From a must-read article by Fareed Zakaria on "the Rise of the Rest"
[H]igher education is the United States' best industry. In no other field is the United States' advantage so overwhelming. A 2006 report from the London-based Center for European Reform points out that the United States invests 2.6 percent of its GDP in higher education, compared with 1.2 percent in Europe and 1.1 percent in Japan. Depending on which study you look at, the United States, with five percent of the world's population, has either seven or eight of the world's top ten universities and either 48 percent or 68 percent of the top 50. The situation in the sciences is particularly striking. In India, universities graduate between 35 and 50 Ph.D.'s in computer science each year; in the United States, the figure is 1,000. A list of where the world's 1,000 best computer scientists were educated shows that the top ten schools are all American. The United States also remains by far the most attractive destination for students, taking in 30 percent of the total number of foreign students globally, and its collaborations between business and educational institutions are unmatched anywhere in the world. All these advantages will not be erased easily, because the structure of European and Japanese universities -- mostly state-run bureaucracies -- is unlikely to change. And although China and India are opening new institutions, it is not that easy to create a world-class university out of whole cloth in a few decades.
Few people believe that U.S. primary and secondary schools deserve similar praise. The school system, the line goes, is in crisis, with its students performing particularly badly in science and math, year after year, in international rankings. But the statistics here, although not wrong, reveal something slightly different. The real problem is one not of excellence but of access. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the standard for comparing educational programs across nations, puts the United States squarely in the middle of the pack. The media reported the news with a predictable penchant for direness: "Economic Time Bomb: U.S. Teens Are Among Worst at Math," declared The Wall Street Journal.
But the aggregate scores hide deep regional, racial, and socioeconomic variation. Poor and minority students score well below the U.S. average, while, as one study noted, "students in affluent suburban U.S. school districts score nearly as well as students in Singapore, the runaway leader on TIMSS math scores." The difference between the average science scores in poor and wealthy school districts within the United States, for instance, is four to five times as high as the difference between the U.S. and the Singaporean national average. In other words, the problem with U.S. education is a problem of inequality. This will, over time, translate into a competitiveness problem, because if the United States cannot educate and train a third of the working population to compete in a knowledge economy, this will drag down the country. But it does know what works.
Personal experience leads me to believe that Zakaria is right...and the sad part is that privileged Americans take their world class educational system for granted. My public high school was, to the affluent (mostly white) locals, a "very good" school and everybody's kids attended it, but by objective measures, the quality of its education was world class. My current institution of higher learning is, to the locals, again a "very good" school (insert sage nod here); how easily we forget that the "very good" regional school is considered one of the top 50 universities in the world...and how heedlessly we're willing to pretend that "very good" isn't good enough to justify diverting additional resources to where they're really