One of the more awkward moments of Mitt Romney's speech Thursday night at the Republican National Convention came during the newly minted presidential candidate's question-and-answer session with the audience.
The audience followed Romney's script -- at least according to the campaign's version of the candidate's prepared text -- during the first two questions of the exchange:
"Does the America we want borrow a trillion dollars from China?" Romney asked. "No," the crowd cheered.
"Does it fail to find the jobs that are needed for 23 million people and for half the kids graduating from college?" Romney asked. "No," the crowd screamed.
But then, a stumper: "Are its schools lagging behind the rest of the developed world?" Romney asked. According to Romney's prepared remarks, the answer to that question is a steadfast "No." But the audience wasn't quite as sure, and it was harder to make out a unified response.
That might be because Romney's own education platform -- and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's own RNC speech the night before -- would answer that question with a resounding "yes."
While Romney hasn't made education a key feature of his campaign, he did pivot to the issue for one day in May during a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That day, the Romney campaigned issued a white paper expounding in some detail on his views on America's schools.
"There is no more critical issue facing the United States than the need for education reform," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) wrote in the paper's foreword. "Despite spending more on public education than virtually every other nation, our students’ math and science achievement lags well behind that of their peers abroad."
In the body text of the paper, the campaign asserts, "Across the nation, our school system is a world leader in spending, yet lags on virtually every measure of results."
And according to a report Rice wrote earlier this year with former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, America's schools lag so far behind they endanger the country's national security.
Are America's schools really lagging? It depends on who you ask and how you count it.
On the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009, the U.S ranked 25th out of 30 in math, and 14th in reading. While once obscure, these numbers hit the zeitgeist this summer with a series of mock Olympic videos by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.
But as education researcher and blogger Matthew Di Carlo points out, rankings aren't the most nuanced way to describe performance.
"Not only do they ignore the size of differences between nations (two nations with consecutive ranks might have hugely different scores), but they also tend to ignore error margins (part of the differences between nations are simply random noise, so nations that are far apart in rank might really be statistically indistinguishable)," Di Carlo wrote. "When you account for the error margins and look at scores instead of rankings, the picture is different." That picture shows America performing at about average in reading and math -- while, Di Carlo writes, it's a "cause for serious concern," it's not exactly a Sputnik moment either.
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