Americans like to win. Competitiveness is deeply ingrained in our culture. We enjoy the many sports our athletes dominate worldwide, like football, baseball, basketball, the Olympics – soccer, not so much. Besides sports, we like to think of ourselves as leaders in many other disciplines, like science, technology and economics. But comparing ourselves favorably to the rest of the world has become harder these days. According to an international test program conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based research group, called the “Program for International Student Assessment” (PISA), the by far highest scores in math, science and reading were all earned by students from China, and in particular by students from the city of Shanghai.
Studies Suggest Strong Connection
Between Health and Academic Performance
American students were not only outperformed by their counterparts from China. In most subjects, they came in 23rd and 24th, behind other Asian- and a number of European countries. In math, the results were even worse.
Government officials called for immediate action and declared the test results a “Sputnik moment,” reminiscent of the times when the Soviet Union succeeded in launching its first satellite ahead of the United States in 1957.
Of course, one particular test does not reflect the educational standards of entire nations. Observers of the PISA survey were quick to point out that Shanghai is exceptional even by comparison to other Chinese cities. But there is clearly a culture of learning and achieving in China today that is strongly supported and promoted by the government. Students are asked to strive for personal success as a matter of national pride. And so is everyone else. On a recent visit to Beijing, I had the opportunity to observe this emerging vibrancy first hand. China may have a long way to go to improve the standard of living and quality of life of all its citizens, but there is great confidence among young people that the future belongs to them.
Skeptics may say that educational achievements are not easily measured by tests like PISA. Chinese students are predominantly proficient in specific subjects, like science and math, but less so in vocational ones, like sports and the arts. Often that may not even be by choice. However, since the “No Child Left Behind Act” was established by the Bush administration, our own public school system has taken a similar approach. So what’s the difference? Why does a strictly test-driven curriculum work better there than here?
In a different but quite relevant survey, the United Nations Children’s Fund (formerly United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund or UNICEF) has examined the welfare of children in the world’s richest countries on a variety of measures, such as material well-being, educational well-being and health well-being.
With regards to material well-being, the UNICEF investigation focused on a number of diverse factors, like affordability of housing and educational resources. The educational evaluation looked mostly at proficiency in math, science and reading. A third component was health.
Unsurprisingly, all these elements of a child’s well-being turned out to be intricately connected. Children learn best in a safe environment where they can concentrate on their studies and where they have access to good schools and learning materials. They thrive when they are enrolled in a well-structured school system with a high level of discipline and a balanced curriculum.
UNICEF also included health care as one of the most vital components for the welfare of children. Access to affordable medical services was found to be equally as important as education and basic material means by the survey. If one of the elements is missing or in scarce supply, the others suffer as well.
If you think that these conclusions are self-evident, you are probably right. The problems are plain to see and solutions seem to dictate themselves. Yet, UNICEF found stark inequality of the welfare of children everywhere it looked. Even the Europeans with their relatively strong social safety nets are falling behind in their care for poor children. When ranked by country, however, the United States came in dead last among 24 of the world’s richest nations – behind Slovakia, Greece and Italy.
These results are puzzling and disturbing. The American education system has long been considered as one of the very best in the world. Our colleges and universities are the first choices of students who want to study abroad. Our medical facilities and services are among the most advanced and best equipped.
But unlike other wealthy nations, we are quite tolerant of the ever-widening gap between the richest and the poorest members of our society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the three areas investigated by UNICEF. Educational resources are plentiful for those who can afford them. So is safe living space. We have excellent private schools, but they are expensive and for most families out of reach. Many of our public schools, on the other hand, are in bad shape, especially in low-income school districts. Our hospitals and medical centers may be state of the art but, again, they are inaccessible for those without sufficient health insurance, which are many.
The hardest hit by this great divide are the children who grow up in poverty. Without safe living conditions, without sufficient educational resources, without access to quality medical care, there is no hope that disadvantaged children will be able to compete against those who receive all the support they need. The decisions who will grow up to be a winner and who will end up losing are made early in life, and setbacks suffered at the start can’t be made up for later.
Yes, this may very well be our second “Sputnik moment,” however, this time the battle is not going to take place high up in the sky, but in our homes, neighborhoods, schools and medical facilities. This is where we must learn to be winners again.