Being No. 1 in the World

U.S. leaders tell us that we got to be Number 1 in the world. The historic belief in American exceptionalism–we are different than other nations and should lead the world–fuels such sloganeering.

OK, Number 1 in what? Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? We are. On Americans having more guns than citizens in other nations? We are. On obesity? We are.  Obviously, the goal of being no. 1 depends upon which race you compete in.

Columnist Fareed Zakaria  recently summed up the U.S.’s rank in global races.

“According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), our 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. We rank 12th among developed countries in college graduation (down from No. 1 for decades). We come in 79th in elementary-school enrollment. Our infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world, well behind that of every other major advanced economy…. [B]ased on studies by the OECD and the World Health Organization, we’re 27th in life expectancy, 18th in diabetes and first in obesity…. No more. There are some areas in which we are still clearly No. 1, but they’re not ones we usually brag about. We have the most guns. We have the most crime among rich countries. And, of course, we have by far the largest amount of debt in the world.”

Schooling statistics rank high among U.S. policymakers for the past thirty years because economic growth (as measured by GDP and other indicators) has been married to the goal of higher test scores and college degrees.  Competition for high rankings is in the bloodstream. Sports, video games, climbing the corporate ladder have winners and losers. And who would have thought that using the phrase “Race To The Top” would so neatly capture the cultural value of competition and the clear message that some states will win and others will lose in getting federal funds. Of course, there is nothing wrong with competition as long as goals are acceptable to Americans and metrics match the goals.

That last sentence has a kicker in it, particularly when it comes to schooling: acceptance of the goal of the race. Some Americans have doubts.

One Mom described in a letter to the editor the anxiety she and her husband feel in raising their kids.

As parents of twin 8-year-olds, my husband and I have felt anxious about their futures in a world where there is shrinking middle ground between poverty and upper-middle-class professionals. We fear that if they don’t succeed on this high wire, there will be nothing to catch them once we’re gone.

So we are keeping our children active with piano, cello and drums instruction, tennis tournaments, after-school Spanish, church basketball, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, running club, art and dance. And although they are excellent students, we fear that their public education might leave them less competitive nationally, so we plan to add weekly tutoring to the mix.

When do they have time to be kids? Not very often these days.

Greenville, S.C., Oct. 3, 2011

For affluent, middle-class, and poor parents similar anxieties, fed by ever-rising costs for private and public schooling, begin early in competing for limited slots in Head Start and chic nursery schools  continuing into young adulthood with sharp elbows tossed around in competing for graduate school fellowships. That angst felt by Melinda Young is about the quality of life losing out in racing toward the finish line. Piling up credentials, polishing resumes, and looking over one’s shoulder is far more important in the U.S. (as long as you are employed or hope to be) rather than other criteria used to judge how a life is lived, how families thrive, and how communities grow in spirit and cooperation. By now, if you guessed that there are international rankings for “quality of life,” you’re right.

A recent piece summed up these rankings:

“In the 2011 Quality of Life Index by Nation Ranking, the U.S. was 31st. Similarly, in recent rankings of the world’s most livable cities, the Economist Intelligence Unit has the top American entry at No. 29, Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey has the first United States entry at No. 31 and Monocle magazine showed only 3 United States cities in the top 25.”

Quality of life? Come on, Larry. Be realistic. I am. I know that GDP, test scores and lifetime dollar earnings linked to degrees are hard-core measures that have been imprinted on Americans’ foreheads and will be around for years to come. Yet other nations have used measures that get at national well-being beyond narrow economic metrics. As the writer pointed out above,

“Nearly all the world’s quality-of-life leaders are … countries that spend more on infrastructure than the United States does. In addition, almost all are more environmentally conscious and offer more comprehensive social safety nets and national health care to their citizens.”

It is realistic, I believe, for U.S. leaders to consider that Americans are not exceptional, a divine gift to the world, and shift goals and metrics to the well-being of American citizens rather than the usual econometrics especially as protests against Wall Street and corporate welfare slowly spread.


Filed under school reform policies

4 responses to “Being No. 1 in the World

  1. I recently returned from a trip to Finland with a bunch of UK architects and a handful of educationalists, billed as “The Best Schools in the World” study tour. I suspect one key thing I observed there will be of some interest to you Larry.
    I was struck by the remarkable degree of consistency I found in the many teachers I met, from all stages. Besides being largely apolitical (a blessing in itself) the level of agreement between these professionals about what constitutes excellent teaching and schooling was striking.
    It reminded me of my time as a boarding school housemaster where I often felt, I don’t actually care too much what the rule is…as long as every one of the eight housemasters actually bothered to enforce it!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Joe, for the observation about the consistency across different classrooms in schools (and across schools, I assume). That variation within and between schools bedevils U.S. schools.

  2. Pingback: More writing on American “post-exceptionalism” « Bill Storm on Ed Tech

  3. In following Joe’s thought here, my eyes came to this phrase in your article:

    Piling up credentials, polishing resumes, and looking over one’s shoulder is far more important in the U.S. (as long as you are employed or hope to be) rather than other criteria used to judge how a life is lived, how families thrive, and how communities grow in spirit and cooperation.

    This also describes a typical American teaching environment, needing only the change of the word “families” to “schools,” and inserting the word “learning” between “how” and “communities.” The most successful American schools work to build a collaborative inter-professional culture and the development of a sense of belonging and an expectation of success for both teachers and students. Competitive, adversarial, Darwinian, bootstrap schooling succeeds in creating an elite ruling class, but does nothing to build a society of high-functioning citizens.

    Thanks for the article, Larry.

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