International Opinion

America Leads the World in Nonsensical Comparisons: What Really Matters?

By Anthony Cody — November 13, 2011 3 min read
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Efforts to improve our schools have always been spurred on by comparisons between our nation and others, which usually find us somewhere in the middle of the pack. In the 1950s the Russians were winning the space race because Ivan studied 12 hours a day, while his American counterpart goofed off at the soda parlor. In 1983, once again, the nation was “at risk” because we had allowed our standards to fall so low.

More recently we have heard the alarm sounded as a result of our performance on the PISA, where we once again find ourselves in the middle of the pack.

But as I shared a few weeks ago, we are at the very bottom of international rankings when it comes to child poverty and wealth inequality. And when our test scores are analyzed taking this into account, our schools are doing fairly well.

Walt Gardner’s latest post raises some interesting questions about what goes into these rankings in the first place. One recent comparison focused entirely on math scores, because this skill is supposedly the one best correlated with economic growth. Gardner writes:

...that assertion alone is arguable. Successful corporate leadership does not depend on math expertise alone. It also involves other wherewithal, such as the ability to inspire others. If this were not true, then only certified public accountants would be heading up megacorporations.

Gardner points us to another analysis, that looks at the actual characteristics required for the highest level of success in today’s corporate world. This essay by George Monblot in The Guardian lays out some interesting facts.

The findings of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, are devastating to the beliefs that financial high-fliers entertain about themselves. He discovered that their apparent success is a cognitive illusion. For example, he studied the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers across eight years. He found that the consistency of their performance was zero. "The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill." Those who received the biggest bonuses had simply got lucky.

Monblot goes on to describe the borderline psychopathic personalities apparently being rewarded by our current system:

In their book Snakes in Suits, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare point out that as the old corporate bureaucracies have been replaced by flexible, ever-changing structures, and as team players are deemed less valuable than competitive risk-takers, psychopathic traits are more likely to be selected and rewarded. Reading their work, it seems to me that if you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you're likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you're likely to go to business school.
This is not to suggest that all executives are psychopaths. It is to suggest that the economy has been rewarding the wrong skills. As the bosses have shaken off the trade unions and captured both regulators and tax authorities, the distinction between the productive and rentier upper classes has broken down. Chief executives now behave like dukes, extracting from their financial estates sums out of all proportion to the work they do or the value they generate, sums that sometimes exhaust the businesses they parasitise. They are no more deserving of the share of wealth they've captured than oil sheikhs.

To bring this back to the educational arena, if we wish the ultimate success at winning the international competition for wealth, perhaps we should be figuring out our rankings not only in math, but also in ruthlessness. And many of our policies, such as the more and more explicit systems we have of ranking students by test scores, seem to take us in this direction.

But I wonder if we were to turn these rankings around a bit, and shake up the values systems embedded in them, perhaps we might find some new goals to which we might aspire? For me, the values that lie under my metrics revolve around happiness, connection to nature, sustainability, and democracy.

Here are some international rankings where I wish we would excel:

Wealth distribution. You cannot have a real democracy when wealth and power become ever more concentrated in the hands of the few. As Richard Wilkinson described in this TED talk, the less equal a society is, the greater is our collective misery.

The Happy Planet Index, which ranks the nations of the world based on how well we are living in harmony with nature and a sustainable future for our grandchildren.

A Creativity Index:
How well are we able to think beyond the constraints imposed upon us by our circumstances and societal norms? How does society respond to those who think outside of conventions? Can we even question the way things are? These are the skills that will allow us to shift, to change, to innovate, and to make new choices that will allow us to move into the future with aliveness and grace.

A Compassion Index:
Caring about others is perhaps the deepest root of every wisdom that has come down through the ages. How is this manifested in our society? How well do we care for those in need?

I believe our schools are only a minor factor in determining our economic competitiveness. As Yong Zhao has rather thoroughly documented, a nation’s placement on international test score comparisons has usually had an inverse relationship to one’s subsequent success in the global arena.

Our future will depend much less on whether we can graduate more engineers than China or India, and much more on how we confront the tremendous inequalities that characterize our society. Our ability to thrive on the planet will depend much more on our compassion for others, our concern for the environment, and our willingness to make different choices - not always based on self-interest. And we must begin with the most creative act of all, which is to realize that international comparisons embody hidden values, and values represent choices we make. It is time for a different set of indexes, driven by deeper values. And on this, I finally may find some common ground with the alarmists. By the indexes I have offered above, our society is in trouble.

What do you think? How should we be comparing ourselves to other nations? What would YOU like to see us aspire to?

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