Are American Kids Just Stupid and Lazy?

This article in the Washington Post caught my attention:

There was this test. And it was daunting. It was like the SAT or ACT — which many American millennials are no doubt familiar with, as they are on track to be the best educated generation in history — except this test was not about getting into college. This exam, given in 23 countries, assessed the thinking abilities and workplace skills of adults. It focused on literacy, math and technological problem-solving. The goal was to figure out how prepared people are to work in a complex, modern society.

And U.S. millennials performed horribly.

That might even be an understatement, given the extent of the American shortcomings. No matter how you sliced the data – by class, by race, by education – young Americans were laggards compared to their international peers. In every subject, U.S. millennials ranked at the bottom or very close to it, according to a new study by testing company ETS.

“We were taken aback,” said ETS researcher Anita Sands. “We tend to think millennials are really savvy in this area. But that’s not what we are seeing.”

The gap between “savvy in this area” and the ability to solve technological problems (either in the real world or in a test) is pretty large. The only surprise might be that the researchers were surprised. The ability to use a telephone does not mean that you could build one let alone invent one. Or being able to plug in an XBox, install games on it, and play them does not mean you could build one, design and implement a game, or solve problems with the game or the gadget. The ability to post on Facebook or put your picture on Instagram does not mean you could create Facebook or Instagram. The researchers, all technologically-challenged elders in fact, may just lack the smarts to know the difference.

However, let’s list some possible reasons for the outcome:

  • Students in other countries are smarter and work harder.
  • American students are stupid and lazy.
  • The tests are not being administered to representative samples of the population.
  • Other countries put their kids into educational tracks, i.e. they specialize earlier, and in those countries only the specialists are taking the test.
  • The differences among countries aren’t actually very large and random variation could account for some of the differences in outcome.
  • Who cares about results on a stupid test anyway?
  • Too high a percentage of American students live in homes where their parents are barely literate (if at all) and illiterate in science, technology, and math.
  • The U. S. education system is lousy.

and those are just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more. Or maybe, just maybe, American parents and students are canny consumers and realize there’s no future in science, technology, and math for them. Science and math are hard, jobs in science and technology aren’t easy to get, and companies can and will always hire people from Japan and Finland for technical jobs. The only math and science worth studying are just enough to get you into med school.

11 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    Something odd about testing adults to determine how prepared they are to work in a complex, modern society. Ostensibly they are working and maybe none of the things being tested are relevant to their jobs.

  • jan

    The last reason is the closest as to why our public school system functions below par when compared to other countries. However, I don’t see it as being necessarily a lousy system, but rather one that has been highjacked for the benefit of the Teacher’s Unions, the federal government’s vision of PC academics and the like, rather than permitting more creative and substantial options to be on the table for parents to assess and then chose. There is virtually no choice in education if it’s one that rattles, competes with or negatively impacts the system already in place

  • PD Shaw

    I will use the word “odd” again. The sample questions seem odd. The literacy questions really gauge the ability to follow instructions and comprehend a busy chart. I suppose this is a form of applied literacy, but they do not even involve use of complete sentences.

    The math questions are mostly not very mathematical. Read a line graph and a thermometer. Subtract 30 deg. C from a reading. Note that the thermometer is a non-digital clock-style. Do Americans have problems with non-digital displays?

    The last math question asks for the annual rate of interest from an advertisement that is probably illegal in the U.S. where Truth in Lending requiring the interest rate be reported. Perhaps Americans should still be able to calculate simple interest, but does it matter that most situations where this is important regulations do it for you?

  • Andy

    “Those in Finland, Sweden and Japan seemed to be on a different planet.”

    Hmmm, what do they have in common that is different from the US?

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