In 1994, the United States took a victory in Hong Kong that was much more important than any athletic victory it had ever won on the world stage. That victory was won by mental athletes whose names most people have never heard: Jeremy Bem, Aleksandr Khazanov, Jacob Lurie, Noam Shazeer, Stephen Wang and Jonathan Weinstein. The U.S. team had a perfect score and beat China, Russia, Bulgaria and Hungary. The competition? The International Mathematical Olympiad.
The United States was notably proud, as it should have been. However, the ensuing years did not show much promise for America’s mathematical expertise until last week, 21 years after the perfect score.
We have been presented time and again with evidence that our nation’s educational system has slid into disarray, particularly when compared with international standards, and particularly in math and science. The Washington Post reported: “While U.S. teenagers were average in reading and science, their scores were below average in math, compared to 64 other countries and economies that participated in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment.”
In math, 29 countries had better scores than the U.S. In science, the U.S. was bettered by 22 countries. Even our top-performing state, Massachusetts, which took the test, was outperformed by Shanghai, the top international performer. A new Pew study shows 28 countries with “significantly” higher math scores than the U.S., and 21 countries with “significantly” higher science scores (www.goo.gl/wwRSLR).
That said, the U.S. team can take this victory as a sign that something is headed in the right direction. The Washington Post reported that the team’s coach, Po-Shen Loh, said, “This is a matter of national pride. One reason we are super excited is that for the past five years or so, we’ve been consistently second or third. It’s actually quite difficult to win. We are going up against a natural population disadvantage in the sense that China, which is the usual winner, has four times as many people. Finally, to topple a country that should beat us by all expectations is a fantastic achievement for these six students.”
While we know it won’t happen in our entertainment-focused society, these students -- Ryan Alweiss, Allen Liu, Yang Liu, Shyam Narayanan, David Stoner and Michael Kural -- should get a ticker-tape parade. Brains don’t wear out as quickly as bodies.