Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Johnny Can’t Compete with Sanjay

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The math and science skills of American high schoolers and college students continue to erode. Michael Miller looks at the implications for U.S. economic competitiveness and offers some suggestions for fixing what ails the schools.

Read the full commentary here.

Jonathan Spalink


  • Josh

    Like the UAW slaughtering the US auto industry, the NEA is guilty for the lax standards and dumbing-down of the US educational structure. The union only serves to justify the deficient teaching capabilities by its members and immune poorly educated children from standards. Their resolution is to heave more capital at schools and educators. When has this ever worked? Yet we continue to do it. The US government would do well to do away with the Department of Education, bar teachers unions and tenure. Hold the teachers feet to the fire and the results will follow.

  • Zoey McWilliams

    I am taking a research methodology class at a major U.S. university this semester. On the first day of class, the professor announced that statistics would no longer be taught as a component of the class "because too many students have struggled with statistics over the years". In my economics classes, we were told that although all of the graphs we would work with are actually curves, we would be "pretending" that they are lines "because most students do not have the mathematical background to work with curves". I predict that in the future of America the research on which we base our plans will be conducted without numerical basis, and our future will be plotted on a straight line — one with a steep, negative slope.

  • Gernon

    I am willing to say that the teachers union control of Government schools are more of a threat to the future of America then any terrorist dirty bomb. Seems like they are more concerned with teaching about Multiculturalism and putting condoms on bananas then teaching student to balance checkbook or learning chemistry.

  • Jude Chua Soo Meng

    Thanks for this great article. I agree with the central claim: that a root of many educational false starts is this downplaying of objective truth. Now, you may say, there is no necessary connection between playing down objective truth and doing poorly in maths or science. Nothing in a relativistic (educational) theorist necessarily entails that he disregards truthful facts in science or maths.

    But Miller’s argument still stands, principally because we are not dealing with a reasoned educational doctrine, but with a mood, a stance, and stances influence as a general spirit, moving from one field to another, often times irrationally. This spirit is the post-modern spirit, the post-modern stance (Lyotard), which is a *will-ful posture aimed at dismantling claims to objective reality. It is afraid to offend, and afraid of whatever that stands its ground. It is a general attitude to oppose and hence disregard whatever is aimed at truth–in values, maths or science. The postmodern stance is aimed at promoting harmony, and preventing terroristic domination, starting with discourses and ending with the political. It is the subjugation of truth in the interest of (a pseudo) friendship, peace and life.

    But at the core of the post-modern stance is a kind of irrationality, because it violates practical reason. For truth and life, friendship are incommensurable goods: you cannot trade one for another. You cannot put them on a scale and commensurate them and say that it is better to have more of one than the other. You cannot actively suppress one in order to obtain the other. It is senseless to say, let us suppress truths so that we can have peace and life. For: there is no reason to think that truth should have any less attractiveness or value than peace and life. (see Finnis, 1983) So at the centre of these politically correct educational approaches, afraid to offend and to generate disharmony and willing to downplay truth, reality and objectivity is an immorality (practical unreasonableness). It is the practically unreasonable post-modern stance. If we must save education, we must, amongst other things, undo this immoral (practically unreasonable) ground.

  • Kishore

    Some distinctions, from David Brooks’s NYT column today on this very topic:

    "What about America’s lamentable education system? Well, it’s true we do a mediocre job of educating people from age 0 to 18, even though we spend by far more per pupil than any other nation on earth. But we do an outstanding job of training people from ages 18 to 65.

    At least 22 out of the top 30 universities in the world are American. More foreign students come to American universities now than before 9/11.

    More important, the American workplace is so competitive, companies are compelled to promote lifelong learning. A U.N. report this year ranked the U.S. third in the world in ease of doing business, after New Zealand and Singapore. The U.S. has the second most competitive economy on earth, after Finland, according the latest Global Competitiveness Report. As Michael Porter of Harvard told The National Journal, ‘The U.S. is second to none in terms of innovation and an innovative environment.’"

  • George

    This is another good reason to undertake the voucher system nationwide. I would prefer to enroll my children in the Catholic school system, if I had the means to.However we as parents can talk to our congressmen with the information as shown above about supporting the voucher system and breaking the NEA stranglehold on the nations children.

  • rc

    "At least 22 out of the top 30 universities in the world are American."

