To sit by our local pool in Bethesda, Maryland, at swimming-lesson time, as I do every Saturday morning, is to marvel at American ambition, positivity and derring-do. Those qualities are apparent in the enthusiasm with which my children are whooped into the water by their relentlessly upbeat instructors. They are there in the short shrift the instructors give to any whingeing. My youngest was just three when he started at the pool and liable to protest; he got a lot of warm-hearted sympathy, but no let-up. “C’mon dude, stop complaining, let’s get on with it!”
Yet my children’s experience of school in America is in some ways as indifferent as their swimming classes are good, for the country’s elementary schools seem strangely averse to teaching children much stuff. According to the OECD’s latest international education rankings, American children are rated average at reading, below average at science, and poor at maths, at which they rank 27th out of 34 developed countries. At 15, children in Massachusetts, where education standards are higher than in most states, are so far behind their counterparts in Shanghai at maths that it would take them more than two years of regular education to catch up.