Politicians often seem to be worried over our performance. Our children are falling behind, and we are losing our edge in engineering! There are a lot of stupidities in that, and I’ll go over a few.
First, countries are ranked by their average scores. If we are worried about our engineers, we do not need to care. A countries future engineers are going to come from the top 10% or so of children on the math scores. America, for good or ill, is a country of wild variance. I find it completely plausible that we could be 30th when ranked by overall average but 1st when ranked by the average of the top 10% of scorers, but I have not looked it up (and neither have the politicians crying wolf). Now, a country with a better average math-sense and appreciation of math is probably better off, but the tests do not test for those. At best, the test results might decently correspond with math-sense, but it is doubtful that the results correspond with with math appreciation. Indeed, several of the high-performing countries have drill-and-kill heavy math instruction, which works for simple standardized tests but not for anything else.
Second, test scores improve when countries focus on improving test scores. Makes sense. However, what happens to instruction to math instruction when countries try to focus on test scores? It typically becomes full of drill-and-kill practice and rote memorization replacing understanding and exploring. In that regard, we might consider running the other way. Let’s instead focus on trying to solve big, fun problems. You know, the type of problems that are great to learn from but impossible to put on standardized tests.
Something like the Russians launching Sputnik makes much more sense in terms of worrying over falling behind. Sputnik was a real, impressive achievement that demonstrated an engineering capacity to create something that exceeded our own. If a rival of ours were to create a net-output fusion reactor, for example, then we might have cause for worry. Right now, I do not see much reason to fret.