In November 2006, Jack Li’s father, a longtime Caterpillar employee in Beijing, was transferred to Peoria, Ill. Jack enrolled in high school as a ninth-grader. His parents, good friends of mine for almost a decade, weren’t particularly worried about their son adapting to a new school in a foreign country — at least not academically. They believed that China has better K-12 education than the U.S.
Jack didn’t disappoint them: Three months later, he scored high enough on the SATs to put him in the top 3% in math and well above-average in writing and reading. Last fall, he transferred to Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a college-prep program for Illinois students. He took advanced chemistry last semester and will study basic calculus next semester.
Chinese students like Jack are examples of why Microsoft’s Bill Gates asked Congress today to spend more to improve American education in math and science. Unless more students can be attracted to those subjects, Mr. Gates warned, the U.S.’s competitive advantage will erode and its ability to create high-paying jobs will suffer.
I know many Americans don’t believe him. They argue that American kids may not be as good at math and science as Chinese and Indian kids, but they’re more well-rounded. But that’s increasingly untrue. For example, Jack isn’t your stereotypical Chinese nerd. He’s the captain of IMSA’s sophomore basketball team and tried out for the tennis team today.