Another “Sputnik” moment: The Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming

“Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators” is the most viewed and most emailed story in today’s NY Times. In the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, Shanghai students outscored all other countries in reading as well as in math and science.
“Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education. “If they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”

Even republicans now use the all too Kennedy-esque “Sputnik” moment.

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday. The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

A “wake-up call”? What happened to Sputnik?

But Obama is back at it. In a speech to a college audience in North Carolina, he uses again the Sputnik metaphor: “Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. With billions of people in India and China suddenly plugged into the world economy, nations with the most educated workers will prevail.”

“As it stands right now,” he said, “America is in danger of falling behind.”

Prime Minister Harper may not need to worry about his home province falling behind. Indeed, Alberta students placed second in the world in reading (with the highest average score in Canada) and scientific literacy, and eighth in mathematical literacy.

The Global and Mail’s title seems alarming: “Is Canada falling behind in math, science and reading?” But no Sputnik moment for Andrew Parkin, Director General of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada: “I don’t know if anyone needs to be woken up. But knowing how we are doing compared to others is crucial.”

The Ottawa Citizen, on the other hand, is alarmed. Under the title “Canadian students slip in rankings”, they warn that “Canada sat 10th among 70 countries in math skills in 2009, down from seventh place three years earlier, according to the largest international survey of its kind. The country ranked eighth in science scores, down from third in 2006, and sixth in reading skills, sliding from fourth place three years earlier”.

And here is an interesting twist: “but the country can boast of an education system that lessens differences of social class and gaps between immigrant and native-born students.”

Is this a way to say that we should be thankful for the “too many “Asian” students” on Canada’s team?

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