Green shoot economy…infested with parasites?

Posted by Peter Orr on Jan 15, 2010

Ye can lead a man up to the university, but you can't make him think.

- Finley Peter Dunne

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.

- Thomas Jefferson

History is a race between education and catastrophe.

- H.G. Wells

The other day I found myself waiting for a flight at O'Hare and at the time I couldn't avoid listening to the CNN morning show on the airport monitor. They were showing a segment on expected changes in an average $50,000 salary for 2010. The forecast was for a $1,600 increase. Now you might anticipate me railing on about the fact that they provided no measure of deviation around the expectation, but I'll save that for another post. I found what happened next far more disturbing. The reporter then said something along these lines, "Let me see if I can give you that in percentage terms." After a few time-buying other comments she returned to the percentage issue with, "Well, we'll come back to you later with that percentage so you can get a feeling for how things might change at your particular salary level."

Now I had a 6am flight so this was pretty early. Perhaps the reporter wasn't a morning person; maybe she hadn't had her cup of coffee yet; or perhaps the producer was yapping in her ear at the time. But to me, it looked a whole heckuva lot like she couldn't multiply the salary change by 2 and put the decimal point in the right spot to come up with the percentage. For anyone who's satisfied the arithmetic requirements of a fourth grader, I'm expecting that that information is readily calculable, and right quick.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15 year olds in math and science every three years from the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic and Co-Operation and Development (OECD). The last test was administered in 2006 with the 2007 published results as follows:

  2006 Science Results     2006 Math Results  
  Country Avg Score   Country Avg Score
1 Finland 548 1 Finland 563
2 Korea, Republic of 547 2 Canada 534
3 Netherlands 531 3 Japan 531
4 Switzerland 530 4 New Zealand 530
5 Canada 527 5 Australia 527
6 Japan 523 6 Netherlands 525
7 New Zealand 522 7 Korea, Republic of 522
8 Belgium 520 8 Germany 516
9 Australia 520 9 United Kingdom 515
10 Denmark 513 10 Czech Republic 513
11 Czech Republic 510 11 Switzerland 512
12 Iceland 506 12 Austria 511
13 Austria 505 13 Belgium 510
14 Germany 504 14 Ireland 508
15 Sweden 502 15 Hungary 504
16 Ireland 501 16 Sweden 503
17 France 496 17 Poland 498
18 United Kingdom 495 18 Denmark 496
19 Poland 495 19 France 495
20 Slovak Republic 492 20 Iceland 491
21 Hungary 491 21 United States 489
22 Luxembourg 490 22 Slovak Republic 488
23 Norway 490 23 Spain 488
24 Spain 480 24 Norway 487
25 United States 474 25 Luxembourg 486
26 Portugal 466 26 Italy 475
27 Italy 462 27 Portugal 474
28 Greece 459 28 Greece 473
29 Turkey 424 29 Turkey 424
30 Mexico 406 30 Mexico 410


Out of these thirty countries you can see the US scored 25th and 21st in science and math respectively. The most recent test was administered last year with results due to be released in December, 2010. I'm crossing my fingers…

Joining my airport story with the stats above and forgive this Friedman-esque critique, but I'll bet that if I were watching CNN Japan, CNN Korea, or CNN China (if it existed), that reporter would've been able to multiply the $1,600 expected raise by 2 and come up with the percentage on the fly. Of course, looking at Korea and Japan's test scores above, it's likely that the majority of viewers in those countries wouldn't need that simple numerical translation done for them in the first place.

I don't want to start off the decade with a negative tone, so let me just say that I'm hopeful that we, with fervent new decade resolve, double down on the importance of educating our kids in math and science. And math in particular, a field without which I never would've been able to start this company, must be emphasized as an essential topic even more today due to the competitive world in which we find ourselves. And frankly, my firm belief is that if the US is to continue to sprout its oft-discussed green shoots, than parasites like weak math and science skills will need to be diligently weeded out.