Johnny can so program

Hand-wringing over America's supposed technical decline badly misstates the reality, UC Davis computer scientist Norm Matloff says.

"America is slipping!" It's become a standard lead, guaranteed to grab readers' attention. Add in a few alarmist quotes from self-serving lobbyists with hidden agendas, along with the obligatory conclusion that "Education is the answer," and you've got the economic horror movie that Americans love so much to watch.

CNET News.com has got this formula down pat. Its piece, Can Johnny still program?, laments that in the annual collegiate programming contest held by the Association for Computing Machinery, the best that any American team could do this year was a miserable 17th place. The United States hasn't won a world championship since 1997--"an ominous sign for the U.S. tech industry," News.com fears.

"Oh my god," readers must have thought. "How could the quality of American computer-science students have sunk so quickly in the short time span of just eight years?" It's an absurd conclusion, of course, but readers have been conditioned to believe any claim, no matter how outlandish, about the decline of the U.S. educational system.

But let's see what News.com didn't tell you.

Start with what it means statistically to perform well in this contest today. News.com didn't tell you that the number of teams competing has grown nearly sevenfold from 1994 through 2005. In other words, for a team to finish at, say, third place, in 1994 would be equivalent to finishing 21st this year. So a hypothetical team that News.com would have lauded in 1994 would now be dismissed as having badly "slipped" in 2005, even though it would be of the same quality.

The American showing in the ACM contest does not mean that the U.S. is losing its technological mettle.

Second, News.com seems to have forgotten the history of the Olympics. Long before Olympic athletes from all countries became quasiprofessionals, the Eastern European countries were seeing to it that training for the Games was their athletes' full-time job, giving them a major advantage over other nations' athletes.

Some nations, or some individual universities, make similar time commitments in the ACM contest. Xu Jun, a public-affairs officer at the school, which fielded this year's first-place team in the programming contest from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, put it in Olympian terms: "All their time was spent in preparation except for their class work."

A faculty colleague of mine who is a veteran coach in the ACM contest estimates that many foreign teams devote at least 10 times the amount of time to practice as do American teams. Xu's statement suggests that the factor is much greater than 10.

As someone who married into a Shanghai family, I congratulate the bright, dedicated members of the winning Jiaoda team, which also took first place in 2002. But it would be wrong to view their victories as measures of general superiority over other schools, let alone other nations. Indeed, a number of ethnic-Chinese universities that are considered far more prestigious than Jiaoda weren't in even the top 10, such as Peking University (11th place), Tsinghua University (13th place) and National Taiwan University (Honorable Mention, below 30th place).

In a companion editorial, News.com Executive Editor Charles Cooper repeated the lobbyists' favorite example, the seemingly poor showing of American kids at the grade-school level on international math and science tests. Yet it has been repeatedly pointed out by education experts that differences in test scores are primarily due to America's struggle to deal with a social underclass.

Consider the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study eighth-grade science test, for instance, and the scores achieved by Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Had these states--none of which has a substantial

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