You've repeatedly heard the conventional wisdom: When compared with Europeans and Japanese, U.S. young people are undereducated, undermotivated and hopelessly unprepared for the competitive challenges of the next century. America is the "only" advanced industrialized nation with severe social problems, especially those relating to education and the young, worries Laura D'Andrea Tyson, director of Berkeley's Institute of International Economics.
Truth be told, American youth generally stack up far better than expected when compared to their counterparts elsewhere--many of whom may prove to be as overrated as the "elite" Iraqi Republican Guard--in such critical areas as basic education, useful technical skills and work ethic.
Overall, young Americans still rank as among the best educated in the world. Indeed, despite its many deficiencies, the U.S. education system provides college-level instruction to roughly three-fifths of all Americans between ages 20 and 24. In Japan, France and Germany, such opportunities exist for less than one-third of the youth population; in Great Britain, the percentage is closer to 20%.
Even U.S. education's admittedly disturbing traits are often cast in misleading, even wrong-headed, ways. For example, some political and media figures suggest that upward of 30% of all high-school students drop out of school. But these calculations often leave out such factors as the number of students who repeat a grade, either due to illness or academic problems, and the number who drop out but eventually return to graduate. More recent U.S. Department of Education studies indicate that the dropout rate is probably well under 13%, although still as high as one-third among Latinos.
Equally misleading are the frequently cited test-score comparisons between American and foreign students. These studies, particularly in Europe, are often based on student samples that are a fraction--typically the relatively small group "tracked" for higher education--of the size of ours. Also contributing to the distortion is the overlooked fact that when most European young people are finishing their education, many Americans are just beginning their experience with quality education. In Japan, college often represents little more than a rather care-free, four-year vacation after an extraordinarily rigorous, if stifling, secondary education.
The assumed inferiority of U.S. students feeds another familiar bias: America has a virtual monopoly on the youth "underclass" of unemployables. Yet throughout Europe, youth unemployment rates are, on average, higher than in the United States, reaching as high as 20% in Ireland and Spain. In British cities, particularly in old industrial centers like Leeds or Sheffield, it is not uncommon to see British youth, some dressed in rags, wandering aimlessly. Close to half of all young Britons are out of school by age 17, three times the percentage for African-Americans in the United States; more than one-third have difficulty spelling basic words.
The situation on the Continent is not much better. In the high schools of Paris' grimy suburbs, persistent overcrowding and substandard conditions drove 100,000 students into the streets last fall. But perhaps more menacing is the situation in newly liberated eastern Germany, where a class of unemployed, and likely unemployable, youths is emerging. "People are very dissatisfied and feel they have no prospects. And they haven't hit bottom yet," says Frank Stille, a researcher at the DIW research institute in Berlin.
Exacerbating Europe's youth problems are rising numbers of new immigrants, mostly from the Islamic countries of the Near East and North Africa. A recent U.N. International Labor Organization report referred to the estimated 7 million children--roughly one-tenth of the youth population of Western Europe--as a "demographic time bomb."
These youngsters have virtually no hope of rising to even the middle rungs of the highly structured European education system. In the western part of Berlin, for example, Turks account for roughly one in five young people; yet only 7% ever attend gymnasium, the secondary-education level required for university admission. Barely 3% ever enter university.
In France, admission to university-level education for the large Algerian Muslim population is rare indeed; the rector of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, one of France's elite technical institutions, could not recall one Algerian-French student attending his institution in recent years.