    Not so simple. I have seen this classification and was surprised that, for France, only what is called there ‘Universites’ were listed, but not "Grandes Ecoles", which educate most of engineers, most of the political elite, and have in France the highest level in science (Polytechnique, Normale’Sup, Centrale, Mines, etc… very famous in France. Btw, they are free : Students do not pay anything. Universities are nearly free too. Only some high-level schools are private.


    I agree with your points – but you left out the ridiculous influence of *football* in high school and college.

    Even the most burned-out inner-city ghetto high school has a football team with 100 kids and 20 coaches.

    Every athlete is decked out in expensive shoes, helmets, shoulder pads, hip pads, knee pads, etc… The head coach is pulling down ~$100K and its rare for any of the coaches to ever see a classroom.

    The same school will crowd a classroom and make kids share textbooks … the school may look like a war zone – but the football stadium has a multimillion dollar score board and a weight room that costs more than a 20 year math & science budget.

    Only a few elite colleges (ie, Notre Dame) have a cash-flow positive football program and even less high-schools programs are pay-go.

    In most states, volunteer coaches are also against the rules … Union protectionism at it’s finest.

    A good practical first step would be to force the high schools to spend as much on math & science as they do on football.

  • Jay Michael

    I agree that the public school system has declined in its’ standards for Math & Science, but I was absolutely shocked and appalled at Pres. Bush’s approach – more money for more teachers. It’s the WORST thing he could have done – more than just sounding like something Clinton would have proposed, it gives the rotten stinking Teachers’ Unions that much MORE power.

    Note to Republicans in Congress who want to fix the school problem: "It’s the Monopoly, STUPID!"

  • RainRain

    I find your central argument absurd. There is no systemic "rejection of the existence of truth" in American education, least of all at the elementary and secondary level; still less is that an "underlying problem" in science and math education.

    I am mystified by the pervasive, quasi-mystical belief in the efficacy of market forces; I find it especially bizarre in this context, given that most of the countries with supposedly "superior" educational systems maintain an extremely high level of governmental involvement, and public spending, in the schools.

    And incidentally, the money in American schools is also "attached to kids." Average daily attendance (ADA) is a major determinant of public school funding in America.

  • Following Michael Miller’s recent Acton Commentary, “Why Johnny Can’t Compete with Sanjay”, and the resulting comments, two of America’s best political commentators have also weighed in on the subject.

    First there’s

  • Cliff Washington

    School choice is alive and well in Michigan under the Charter School Movement. It is debatable at best as to who wins or receives the most value from the system, the process or the movement. The for-profit management companies (ESP’s-education service providers) that manage the individual schools receives the lions share of the state and federal dollars-for profit. The authorizers, colleges, universities and ISD’s that sanction or autorizes them are in terms of the portion of the revenue that they receive. What is left for the students and families? I tell you what is left: Manipulated standardized AYP scores lead my the ex-superintentdents that are hired by the ESP and segregated neighborhood schools made possible by state and federal dollars.

  • Fr. Thomas Au

    I am from Hong Kong and now a priest in the US and having been teaching in a Catholic high school for 25 years.

    I have a much simpler explanation.

    In the US, most students spend only 2/3 of school time in academics as opposed to students in other countries.

    All other arguments are valid to one degree or another. But a student simply cannot acquire the fluency or mastery of any skill without the requisite time.

  • George

    Michael you are right on your point. I agree. There are tons of parties and softer education that we do here in America. And we could always improve and/or beef up education – regardless of competing with other nations!

    But beyond this flaw, there is a huge green reality that has nothing to do with education in America. I am an Engineer. I graduated in 1991. I live in NJ and by the cost of living here, I need a larger salary than someone living in India or China. Put me next to an engineer in China or India and give us math or logic tests or ask us to perform complex technological tasks. There will be little to no difference. I may have an edge because I use English as my primary-everyday language. But, the engineer living in China doesn’t have anywhere near the cost of living as I do in NJ or even if I lived in Nebraska.

    A company can hire me or keep me working on for $X dollars. A company can hire someone in China or India for $X/4 or even $X/6 dollars.

    It has nothing to do with my ability to perform my job and everything to do with how a company makes $X – $X/6 more dollars when they don’t hire me.

    Sure, improve the schools … but we need to completely understand that education is not anywhere near the main issue here. We need to stop thinking that we cannot compete because of our education level. Education in today’s global economy is ~2%% of the problem.

    I have to laugh at these articles because they quote "general education" statistics. But, the technical jobs are not going to China and India because their engineers are smarter than our engineers. We are not able to compete with India and China because their workers make tiny amounts of money compared to similar workers in America.

