Here’s some food for thought: for almost 50 years the United States has never come close to topping a ranked list of global student test scores. And it may not be the bad news that educators (and a variety of other experts) have long pointed to as an indication of an increasingly flailing American educational system. This is according to Gregory Ferenstein, in his latest TechCrunch article, who puts forth the argument that despite what U.S. test scores seem to imply, in contrast to other countries, the U.S. has continued to maintain its status as the “dominant economic and innovative force in the world the entire time.” Does that make the test scores meaningless? In a word: kinda.

In the recently released report by The Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development (OECD), the statistics on American students are…not good. For example, the U.S. “ranks 26th in early childhood education,” and is “6th worst in terms of high school graduation, with 23% failing to attain a diploma.”

So how does one reconcile stats like this with the American track record of innovation and economic success? For one thing, Ferenstein points out, the study assumes that more class time means more eventual professional success and the research just doesn’t reflect that: “While Chinese students, on average, have twice the number of instructional hours as Americans, both countries have identical scores on tests of scientific reasoning.” The implication is that perhaps the traits that drive wild, new ideas that turn into successful ventures, products, and technological shifts are not nurtured through traditional curriculum and pedagogy.

Ferenstein also references a Nature article, by Hal Salzman and Lindsay Lowell, that criticizes globally ranked student test scores: “Average test scores are mostly irrelevant as a measure of economic potential. To produce leading-edge technology, one could argue that it is the numbers of high-performing students that is most important in the global economy.” And one thing the U.S. has, according to Salzman and Lowell, is the “highest percentage of top-performing students in the world.”

While high-performing students may or may not find ways to hone skills like creativity and critical-thinking in the classroom, they can find them at universities, research centers, or use good, old-fashioned gumption to carve out opportunities for themselves. It’s a good argument for more applied critical thinking in the classroom versus memorization, for example, and other traditional teaching methods.

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