How Much do Global Education Rankings Actually Matter?

There remains a panic in education circles about the position the U.S. academic system finds itself in when compared to other countries around the world. According to Gregory Ferenstein, the worry and attendant hand-wringing are unnecessary. As a matter of fact, since the international education tests were first administered in 1964, the U.S. has never once topped the charts. This didn’t stop the country from being a force for innovation in both economics and technological development since.

Even though the evidence of nearly fifty years has clearly shown that there exists only a weak correlation between the relative strength of individual students when measured up against their international peers and the future economic success of a particular country, the doomsayers continue to read the results as if they were tea leaves predicting doom for America in the decades down the road.

 Research has consistently shown that on nearly every measure of education (instructional hours, class-size, enrollment, college preparation), what students learn in school does not translate into later life success. The United States has an abundance of the factors that likely do matter: access to the best immigrants, economic opportunity, and the best research facilities.

The latest round of these dire warnings were brought on by yesterday’s release of this year’s edition of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development educational reports. For those interested in doing a little fortune-telling, the report contained plenty bad news to mine. While the usual suspects – South Korea, Canada, the Scandinavians – topped the rankings, the U.S. found itself, at best in the middle and at worst deep down in the bottom half. The U.S. rated 14th for higher education attainment and 26th – out of 34 – in early childhood education. Only five other countries beat it for the ignominious honor of having the smallest number of high school graduates. The conclusions were predictably gloomy: unless the U.S. can turn its education system around, it will continue to be left in the dust by an ever-increasing number of countries.

All these conclusions, however, rest on the assumption that the employability of American students derives directly from what they learn in school — something that recent research hasn’t backed up at all.

“The results suggest that years of rigorous training of physics knowledge in middle and high schools have made significant impact on Chinese students’ ability in solving physics problems, while such training doesn’t seem to have direct effects on their general ability in scientific reasoning, which was measured to be at the same level as that of the students in USA,” wrote a team of researchers studying whether Chinese superiority in rote scientific knowledge translated into the kinds of creative thinking necessary for innovation.

09 20, 2012