    The Internet and advanced communications have brought us closer together. It was our education system that helped drive that. But now that we are here, it has very little to do with education.

    The bottom line is money! Education will not be an issue for at least 20 years. What political agenda is driving this blindly insane drive to point at education? Who is gaining from this slight of hand trick?

    Is it a way for the American businesses to make it seem less like a cold-hearted business decision and more like our school system is failing? Is it foreign influences that are protecting the growth in American businesses hiring their technical population for more money than their own companies could pay them? Is it CEOs who want to shift the focus from cheating to under-education? Is it Teachers, School Book Companies and Local Governments that want to get more money poured into their business?

    I can believe anything but the fact that it is truly education.

    I can do Modern Physics equations based on the Theory of Relativity and the Speed of Light. I know chemical compounds and their best uses. I work through word problems (normal everyday business problems) and set up software and design hardware. … But, so can the engineer in China and India!

    If the average, non-technical American can’t do Modern Physics equations and work through word problems and set up software and design hardware, who cares! That is not the reason jobs I am qualified for are filled with engineers in India or China! It is the M.O.N.E.Y.!!!!

    Our education system has always worked and it is good to keep a look out at what other countries are doing. And work to improve them, always! Heck, I might be able to get a more stable job if schools start to compete more for people with my level of skill. But, that is just I being selfish – not because the average American should develop engineer level technical skills to be able to teach at the grade school or high school level. Unless America is driving toward having minimum wage laborers designing the next technological break through. Maybe that is another of the driving forces for businesses.

    It is about the money! When the cost of living in China and India and all the other countries behind them rises, we’ll be able to compete. Scream about education improvement all you want. It’ll keep everyone busy thinking it is the schools and take the heat off of "cold-hearted" businesses that need to hire the cheapest labor they can find. At least for a while.


    We will never improve public education untill we discover what led to its decline. The main culprit is (in my opinion) liberal philosophy. The political left believes that to create a "new order", it is necessary to destroy the principles that led to the creation of the old order. The first (and most important) principle that the left sought to undermine was our Judeo/Christain beliefs. 40 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that children could not pray in school. In the ensuing years, liberal special interest groups such as the ACLU have waged endless court battles aimed at expunging public education of all religious influence, particularly the Judeo/Christain variety. One of the biggest problems in public education is lack of discipline. Common sense measures that worked in the past have been abolished by politicians and judges. As a result, many well qualified educators are "throwing in the towell" and seeking employment elsewhere. In many cases, our children are now being brainwashed instead of educated. Leftwing ideology now dominates the educational landscape. Special interest groups are more concerned with the advancement of their agendas than with giving children the skills they will need in order to become successful, productive members of society. Traditional values are often villified by the same groups who praise such concepts as socialism and one world goverment while attacking private initiative and patrotism. Reading, writing, and arithmatic are being sacrificed in order to explain why Susie has two moms and Johnny has two dads. When will Johnny (and Susie) be able to compete with Sanjay? It won’t happen unless we the American people demand reform. And, we won’t have reform as long as educational policy is formulated by liberal idealogues.

  • ibha Das

    Hi Michael,
    You are absolutely right. The problems as I see as an educator are:

    Student’s success is related to many factors, mainly parents, teachers and students them selves. Again, those factors have several variables. Culture is also an important factor. Since, it is almost impossible to change the culture, parental practice and students’ behavior over night, we should make teachers accountable for students’ success.

    1) Too much politics in education (administrator’s problems)
    2) Administrators follow faulty Hiring process, especially in hiring math teachers.
    3) Educators go by degrees (that can be purchased from some Universities) but not by knowledge. I mean, standard of universities, course they have taken etc.
    4) Teachers fabricate students’ scores. (Grading on home work/ grading on project that can be done by some one else is an inaccurate knowledge-assessment process)
    5) The definition of “caring” in US and in India is way different.

    Sanjoy’s teachers demand from him. Sanjoy does not take any paid or unpaid job in school life. Sanjoy does his home work for practice, not for grade, and he will be punished if he cannot satisfy his teachers’ demand. Sanjoy knows that without strong math background, door for work force will be closed for him. Sanjoy has no time for hang-out because his parents scheduled his activities with school work, tutoring and other activities (sports, music, arts, and etc.). Sanjoy does not need to be worry about paying his bills (telephone, utilities, clothes, and often foods).

    Ibha Das

  • Thom Mell

    Does China have school vouchers and school choice?

    Does India?