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Education Statistics

I was reading this over at Commentary Magazine and it got me to thinking about the education statistics that politicians and pundits love to throw around. The bit that caught my attention was:
Europe already leads the United States in several dimensions critical to growth. It has a larger aggregate economy and far larger exports ($1,430 billion as against $986 billion), and, critically, its citizens enjoy much higher levels of educational skills. Thus, in a recent international study of mathematical achievement, Hong Kong ranked first, Finland second, the Netherlands fourth, Japan sixth, Canada seventh, Belgium eighth, France sixteenth, Germany nineteenth, Poland twenty-fourth—and the United States twenty-eighth. Mathematics is, of course, the key to future scientific and technical excellence, and in this area the Europeans are far ahead of us.
Now I'm not particularly sure what the author means by 'mathematical achievement' but I started to wonder if his implication that high scores in math exams is 'the key to future scientific and technical excellence' is correct.

As an engineer I understand the importance of mathematics in our everyday lives but is it the 'key to future scientific and technical excellence'? The first point I would like clarified here is what does 'mathematical achievement' mean? Is this based on high-school students? University? Does it refer to a random sample of the population?

The question is relevant in the sense that if the results are based on high-school students then how does that affect 'future scientific and technical excellence'? Getting good results is something to be proud of (and is a decent indicator of future prospects) but lets see a high-school student do leading edge research. For the most part it isn't going to happen.

As well what kind of consideration is give to the rule of law, the openness of the economy, etc... and their impact on 'future scientific and technical excellence'? How much does a country's tolerance for new ideas affect it's future prospects? As an example I used to work with a guy from Iran who studied mathematics. He was brilliant, and yet all his knowledge and skills were wasted in Iran. In Canada his skills have been put to good use and our country has benefited greatly from his decision to come here.

Anyways, my point is that many people, media and politicians in particular, are quick to predict gloom and doom based on the results of a few simple international test scores. Like most things in life it is the big picture that counts.

Without the environment to put these skills to good use the statistics are basically useless.

crossposted to The Shotgun

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