Andres Oppenheimer

Argentina, which once was one of the world's richest countries, is suffering from an educational debacle. But what struck me the most during a visit here was that very few -- including those in the government -- seem to care about it.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released the results of its much-awaited PISA student achievement test, which measures the proficiency of 15-year-old students in 65 countries in reading comprehension, math and science. It is the world's most recognized measure of countries' education standards.

In reading comprehension, the city of Shanghai, China, got the highest scores (China didn't participate as a country), followed by South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore. The United States ranked 17th, Spain 33rd, Chile 44th, Uruguay 47th, Mexico 48th, Colombia 52nd, Brazil 53rd, and Argentina 58th.

Of Latin American nations, only Panama and Peru scored lower than Argentina, coming in at 62nd and 63rd, respectively.

The PISA test math and science results were similar, reflecting a steady decline for Argentina and a slight improvement for Brazil, which 10 years ago ended up last on the list.

When the figures were first released on Dec. 7, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and several other countries reacted with justified alarm.


U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that America's mediocre test results "should be a massive wake-up call to the entire country." Several European countries announced plans to overhaul their education systems.

But in Argentina, instead of using the results as a trigger to mobilize the country to improve its education standards, the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner did the opposite: it blamed the PISA test for allegedly not being fair.

Argentina's education minister, Alberto Sileoni, was quoted in the media as saying the PISA test was conceived by rich countries "for a reality that is not ours."

He said Argentina is discussing the creation of a regional test with other Latin American countries and suggested that Argentina could pull out from the PISA test.

In the media, except for a front-page story in the daily La Nación reporting that the country's test scores had fallen sharply over the past 10 years, the test results received scant attention. Most pro-government media ignored the issue altogether.

Other Latin American governments reacted more maturely than Argentina, but some offered a questionable dose of triumphalism.

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon celebrated that Mexico "not only achieved but surpassed the goals we had set ourselves" in reading comprehension and math. Peruvian Education Minister Jose Antonio Chang also stressed the positive, saying that his country's scores showed improvement from 10 years ago.

My opinion: The governments of Argentina and seven other Latin American countries that participated in the latest PISA test deserve credit for taking part. Others, including Cuba, prefer to take the safe route of not participating and thus avoid any potentially embarrassing results.


But the Argentine education minister's reaction should become a textbook case of how not to react to bad news on the education front. In an increasingly competitive global economy, countries need reality checks that tell them where they need to improve.

To use a sports analogy in this soccer-crazy country, the minister's suggestion that Argentina may abandon the PISA test amounts to saying, "Since we did badly in the World Cup soccer, let's pull out and compete in a regional tournament."

That's a recipe for complacency and economic stagnation. Argentina, which has won five Nobel prizes and still has a huge reservoir of academic talent, should do exactly the opposite and use the PISA test results as a call to action to improve its education standards.

Instead of embracing the politics of denial, this country -- and many others, for that matter -- should adopt a healthy dose of "constructive paranoia." They need to feel others are doing better and redouble their efforts to catch up with them.

Asian countries do exactly that: they are constantly measuring themselves against the best of the world, and worrying about being left behind. As the PISA tests show, it's working for them.


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