Comparing U.S. to little countries is unfairPublished 9:44am Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom
A friend in the journalism industry moved to Eagan from Miami Beach. Down in Florida, she had enrolled the children in a private school, one with a good reputation as among the best in the Miami area. In the Twin Cities, her kids attended the public schools. She found her kids were struggling to keep up with the more advanced material in the Minnesota public schools.
The anecdote reminds us here in the Upper Midwest that often our public schools are as good or better than the private schools in some other parts of the country.
I think of this story whenever I hear of how America ranks in terms of science, math and other subjects when compared to other countries. They always make our country sound awful. Recently, there are TV commercials from Exxon that compare the United States to places like Slovenia and Switzerland, and the viewer gets to hear how Exxon supports the National Math and Science Initiative.
That’s well and good for an oil company to do, but what the commercials and similar reports fail to note is there are parts of America that drag down the country’s overall education scores. These places should not reflect on the quality found in many places across the country, such as here in Minnesota.
Minnesota educators and the public who support our schools definitely are doing their part to make our state competitive in the global marketplace. Our ACT scores are regularly among the best in the nation, and our curriculum often sets the standards for quality and new ideas. I would love to see a study that compares the individual states to other countries, rather than comparing the entire United States to other countries.
I don’t have to perform a study to know it sure would see easier to improve the education level of a country the size of South Korea, Estonia, France, Ireland and Japan than it would be to improve the level of a country like the United States, Brazil, China, India or Russia. California alone has a bigger population than Canada. It seems to be more fair to compare how Minnesota does in education compared to places like Taiwan, Germany, New Zealand and Poland than comparing all of America. Successful places like Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New Hampshire get grouped in with unsuccessful places like Nevada, New Mexico, Mississippi, West Virginia and Arizona, yet little countries like Hungary and Finland get to stand on their own when compared to us, making us feel really guilty for being lousy.
Here’s another thing to consider: These other countries have a single education system. The United States, like its name implies, really has 50 education systems. While our federal government indeed has some education involvement, it’s minimal compared to what central governments do in other countries. What Minnesota does to improve education doesn’t matter much in South Dakota. What Belgium does to improve education affects all of Belgium.
A kid from Italy could come to America and end up in a Louisiana public school and think the American education system is sorely lacking, but another kid from the same country could come to Iowa and think the U.S. schools are more challenging than anticipated.
Moreover, comparing education systems gets difficult because it depends on how the data is compiled. It’s hard to find comparisons that look strictly at results and don’t have an ax to grind over things like unions, curriculum or funding.
I’ve scoured many studies for this column, and here are my findings: Northern states good. Southern states bad. Make sure you live where even people without children care about education.
Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.