5 Vital skills international students have that your kids don't

Aug 24, 2014 at 9:00 p.m. ET
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It's no secret that the American education system has fallen behind its international counterparts.

But how bad is it, really? The results are in, and they unfortunately appear pretty dismal.

It's time to step it up, America

Every three years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) commissions a study — called PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment — to measure the effectiveness of educational systems around the world. In 2012, America didn't even make it into the top half of participating countries. We are losing ground, and it's because our students are not learning the basic skills that are taught in top-performing countries.

Financial literacy. Let's face it: money matters. Unfortunately, PISA scores demonstrate that American children are abysmal money managers and have very poor financial literacy by adolescence. Estonia, meanwhile, has seen enormous gains in PISA scores over the last few years and is tied for second in the world in financial literacy — meaning that Estonian teenagers can complete complex financial problems while many American students cannot.

Higher-order problem solving. Math is about more than addition and subtraction, but PISA scores demonstrate that many American school children test below average in complex math skills like algebra, trigonometry and word problems. For comparison, only two percent of U.S. teens are considered top math performers by PISA, whereas 31 percent of Chinese students achieve the honor.

Classroom cooperation. Japan holds a top-three PISA ranking in all subjects, and research suggests that it is the education system's commitment to cooperation — rather than typical American competition — that sets students apart. High-performing students are expected to assist lower-performing students rather than advancing a grade or class level. The result? Higher test scores for everyone.

Determination. China holds the top PISA scores in the world, and Chinese students excel in all areas of education. Interestingly, though, the students don't just excel at math and writing. A recent study found that a full 73 percent of Chinese students believe strongly in finishing what they start. In other words, they're tops in the world in determination, which pays dividends for educational success.

Science and technology. Science is the key to the future, and American schools appear disinterested in teaching it. Sadly, we are 21st in the world in this important measure. Finland, meanwhile, scored highest in science skills despite its relatively unstructured school system. Researchers suggest that it's the creativity and play time of Finnish schools that leads to the unique problem-solving skills required to excel in science.

The good news? America is doing OK in reading. But clearly, we have a long way to go.

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