America is just average, not exceptional

Americans love to bask in the glory of our “exceptionalism.” We are great, we are wonderful, we dominate the world.

Scholars who study “us” say that our exceptionalism is rooted in the fact that we have offered leadership in international affairs. We have committed more resources than other countries to the United Nations, to NATO, and to other organizations committed to international peace. But we do this with a sense of paternal largesse, as if we are the greatest, the most wonderful, the benefactor.

Are Russians smarter?
But we have allowed our electoral system to be thrown into chaos because Vladimir Putin has a grudge against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and he used his minions to actualize his grudge.

Hillary Clinton got nearly three million more votes than Trump, but he has an Electoral College victory. Is this American exceptionalism? A hacked democracy vulnerable to the intrusion of foreign powers?

We talk as if we are No. 1 or No. 2 in achievement, but the fact is that we are No. 14 or 15 by many measures. We aren’t exceptional. We’re just average, ranking below a dozen countries, hitting the median mark.

When science literacy is measured, 24 countries rank higher than the United States. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) average score on science literacy is 493, and the U.S. was close to the average, at 496.

Hacked again?
Singapore, Japan, Finland, Canada, Vietnam, Australia, the UK, German, Switzerland, Ireland and Portugal were among those with higher scores. Really?

These folks will be among those hacking us in a decade if we don’t make better investments in education!

We’re kind of average with reading literacy, as well. The OECD average is 493, and the US average is 497. Singapore, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands outscore us. We’re in the band with France, the UK, and Spain.

Our math comparisons with other countries are especially alarming. The OECD average for math literacy is 490, but the U.S. score is 470. At least 30 countries, have higher scores than the U.S.


The federal Department of Education should deal with the matter of standards. Common Core, while not popular among some educational leaders, is a way of ensuring that those who graduate from our nation’s high schools have a common foundation of knowledge. Implementing Common Core may be challenging, especially when some high schools lack the resources to offer the broadest curriculum.

While many schools offer advanced courses, including advanced placement, some do not. Every student needs to have an opportunity to access advanced learning.

Just average
More importantly, those who do educational policy must look at the ways our students are lagging in the international environment. Are we content to be 14th, 22nd, 34th in international measures?

When it comes to learning, we are merely average and often below average when we review international measures.

Some will quibble with the ways that the Program for International Student Assessment measures learning outcomes. But when students from 73 educational systems tackle the same tests, objections can be pushed aside.

Even with a flawed measure, even with adjustments, we must conclude that the United States is just average. If we want to be exceptional, we must do more than sell wolf tickets and crow over our competitors.

The bottom line
The Russians were smart enough to hack us and mess with our elections. Are we as smart as they are, or are we average?

Mr. Trump says he will create jobs. He needs to make resources available to the Department of Education. If he wants to “Make American Great Again,” he needs to make American smart again by investing in education.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer.


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