Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Divergence Between Test Scores & Economic Performance

Nobel Prize winning Economist Gary Becker has an article posted on the following paradox:
One of the challenging paradoxes during the past several decades is that American teenagers have consistently performed below average on international tests in math and sciences, and not especially well on reading tests, yet the American economy is more productive than any other.
One reason he gives is that the education system in the United States builds up and gets harder as you move up each level, culminating with university, while in some other countries, elementary and secondary school is harder and college is seen as a "break" or a reward for doing all of the work in the first place. I can attest to this phenomenon from observing schools and talking to students in Japan. Another interesting reason he gives that I can relate to as a teacher is that:
American schools are less oriented toward rote teaching than are schools in many other countries, and they are more oriented toward giving students practice in thinking through issues and expressing themselves in discussions.
Economist Arnold Kling boils the argument down to two propositions:

(1) International tests fail to measure the superior aspects of the U.S. education system.

(2) Education is not such an important factor in comparative economic performance.

I lean toward (2). It's better to have strong entrepreneurialism and mediocre education than the other way around.

Which explanation do you find most convincing? Any other explanations that may be useful?

(Source: EconLog)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I feel that the information that is on most American tests is not very important as most people will not have jobs where they have to know physics, calculus, and about the famous wars throughout history. Plus most of the stuff you are tested on you will forget after a year or two. Insstead American schools are teaching kids how to learn. In other words they are learning how to study and handle heavy course loads so that when they go to college they can focus on what they wnat to do for a living. Another thing is that in the business world the ability to present your knowledge is just as if not more important then your actual knowledge. The ability to communicate and explain your point has become the key to success in America.
Chris Getz

Anonymous said...

The first thing I wondered after reading the articles is how Americans "people" skills, if tested, would compare to those of Japanese people or any other country with a more difficult school system. I think that its possible that the US is so productive by comparison because of how we've been taught to handle situations. The article mentions the emphasis we put on self expression and without a doubt I believe we benefit from that. If two people are extremely smart, but one happens to be better at communicating, then that person is more likely that the people around him will benefit from his knowledge. Not the genious who has problems speaking to his peers. So perhaps Americans are just better at working together than students from other countries who have grown up in an extremely competitive academic environment. Kids from these countries may have a hard time working together because all they've ever been taught is how to be the best. The second thing that I thought of after reading this article was how little sense it made to only minimally prepare yourself before going into the workforce. Students from these other countries are given just enough taste of freedom that when it comes time to work, they may have become very lazy. All the work ethic has deteriorated leaving young men and woman going into the professional world at a large dissadvantage. American students are worked up to being the best they can and improve themselves gradually. It seems like the Japanese just wear themselves out too early and when it's most important to do well, they're over it by then. Also there is no way high school is enough preparation for a specific job. So to slack off in the final years is almost dangerous to production. Thats when you should be learning most. College is definintely not the time or place to "take a break"
-Lauren

Hagar the Horrible said...

Some thoughts on this:

Yes, Americans do in general score lower in international tests but Americans also have the highest number of years of schooling (at age 25 in 1990) of countries in the world. So the working population in the US is more likely to have more years of education than in other countries. Ricardo Hausmann at Harvard has some interesting statistics on this that definitely imply a trend of more average years of education being associated with higher GDP per capita (even though we don't know which one causes which).

Now some devil's advocacy:
"The ability to communicate and explain your point has become the key to success in America."
I don't know, but where I'm from the stereotype definitely is of a rather uneloquent American.

"The first thing I wondered after reading the articles is how Americans "people" skills, if tested, would compare to those of Japanese people or any other country with a more difficult school system." This raises an interesting point of how to test this. Obviosuly a Japanese person may find it very difficult to communicate well in the American enviornment (even if she spoke perfect English), while the same would probably be true for an American in Japan. How then do you measure how well people communicate? Do the Japanese bring their points across better to each other or do the Aemricans do it better?

"I think that its possible that the US is so productive by comparison because of how we've been taught to handle situations."
Americans may be better at handlign situations (who knows) but I personally am not convinced that Americans are _taught_ "to handle situations." As an example one might think of college in the US where class attendance is typically required, regular tests and quizzes monitor progress and ecourage staying on the ball, and lots of help is available. Contrast this with college in e.g. Argentina, where you come to class if you want to, there is only one test, and you need to get your own help. Say what you will about the educational advantages of one method over the other but one of them is a bit more like "holding hands" than the other.

I personally think part of America's robust economy is due to a highly educated elite with a somewhat educated population that can do most things well, paired with a culture that celebrates the rugged spirit of individualism where people want to "make it." Add minimal business regulation (for better or worse), good rule of law and property rights, and great penetration of the communication sector (everyone has Internet), and I think you get a highly productive economy.