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Obi was one of the regulars at a sports club my husband and I used to go to ages ago. Obi was a prosperous businessman — self-made, he’d have you know, without benefit of a business school (or much of any school, in fact). Put capital on the table, and I will out-business all you business professors and out-law the lawyers, he used to taunt. Let’s go into business at the same time, and you’ll fail and I’ll thrive. Why? Because you spend good money on big, air-conditioned offices and big theories when I am checking out what retailers are selling in their roadside kiosks. All your fancy degrees won’t teach you how to survive in the marketplace.

Annoyingly unsentimental, he wasn’t one for excuses, either. Come-from-behind wins didn’t impress him: What’s to celebrate? Didn’t both teams start the game at the same time? he would ask.

What has brought Obi to mind, improbably, is the ongoing debate regarding the effectiveness of American schools. I am reminded most about Obi’s assessment of higher education as all fanciful theory and little practical sense, his uncompromising show-me-the-results attitude, his firm belief in experience by immersion as the effective way to learn one’s craft, whatever the profession, and his capacity to deflate spurious achievement.

It feels like deflation season now, listening to the national discussion on school effectiveness in the United States. The worries are mounting about American competitiveness as the links between knowledge and economic flexibility, collective as well as personal, draw ever tighter and as one report after another indicate that our schools are not as effective as we might think in relation to the performance of other countries.

This year, the National Governors Association played midwife. The bipartisan association delivered a voluntary Common Core curriculum. It is an important step in breaking down the silos states have constructed in the content of K-12 education in the name of local control. For the 40-plus states, including Ohio, that have signed on to Common Core, “local” has transcended state lines, the need for a coherent body of must-know information and skills overriding decades of resistance to a “nationalized” curriculum.

President Obama sounded a critical alarm at the Joint Session of Congress in February last year, reminding that a good education is no longer just a pathway but a prerequisite to opportunity and success. “We know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow,” he observed.

The competition is already on, and come-from-behind “wins” will garner no kudos. The United States already has lost its perch as the leader in college completion rates. Over the past decade or so, the proportion of Americans graduates continuing into graduate courses in math, the hard sciences and engineering has declined.

A study published this month in EducationNext (“Teaching math to the Talented”) deflated one more prop. It put to the test the assumption that the best and brightest of U.S. high-schoolers are comparable to the best anywhere. The study explored just where the competition is out-performing American schools.

The researchers, Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson of Harvard and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich, proceed from the understanding that maintaining high national productivity requires school systems that produce students with advanced skills in math and science.

Using math skills as the best predictor of future earnings and other economic success, the researchers compared scores for the Class of 2009 who rated as advanced in National Assessment of Education Progress math tests with scores on a comparable international test administered to 15-year-olds.

The findings? Thirty countries have higher percentages of students with advanced math skills than the United States, which averaged 6.04 percent to Taiwan’s 28 percent and more than 20 percent in Hong Kong, South Korea and Finland. (Helpfully, the study also ranked individual states as if they were countries. Massachusetts came first among the states, with Ohio in respectable 13th place.

“In nations that are out-educating us today, the caliber of new teachers is a critical national priority,” Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, said last week.

Obi’s voice is ringing in my ears: If we knew that, why did we wait to be out-educated first, only now scrambling to catch up?

Ofobike is the chief editorial writer for The Akron Beacon Journal. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by e-mail at lofobike@thebeaconjournal.com.

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