THE GOLDEN treasury of selected, spun, and distorted statistics from 1983 that we know as A Nation at Risk said, "If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system." The document tightly yoked our economic position in the world to how well or poorly elementary and secondary students bubbled-in answer sheets.
This was utter nonsense, but few recognized it as such. The distinguished historian of education, Lawrence Cremin, was one who did. He pointed out that competitiveness depended mostly on the actions taken by the President, Congress, and several federal departments -- not to mention things that happen in other nations. Cremin wrote: "To conclude that the problems of international competitiveness can be solved by educational reform, especially educational reform defined solely in terms of school reform, is not merely utopian and millennialist, it is at best a foolish and at worst a crass effort to direct attention away from those truly responsible for doing something about competitiveness and to lay the burden on the schools. It is a device that has been used repeatedly in the history of American education."
Cremin notwithstanding, A Nation at Risk's spurious argument was widely accepted. The theory enjoyed great popularity during the recession of 1990-91. Many variations on the lousy-schools-are-producing-a-lousy- work-force-and-that-is-killing-us-in-the-global-marketplace argument could be heard.
Fortunately, the economy wasn't paying attention, and by late 1993 and early 1994, many publications featured banner headlines about the recovery that was to become the longest sustained period of growth in the nation's history. "The American Economy: Back on Top" was one such headline in the New York Times. Well, if the schools took the rap when the economy went south, surely they would get the credit when the economy turned around, right? Hardly. Just three months after that headline in the Times, IBM CEO Louis Gerstner, Jr., took to that paper's op-ed page with an essay headlined "Our Schools Are Broken." They are broken, Gerstner charged, because they are not producing students who can compete with their international peers.
Recently, I quantified the relationship between test scores and competitiveness. I correlated the Current Competitiveness Index (CCI), as calculated by the World Economic Forum in Geneva, with test scores in mathematics from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The World Economic Forum ranked 75 nations according to their CCI; 41 countries took part in TIMSS. Thirty-eight countries had ranks on both. The results are shown in Table 1.
The briefest glance reveals that there is little relationship between the two columns. For example, the United States is 29th in TIMSS mathematics, but second in competitiveness. Korea is third in mathematics, but 27th in competitiveness. And so on. Overall, the correlation between test score ranks and competitiveness ranks is +.23. This is tiny as correlations go. It means that test scores account for just 5% of what makes up a nation's competitiveness. (The square of the correlation coefficient is the amount of one variable accounted for by another.) And, actually, this figure is misleadingly high. The bottom seven countries are low on both variables and so create what little relationship there is. If these seven nations are removed from the calculation, the correlation between test scores and competitiveness actually becomes negative.
Indeed, the CCI does not ignore schools, and, in fact, the TIMSS scores from both mathematics and science are included, as are survey rankings from executives that the World Economic Forum claims have "international perspectives." (The inclusion of TIMSS scores in the CCI makes the low correlations even more remarkable. …