Fighting Poverty with Passion
My Taiwanese cousin, David, lives in Taipei – a frenzied capital of glittering skyscrapers and motorcycles everywhere. He doesn’t see much of the city though. The all-important college entrance exams are upon him. Everything rides on a two-to-three day exam that places you in a university program, and a third of students don’t even get in anywhere. This is like the SAT/ACT alone getting you into college.
Students in Taiwan study constantly. David’s at school all day and then it’s off to cram school almost every evening. Weekends are for more cram school and homework; there’s no time for extracurriculars. The subways teem with students heading home around 9 pm, dressed in school uniforms that look like 90’s exercise gear.
The name of David’s school, Jianguo (建國), means “Building the Country,” Taiwan’s vision for the capital’s premier high school after the end of Japanese rule in 1945.
David and other Taiwanese students are “building the country” indeed. Taiwan scores near the top in math (560) and reading (523) compared to 64 other countries in the OECD’s 2012 PISA study. (See below for a note on PISA scores)
Disappointingly, the U.S. continues to post mediocre results. We rank right in the middle for reading (498) and science (497), and slightly below average in math (481). Put another way, students in “Shanghai-China” have the equivalent of three more years of schooling than Americans do by the age of fifteen.
This is very troubling. Obama recently declared that “the countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow” and that the U.S. needs to remain number one. But how can we do this when we face education budget cuts across the country? When only 26% of students and 5% of African-Americans are college-ready based on their ACT scores? (see note below.) It’s a little overwhelming.
One thing we can do is to address the relative educational inequity we have in the U.S. In 2009, our 90th percentile performed very well (620) but our lowest 10th percentile was very low (372). That’s a difference of almost five years of school. However, state-by-state scores show Massachusetts and Connecticut at the top, near powerhouse Asian countries. Clearly, our schools fail many but some states are getting it right.
We can also learn from other countries. This is not to say that Taiwan’s education system is the only way – there is something to be said for the richness in arts, sports, and volunteering that seems missing from my cousin’s experience. However, what does it mean for us if David and all his schoolmates study constantly while we remain mired in mediocrity?
As we start a new year, let’s renew our commitment to providing an exemplary education for all students. Ask yourself – are we too “building the country”?
P.S.: PISA scores are scaled so that the average of all countries equals 500. Therefore, a country’s score above or below 500 is really an indicator of its achievement relative to other countries rather than its students’ inherent ability.
P.P.S. “College-ready” for ACT scores, which are more commonly used in Louisiana than the SAT, technically means 75% likely to achieve a C or higher in a freshman-level college course in that subject. The cut-off scores are 18 for reading and 22 for math.