earn their diploma. However, to achieve this goal and to retain access to state and federal funding, we make allowances, via lower academic hurdles, changes in curriculum and teaching methods or even grade inflation to move them toward graduation.
Rather than challenging students to achieve beyond their current abilities as we do with competitive sports, as a nation, we have become enablers for academic mediocrity and physical obesity.
Perhaps there are exceptions to this rule and some high schools are moving against the tide. However, a short glance at the OECD statistics and further studies at the National Center for Education Statistics suggest the downward trend in literacy continues, plus obesity in children remains a serious problem.
The big question is whether we are up to the task and have the courage to make a change for the better.