Over the past six years, stagnation and decline in academic performance have weakened America’s influence abroad. Our country now faces serious national security threats born from the stark reality that a once crumbled Cold War power has been steadily rebuilt by the hands of a former KGB Lieutenant Colonel.
Vladimir Putin is a 9th degree Taekwondo black belt, but politically he operates more like a champion boxer, masterfully able to feint a jab and throw a hook. America focused on Russia’s occupation of Georgia and the recent annexation of Crimea, distracted only momentarily by the Russian president’s now infamous shirtless horse rides. All the while, Putin and the Cold War power he pieced backed together, readied an overlooked left hook – Russia’s dramatic surge past the U.S. in academic achievement, specifically within the areas of math and science. Putin is now primed for his Sputnik moment.
When compared to America, Russia’s population is more educated, its workforce is more employable, and the country’s students greatly outperform our own in math and science. Results from The Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) – a study administered by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) – show that since 2007, achievement in math and science among U.S. students has stagnated, while Russian students have achieved striking gains in both subjects. Over the four-year period, average math performance among eighth grade students in Russia improved by 27 points, while the average score among American students rose only 1 point. Comparing achievement in science over the same period reveals an identically troubling trend. Eighth grade students in Russia improved their average science performance by 12 points, while average U.S. student performance rose only 5 points. As of the last administered TIMSS assessment, eighth grade students in Russia outperform their U.S. peers by 30 points in math and 17 points in science.
Along with Russia’s Sputnik-like rise in student achievement, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) considers the country’s workforce to be among the most educated in the world. 52 percent of Russians aged 25-34 have completed some type of post-secondary education, ranking the Russian Federation 4th in educational attainment internationally. Educational attainment among Americans 25-34 lags a full 10 percentage points behind Russia and ranks 14th in the world. Even more shocking is that according to a 2012 OECD report, the share of international students studying abroad in the U.S. has declined 2.3 percent, while Russia has increased its share of international students by roughly 2 percentage points over the past decade.
Various worldwide assessments including the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), as well as countless data from international organizations such as the World Bank , point to the same conclusion: America is on the wrong end of a growing international academic achievement gap – the type of division in academic performance that emboldens the increasingly dangerous actions of re-emerging world powers. We fell for the feint, but still have a chance to dodge the hook. And we have done so before.
In 1958, less than a year after the Soviet Union caught the U.S. off-guard by launching Sputnik, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA)was enacted to ensure we could not only compete with, but ultimately prevail over the U.S.S.R. NDEA wisely reacted to widespread fears that Soviet schools had surpassed the prestige of those in the U.S. Rigor was increased at every institutional level and fiscal efficiency was maximized to ensure our country’s mathematical and scientific abilities would never again be outdone.
As Sputnik caught our nation off-guard in the 1950s, Putin has done so once again. Our country must consider the brooding threat of a declining public education system as a threat to our national security. Failure to do so with a sense of serious urgency will continue to diminish our standing in the world and further embolden once slumbering foreign powers, now waking from bitter dreams, seeking to create a new world order.
Ultimately, the U.S. cannot just dodge the hook. America must overcome its vast international achievement gap, and we must do so with the urgency of Sputnik in mind.