America’s athletics vs. academics: The results might surprise you

The U.S.A. is having another great Olympics, with ninety medals so far, thirty-nine of them gold—best in the world in both categories. Only curmudgeons and cynics shrink from feeling pride and patriotism when watching so many young Americans on the podium, singing along to the Star-Spangled Banner.

At the same time, the comparison to America’s lackluster academic performance is almost irresistible—witness Michelle Rhee’s cheeky TV ad or Bob Wise’s coverage from London and Singapore (or, yes, Fordham’s own “Education Olympics” stunt from four years ago).

But there’s a flaw of logic in such comparisons. It’s not exactly fair to contrast the performance of our elite athletes—the .0001 percent—with the performance of our students as a whole (the 100 percent). We should either compare elite athletes to elite students, or our average athletes to our average students.

I’m not sure how you’d do the latter (though I find it hard to believe that Americans in general would do well in an international ranking of physical fitness). But here’s a crack at the former.

First let’s show the Olympic medal count:

Source: ESPN

And now let’s show international rankings for the percentage of students scoring at the most advanced level of the PISA. (This is from Fordham’s 2011 report, American Achievement in International Perspective.)

So there you have it: As suspected, America’s elite athletes are among the world’s best, and our elite students are in the middle of the pack. Right?

Not so fast, because we’re making another apples to oranges comparison. The Olympic medal count is by raw numbers—and the United States (and China) benefit from their huge size. One reason we have so many great athletes is that we have so many people. Take a look at the medal count on a per capita basis.

This is a much more fair comparison to the “league tables” from PISA. And look, America is (as of this writing) fortieth in the world in Olympic medals. Compare this to twenty-fourth in the world in math and an impressive eighth in the world in reading.

Or do the math a different way, and compute the raw number of students from each country scoring tops in PISA (as we did in our 2011 report):

Lo and behold, the U.S.A. is at the top of this medal count! (Though, of course, we must issue a HUGE caveat: neither China nor India—each of which boasts three times our population—takes the PISA, yet.)

So what does all of this mean? To be sure, I don’t intend to imply that “all is well” with American education. The performance of our poor and minority students, in particularly, is nothing short of disastrous—and that’s the case regardless of how you analyze the data. (See Figures 8 and 9 here, for instance.)

But our large size gives us some advantages in academics, just as it does in athletics. The reason that the world’s best universities continue to be populated by so many Americans is that (1) most of those universities are here, and (2) we produce more top K-12 students than anybody else. As long as that’s the case, we will continue to lead the world economically and culturally. Let us not rest on our laurels, though, because the rest of the globe is intent on catching up.

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