A Disappointing Finish for Americans at Education Olympics

In science and math, the United States lags behind many other countries.

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The United States won the most medals of any country at the summer Olympic Games in Beijing, but it turned in a dismal performance at the Education Olympics. Americans took home only one medal from those games, for an embarrassing 20th-place finish, ahead of only Germany, Hungary, and Iceland. The top medal winners across all 58 education events were Finland (35 medals), Hong Kong (33 medals), and Singapore (16 medals).

Now, we know what you're asking: What are the Education Olympics? Why wasn't the public told about these games? And did Michael Phelps compete? We had the same questions, too, when we first learned about the thrashing team USA took. It turns out that the Education Olympics are not exactly sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee or even any international education organization. And they most certainly were not broadcast on national television (probably because they've never been held before).

The folks responsible for the first Education Olympics are the policy wonks at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. Michael Petrilli, who oversees national education research projects at the institute, apparently caught the Olympic bug and decided to see what would happen if, instead of competing in pole vaulting or in the 400-meter swim relay, Americans competed in academic challenges. He used recent international test scores and graduation data to compare the performance of public school students in the United States and abroad. The only event from which Americans emerged with a gold medal was civics education. They were smashed in other events. For example, American 15-year-olds finished 30th out of 42 countries in their problem-solving abilities, and they placed 38th out of 57 countries in basic science skills, according to Petrilli's data analysis. In a (legitimate) report, the institute sums up the experience of the United States in the first Education Olympics this way: "While the physical prowess of our athletes enables the U.S. to lug home buckets of shiny medals, our academic dexterity needs some serious sweat-on-your-brow training."

Not surprisingly, more people tuned in to watch Michael Phelps win gold in Beijing than to watch the Education Olympics on the Web. To be fair, Petrilli in his mock role as commentator was no Bob Costas. And former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who was on hand to offer analysis of the U.S. education system, was no Bela Karolyi. Watch the video to see for yourself. Still, it was a noble effort on the part of these education experts to get the public and the presidential candidates to discuss a serious problem. And, if you're still wondering about Phelps—no, he did not compete in the Education Olympics.


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