American Exceptionalism

Cross-posted at Education Week.

Many American educators and policy makers aren’t interested in hearing about countries whose students outperform ours because they are sure they don’t really outperform our students and, besides, America is different, in a class by itself, and the lessons from other countries simply don’t apply.  This is the argument of American exceptionalism.  It is pure baloney, an excuse for those not willing to come to grips with our failures and too proud to look at the competition, no matter how successful it is.  In this blog, I share a few of the most common pronouncements about why we are exceptional and I respond to them.

1.    Those nations only educate an elite, while we educate everyone.

This was once true, but not for a long time.  Roughly 30 percent of our students drop out.  The number of dropouts in the top-performing countries is much lower, on the order of 5 to 10 percent.  And we are educating our graduates to a lower standard.  Increasingly, it is we, not they, who are educating only an elite, and they who are educating everyone.

2.    They are homogeneous, while we are diverse.

It is not always clear what is meant by “diverse,” but it turns out that Canada, which has a higher proportion of immigrants in its student population than the United States, has much higher student performance, and Australia, with a diversity of national background only slightly lower than the United States, also performs significantly better.

3.    Their cultures are so different, nothing they do can be expected to work in the United States.

When we research the factors that best explain the success of countries as culturally different as China and Canada, and Singapore and Finland, we find that, although their cultures are very different, the principles underlying their reform strategies are very similar.  And those strategies are very different from the ones the United States is pursuing.  If those principles work in countries with cultures as different as the cultures of Finland and Singapore, and Australia and Shanghai, why wouldn’t they apply in the United States?  If they work in Canada, with a culture very like our own, whey wouldn’t they work here?  If our education reform program is based on principles that are not working and theirs are based on principles that are working, why wouldn’t we try a reform program based on those principles?

4.    If you just take the poor and minority students in the United States out of the equation, the United States does just as well as the top-performing countries.  The only problem we have to solve is the disparity in performance between our poor and minority students and all the rest, who are doing fine.

No, this won’t fly either.  The PISA reports have tables showing the proportion of each participating country’s students in each of band of performance, as those bands are defined by PISA.  The proportion of students in the top bands are typically significantly larger for the top-performing countries than for the United States.  But, I can hear you saying, that can’t be true.  We know that Massachusetts and Minnesota do just as well as the world leading nations in math.  Well, no.  Using statistical techniques, Peterson, Woessmann and Hanushek recently converted NAEP proficiency benchmarks to PISA scores, enabling them to calculate the proportion of students in the nations participating in PISA that would be judged proficient in math.  The researchers found that six countries significantly outperform Massachusetts and 11 significantly outperform Minnesota. Whether you look at our top-performing students or at our top-performing states, we have a problem.

Probably the most important point to be made about the advocates of American exceptionalism is that, even if their arguments had merit, which they don’t, they would be irrelevant.  They simply don’t matter.  The changing dynamics of the global economy are impersonal and unforgiving.  If our students do not match the best in the world, they and their children can expect a steadily declining standard of living and a more dangerous world, because we will be poorer and we no longer be able to afford Pax Americana.  There will be no excuses.