Can an ‘International Competition’ Argument Still Work for Schools?

Feb 23, 2023 3:30:00 PM

by Lane Wright

Would it really be the worst thing if the U.S. wasn’t on top of the world order? 

I just read a thought-provoking essay from Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, which was part of the Opportunity America essay collection UnLocking the Future. It argues that if the U.S. doesn’t improve schools and “close the global achievement gap,” China will overtake us in every way that matters: Economically, politically, militarily, ideologically, etc.

I think he’s spot on to call for higher-quality schools and more nimble education systems, but his international competitiveness message is weak if he’s trying to reach millennials or Gen-Z. 

Marshall cites the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) as evidence of China’s threat (i.e., U.S. ranked 37th out of 78 nations in math, 18th in science and 13th in reading in 2018, etc.), but some doubt the validity of those results since PISA ignores most of the provinces in China and focuses on Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Far be it from me to suggest that China might be manipulating the results by limiting the sample size, but you can draw your own conclusions. 

His other premise is that if China is coming to drink our milkshake (Insert There Will Be Blood GIF), improving our school system is our primary defense. 

But empires have life cycles, and the U.S. is on the declining slope of ours. Trying to improve our schools probably won’t be enough to overcome the national weakening that derives from the chasm between the rich and the poor, political tribalism and division, unrestrained money printing, soaring national debt and nations conspiring to quit the petro-dollar and establish a new dominant world reserve currency.

Marshall acknowledges our tendency toward political division and tribalism. He cites Governors Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis riding waves of populist parental angst and disaffection with the school system as evidence of one path we could follow. 

Yet he implies that a common desire to keep our country on top, along with an agreed upon need to address the “pathologies of our legacy K-12 system,” will feed cross-partisan demands for systemic change. 

Color me skeptical. 

I want desperately to believe in his vision, but I have doubts whether it can win against the polarized nature of our political, governmental and educational systems. 

Perhaps the U.S. could unite against a common enemy similar to how we came together after the 9/11 attacks, but from what I see, we’re more likely to make our political or ideological opponents the enemy than China. Heck, a recent Gallup poll shows that 39% of Americans have a positive opinion of socialism (though not necessarily China’s specific brand of it).

Marshall’s national competition framework resonates with me as a child of the 80s Cold War era, but I don’t think it will resonate with younger generations or even with the progressive left who tend to see national pride as “problematic.” 

“Why should we be at the top of the world order?” I can imagine them asking, “especially when we’ve gained our status in questionable and even harmful ways.” 

If the argument is that we need to stay on top so that other countries don’t screw with us (the way we’ve screwed with them), it might be a hard sell, especially to people under 40. Add in the concerns over issues of anti-Asian sentiments and specifically the anti-Chinese sentiments that followed COVID-19, trying to paint China as the bad guy may be a poison pill for those who don’t see much of a distinction between attacking China’s government and their oppressive human rights violations and attacking the Chinese in general. 

As economies become increasingly global and work becomes less location-dependent, the reality is that our children will be competing against those from other countries more than any generation before them. And given how our kids are stacking up against our domestic standards (i.e., test scores, high school graduation, college matriculation, workforce pathways, etc.), we absolutely need to do better.

Ultimately, Marshal is right that we should be concerned with how our kids are performing against the rest of the world, but I don’t think fear of China and sudden bipartisanship will move most Americans toward the drastic change our schools need.

Lane Wright

Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand concepts. During his time at Education Post, and with previous organizations, Lane has interviewed teachers, students and local school leaders. He’s spent time watching them work in the classroom and helped them raise their voices on issues they care about. He’s also helped parents advocate—in the news, and before lawmakers—for a better education for their own kids. Lane, his wife, and three children live in Tallahassee, Florida, where his kids attend a public charter school.

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