David Brooks thinks Americans are just a bit too full of themselves, and he cites research to back up his claims. He points to recent surveys that paint the US as a veritable Lake Wobegon, where every high school kid says he has above average leadership skills, every college professor thinks she has above average teaching skills, and every college student says he's easy to like. Ask young people about their ability in math and science, and you'll find a similar pattern. Why?
Brooks sums up findings from recent surveys of student opinions on math:
American students no longer perform particularly well in global math tests. But Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.... Students in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have much less self-confidence, though they actually do better on the tests.
Many social critics blame this inflation of self regard on parents and teachers who boost young people's self esteem and trust that actual achievement will follow. Are the critics right? Perhaps.
Yet in the case of math, at least, our young people might be drawing a logical conclusion from the information they're getting. The vast majority of high schoolers have gotten the message that the US students as a whole don't do particularly well in math, but most think pretty highly of their own abilities. Thistension may reflect the mixed messages they're receiving.
US students don't do very well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or the Programme for International Student Assessment, but they don't take it personally. Those tests are given only to a sample of US students, and the students who do take them don't see their individual results. Students can see their results on state tests, however, and state tests tend to set a much lower bar for success. It's all the easier, therefore, to blame all those other kids for our mathematical woes.
One way to bring our students back down to earth is to raise the bar on state tests. We can't expect them to strive for something higher if we're not being honest with them in the first place.