On Tuesday, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the results of a multi-year study comparing the workplace skills of adults. The conclusions were bad for the United States, which is lagging behind in a variety of different measures and displaying a startling inequality in skill levels between the employed and the unemployed. The study seems to be another nail in the coffin for the idea that America has the best educational system in the world.
But instead of wondering whether or not American education is the best, we should forget about trying to be the best at all. It is clear that the system is broken and absolute, not relative, improvements should capture our attention.
People have been harping about the decline of American education for a long time. Under Reagan, the infamous "A Nation at Risk" was published by a special commission. The report warned of a coming decline in the quality of the American workforce and sparked a new generation of debate on the question of educational reform. Given the graduated drop-off in American skill levels the OECD reported between the 45-to-55 age group and younger groups, it is tempting to see this as an astute portent of doom.
Even as American standards continue to decline in the decades since Reagan, the language of exceptionalism has persisted. In a way, nothing encapsulates the double standard of American thinking on education than No Child Left Behind — legislation set to wildly unrealistic goals against a rhetorical backdrop of uniform excellence. As one conservative commentator put it, "The United States Congress, acting with large bipartisan majorities, at the urging of the president, enacted as the law of the land that all children are to be above average."
Jeffrey Henig, an educational policy scholar, writes about a far more specific exceptionalism in American education that he sees coming to an end: an essentially parallel governance system, the school board, is being subsumed by different levels of government. For Henig, this is one of three major shifts, along with the continued tension between private and public sectors in education and the struggles between different levels of government to manage the system.
The debates and policies surrounding these axes of change — be they the issues of voucher systems, charter schools, common curricula — are what matter. Before we can think about the competitive advantage derived from better educated students we need to reach basic reforms first in the structure of our education system. That would be an exceptional achievement.