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:
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...