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There was a lot of manufactured handwringing earlier this month about the middling performance of American 15-year-olds on a global measure of reading, mathematics and science skills. Yet if we look at the scores on the Program for International Student Assessment in the context of another international competition, we get a clearer picture.
Every year the Association for Computing Machinery holds its International Collegiate Programming Contest. In the old days, U.S. teams consistently dominated the event. Recently, however, the top teams have tended to be from Asia and the former Soviet-bloc nations. Jiaotong University, or Jiaoda, in Shanghai, has been especially strong, winning gold medals on several occasions.
In other words, it would appear that not only are Shanghai’s 15-year-olds sharper than their American peers, but Shanghai’s geeks also are smarter than our geeks. So, the sky is falling, right? Appearances are deceiving, it turns out.
The Jiaoda contestants are essentially student-athletes, spending all their time training for the event, according to a Jiaoda public information officer, Xu Jun. And the skills needed for the competition are indeed trainable. Although the problems posed each year are unique, their solutions usually fall into a handful of patterns.
This gives a huge benefit to those who can devote themselves to full-time, year-round practice. By contrast, most top U.S. computer-science students have better things to do with their time, including founding startups that might become billion-dollar companies.
This isn’t the direction the U.S. should take. Yes, we need to bring up the proficiency of our weakest students – a social challenge that goes far deeper than the harrumphing about “fixing our schools” would indicate. Yet we shouldn’t bring down the level of the stronger students just to win international contests.