The Quality of American Education: Two Types of Evidence

Every so often, articles like this one appear, which seem to show that the American education system is, to use the term in the article, mediocre. What the article shows is that regardless of socioeconomic status, American students score below most developed nations in mathematical ability.

The problem with statistics like these is that most people do not need a great deal of mathematical ability to be productive citizens, or to be educated citizens. Mathematical ability is important for scientists and engineers, but people can be productive in sales, marketing, plumbing, auto repair, and really, in most professions without a great deal of mathematical ability. Entrepreneurs, corporate CEOs, and even accounting and finance professionals do not need to be math wizards. Curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking are more important in most settings, even those where math skills are important.

Surely less than ten percent of all jobs require anything beyond just basic math skills, so a better statistic to examine (and one I never see reported) would be how the top ten percent in the US compare with the top ten percent elsewhere. That’s what really counts: the mathematical ability of those who are actually using higher math.

Another test of the quality of American education is the market test. People from all over the world come to the United States to attend college and graduate school. Korea and Japan rank at the top in the article cited above. I see lots of Korean and Japanese students at American universities, but not many people from other countries go to Korea or Japan for a college education. The market test indicates that, at least at the university level, the American educational system is among the best in the world.

It makes little sense to judge the educational system based on the average student’s mathematical ability, because superior math skills are of little use to most people. It makes a lot of sense to do international comparisons by looking at where in the world people actually choose to go to school.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas.
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