There are two ways to interpret the latest global test scores on student learning released this week. One way is to congratulate ourselves (as most of the Canadian media did) that our 15-year-olds are still "world class" in reading, math and science. The other interpretation is that the Chinese kids are eating our lunch.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's global test, called PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), is administered every three years. It tests half a million students from 65 countries and, despite some flaws, is universally regarded as authoritative. For the first time, these test results include students from Shanghai. And they blew everyone else out of the water. "Top test scores from Shanghai stun educators," said the headline in The New York Times.
"I'm kind of stunned. I'm thinking Sputnik," says Chester Finn, a leading American education authority. The Soviets' launch of Sputnik in 1957 was a frontal assault on U.S. scientific supremacy, and it started the space race.
If only it were so easy to launch an education race. The performance of American students, who usually place 23rd or 24th, is mediocre at best. Compared with them, Canada is a superstar. We are the best performing nation in the Western Hemisphere, and we rank among the top half of a dozen countries in the world. But the new kids on the global block are running rings around us, too.
Consider math, where cross-cultural comparisons are especially easy. A math score of 500 is the OECD average. The U.S. scored 487. Canada scored 527, about the same as Japan and the Netherlands. Shanghai scored 600. No one else even got close. Shanghai also led the pack in science and reading.
Shanghai, of course, isn't typical of all of China. It's a magnet city for the best. Much of China's education system is still crummy. But people who've travelled extensively in China say it's modernizing fast. "If China can produce top PISA scorers in one city in 2009, it can do this in 10 cities in 2019 and 50 in 2029. Or maybe faster," Mr. Finn wrote in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.
How much do Shanghai's test scores matter? Some people say not much, because the Chinese education system cranks out drones who lack creativity and imagination. But Andreas Schleicher, the director of the OECD's testing program, says that's a myth. "For me, the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning."
If you believe - as Bill Gates does - that the most valuable resource of this century is sheer brain power, then this story matters a great deal. It means that China has more of this resource than any other country in the world. (India hasn't been tested yet.)
Shanghai has highly motivated students in a highly disciplined system. They study much harder than Western students, and spend very little time on sports or other extracurricular activities. For them, the stakes are extremely high - much higher than they are in Canada. They're accustomed to the idea that the world is Darwinian. As one 22-year-old at a top Beijing university explained to me one day, "In order for us to get here, it wasn't enough for us to be the brightest students in our school or our city. We had to be the brightest students in the entire province." Her province has a population the size of Canada's.
According to the OECD assessment, Shanghai is aggressively experimenting with education techniques, to find the ones that work best. (We experiment with fads and fashions, even when they don't work well at all.) It has made teaching a well-paid, highly competitive and much-sought-after job. On top of that, its math teachers actually understand and enjoy math. We could learn from that.
There's no reason we should beat ourselves up over Canada's test results. We still do quite well by global standards. But those standards have just shot up. And if we want to compete with the very best, we'll have to raise our game.