How Can Our High Schools Boost American Competitiveness?

February 19, 2008

American vs. International Academic Preparation

A good deal of recent study and commentary has been focused on the need to address American students' competitiveness in the world. Tough Choices or Tough Times, produced by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, and the new documentary Two Million Minutes are just two examples of such commentary.

Internationally, other countries' strategic economic development policies linked to education initiatives are challenging the advantage America has long held on international competitiveness. Consider the Indian Institutes of Technology and China's Key High Schools. These elite schools use the most rigorous curricula to prepare only the highest-achieving students in India and China for top careers in science and technology. A 60 Minutes story on IIT, for example, pointed out that while less than two percent of applicants are accepted into study at IIT, the students who are denied admission often use America's Ivy League schools as their "safety net schools".

Furthermore, according to Education Week, about 40 percent of Chinese students attend upper-secondary schools (beyond nine years of compulsory schooling), and "key" high schools are the most exclusive high schools. These schools "offer a rigorous academic curriculum that includes high standards in math and science, proficiency in English, independent research projects, and extensive after-school activities in art, music, sports, and entrepreneurship" to the few who are fortunate to be admitted.

Both China and India produce large numbers of graduates compared to the United States, and our students must compete against their many highly-skilled graduates for jobs in this flattened world; America's competitive edge and strength of economy rely on how well we prepare our students for such competition. Dan Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has a slightly different take on this topic, highlighting a comparative advantage America should use in this competition:

The United States is not going to compete with the rest of the world in terms of cheap labor or cheap raw materials. If we are going to compete productively with the rest of the world, it's going to be in terms of creativity and innovation. America has always had a capacity for hard work and stamina, but those qualities of creativity and ingenuity are not being nurtured and fostered by our current educational system.

Gioia suggests that a stronger focus on subject matter knowledge would be one way to improve American students' "creativity and innovation." One well-known program that proposes to do this is Advanced Placement (AP).

What is the Advanced Placement (AP) Program?

The Advanced Placement (AP) program is administered by the College Board. It allows students to participate in college-level courses at their high schools and potentially earn college credit by earning high enough scores (usually 3 out of a possible 5) on course exams at the end of the year. AP has been growing in recent years and is often mentioned as a strong, rigorous, reliable curriculum. The Fordham Foundation, for example, released a report in November 2007 titled "Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do They Deserve Gold Star Status?" Chester Finn, Fordham's president, says of these programs that,

Although there are problems with some of their curricula, such as math, AP and IB programs offer something very much needed in today's secondary education system: high academic standards combined with rigorous exams aligned to those standards. Students are also expected to make sense of complex, and sometimes contradictory, materials; to write and defend their opinions about these materials intelligently; and to apply their knowledge in creative and productive ways. These are all skills that will serve them well in later years-and that should find their way into state standards, too.

Georgia's new state standards do follow this line of thinking, and are proposed as step toward preparing more students to live up to their potential and to take more rigorous courses like AP.

How does Georgia Fare in AP?

In Georgia, AP participation and achievement have been growing, according the newly-released "4th Annual AP Report to the Nation." Georgia's 15.3% of students scoring 3 or higher on an AP exam in high school ranks the state 15th in the nation, slightly above the national average of 15.2%, and above Georgia's score of 11.2% in 2002, despite the large increase in participation. Georgia is also cited by the College Board as one of several states "facilitating and funding teacher participation in AP and Pre-AP professional development activities."

Are we tapping the full AP potential of Georgia's public high school students?

College Board has published a study using students' PSAT scores (a preliminary SAT usually taken in students' sophomore year) to predict how well they would likely do on AP examinations. Researchers looked at the correlation between students' PSAT scores and how well those students subsequently did on AP exams. PSAT scores turned out to be a better predictor of AP scores than were high school GPAs or grades in related subjects. This "AP Possibilities" research suggests that Georgia has many more students who had better than a 50 percent chance of scoring three or higher on these AP exams.


As Dan Gioia stated, America's comparative advantage for the future seems to lie in our students' creativity and their ability to innovate, not in raw materials or defined set of skills. While not perfect, AP does offer courses and assessments that are, according to Fordham, "rigorous, fair, and intellectually [rich]." Georgia's AP Honor Schools are already having success with this program. And it appears that Georgia still has a large pool of students available and able to meet the challenge, if they are encouraged to do so.