Somehow, American fourth-grade students who scored well on an international science and math test in 1995 have since fallen down on the job. In a test last year matching eighth graders from 38 nations, U.S. students scored 19th on math, just below Latvia, and 18th in science, ranking just behind Bulgaria.
Round up the usual list of excuses. Television and other leisure activities are to blame. Baby-boomer parents, rarely bothering to bestir themselves from the couches on which they endlessly watch sitcoms and football games, don't get after their kids enough to study. Teachers are more concerned with improving their income rather than improving the minds of students. Educators fall for every fad that comes down the road. Fragmentation of society takes its toll on family life, the place where so many children develop their life-long attitudes about learning.
All of these explanations might have some validity, and so might a host of others. Other possibilities worth examining are dumbing down of course work in the intervening years, the weighting of science and math toward the end of the K-12 continuum, or the tendency of society to go to pot. All we know is that American kids seem to do relatively worse as they get older, when measured against children from other nations.
Potential villains abound, and for that reason it is difficult to pinpoint those who are to blame - except to point our fingers at ourselves. Why should a country that wins so many Nobel prizes lag behind Asian and eastern European countries in math and science performance at any age? Many students do trudge home with a heavy load of homework, and there seems to be no clear reason that American pupils trail those in other countries during those crucial years between fourth and eighth grades.
Cultural mores may play a role. Japanese women, widely discriminated against in the workplace even if they have a good education, often spend more time at home supervising their children's education. In this country both parents, if there are two parents in the household, are often working to achieve the grail of a higher living standard while having less time to work with their children.
Hungary ranked third in science and ninth in math. Even the Russian Federation, dysfunctional as it is in many ways, outranked the United States.
So it almost seems axiomatic to blame a culture that puts such a high premium on instant gratification and is all too quick to brand science and math-oriented youngsters as nerds. Shouldn't Bill Gates and the Silicon Valley gang have taught us how fallacious that view is?