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Cross-posted from Education Week

I had an interesting conversation with Motoko Rich, the New York Times education reporter, the other day. We were talking about the reactions of Americans not just to the fact that the United States’ place on the OECD-PISA league tables is falling, but also to the fact that more and more of the top places are being taken by Asian countries.  She told me that many of the educators she talks with tell her that Asian dominance of the PISA league tables shows that the falling ranking of the United States doesn’t matter.

I couldn’t follow the logic.  Why’s that, I asked.  Well, she said, they say that there are very few people in Asia who are winning Nobel prizes and starting game-changing businesses like Apple, Oracle, Google or Microsoft.  Maybe being good at the kinds of things that PISA measures is just not that important.  Maybe American schools are much better at what is truly important and not getting the credit for it they should be getting.

This has the ring, at first, of plausibility.  We know that no test, much less the kinds of tests that are widely used in education, tests all of what we want for our students.  We know, in fact, that some of the things we most want for our students are not tested.  So maybe it is true that what we most want for them and what it is most important for them to have is not tested.  Maybe testing is a side show.  Maybe we are doing much better than the Asians at what is truly important.  In fact, many Asians seem to think that this is so, that the US is much better at educating young people for creativity and innovation, the essential qualities for success in the post-industrial world, than they are.  That’s why our standing in the PISA league tables is just not all that important.

That’s the argument.  And it is pure sophistry.

It is true that the Asians are very worried that they are not producing leaders like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.  But take a closer look.  Those two may have dropped out of Reed College and Harvard, but both were certified club members of the American education elite, as were their counterparts at Google and Oracle and all the other top Silicon Valley superstars.  Which one of the readers of this blog believes that Jobs or Gates would consider hiring people with the average reading ability, writing skill, analytical capacity or mathematical competence of average college graduates in the United States?  They don’t need to.   They have their pick of the world’s most accomplished college graduates.  The selection process for candidates for positions at Google is world famous for its crushing demands. The other companies I’ve mentioned are not far behind.

What we are looking at in the people who started and built these organizations are people who are both highly educated and innovative and creative.  And that is exactly who they are looking for in the people they hire to work for them.  They do not have to choose between well-educated and highly competent people, on the one hand, and creative and innovative people on the other.  They demand and can get both.  In the same person.

The idea that we can ignore the PISA rankings because we are producing what is really demanded in the global marketplace and the top performers are not is very alluring, but it is total poppycock.  What makes PISA different from TIMSS and PIRLS is that it does not measure mastery of a curriculum, but the ability to apply what is learned to real world problems.  Increasingly, it is being designed to measure the ability to apply what is learned to unanticipated, novel problems.  It is steadily moving toward measuring the ability to use what we have learned to innovate.  The premise of the position I am attacking is that one either educates for the qualities they think PISA measures or one educates for the qualities that lead to American dominance in high technology.  But PISA is designed to measure both.

The literature on creativity is very clear on a point that is pertinent to this argument.  Creativity does not take place in a knowledge vacuum.  It is typically the product of the rubbing together, so to speak, of two or more bodies of knowledge, of holding up the framework associated with one body of knowledge to another arena that it was not designed to illuminate.  When that happens, odds are that the new insights, born of the application of the old framework to the novel problem, will emerge.  The literature tells us that this means that you are most likely to get the kind of creativity we are most interested in from highly educated people who are deeply versed in very different arenas.

The American critics who tell you that our standing on PISA really does not matter are telling you that it is not very important that our students are not particularly good at math, don’t know much science and can’t read or write very well.  If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

I’ll tell you why the Asians are doing so well.  They have not been spending their time working out rationales for paying no attention to the rest of the world.  To the contrary, every one of them has put an enormous effort into researching what top performers all over the world are doing in the field of education.  They are clear about what they want from this process.  They want to preserve what they value most in their own education systems, while at the same time incorporating the most effective policies and practices they can find anywhere into their own systems.

This is not easy for them.  Our own achievements owe a great deal to the value we place on the individual over the group.  The Asians understand that, but they do not want what they see as the violence and chaos that they see as the cultural price we pay for placing such a high value on individual freedom and initiative.  We, of course—or at least some us—want the academic achievement that they excel at, but without the social conformity and lack of individual initiative that we see as the price they pay for their high achievement.

So far this sounds symmetrical, as if we and they each wants what the other has, but is not willing to pay the price the other pays to get.  But it is not symmetrical. They are working hard to get as much as they can of what we have that they want, without compromising their values.  But we are not working as hard as we can to get the best of what they have without compromising our values.  We are working hard at denial.