A recent Stanford research project compared grade-school math aptitude of top students between various nations and U.S. states. The work compared high-achieving students only, a sort of best-on-best global comparison. At the top was Taiwan. The closest state was Massachusetts, back in 17th place.
Alabama was deeper in the pack, just behind Oklahoma and Bulgaria and just slightly ahead of Serbia. The good news is that at 20th from the bottom, Alabama wasn’t in last place. That distinction belonged to Kyrgyzstan. The states trailing Alabama were Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia and Louisiana.
The research was led by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and highlighted by The Atlantic magazine. It illustrates how the United States lags behind much of the world when it comes to math skills, a measurement critical to the development of engineers and scientists.
“People will find it quite shocking,” Hanushek told The Atlantic, “that even our most-advantaged students are not all that competitive.”
Well, Alabama is competitive. It’s just that the state is competing most closely with Serbia. So how do the two compare? We examined several reliable indexes, including the BBC, the CIA Factbook, the U.S. State Department and other federal government databases.
Serbia produces one-third of the raspberries consumed by the rest of the world. Alabama’s top agricultural export is poultry.
According to the latest Census figures, Alabama has 4.7 million residents. That’s less than Serbia’s 7.3 million.
Alabama’s most recent unemployment rate was 9 percent. In Serbia, joblessness is at 14 percent.
Fifty-six percent of Serbians have access to the Internet. In Alabama, 66 percent of households have online access, a relatively low percentage when compared to other parts of the United States.
Alabama’s gross domestic product in 2009 was $154.2 billion, slightly less than the previous year. In Serbia, that figure in 2009 was $78.05 billion, also a decline from 2008.
Serbia’s tourism board sells itself thusly, “It does not take long for foreign visitors to Serbia to discover the hospitality, kindness, openness and warmth of the country’s residents.” Alabama’s pitch is, “Whether you’re looking for an adventure or relaxation at our beaches, cities or the great outdoors, you’ll find it in Alabama!”
Serbia was at the heart of much of the worst of the 20th century — World War I, World War II, stuck behind the repressive Iron Curtain and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, bloody ethnic strife that left thousands dead. Alabama was the site of the brutal oppression of blacks for a great deal of the 1900s, but nothing on the scale Serbia saw.
Automakers — Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Kia and Toyota — employ tens of thousands of Alabamians. Though Fiat has a manufacturing plant in Serbia, it can’t compete with Alabama in this arena.
Serbia’s leading political party is the Democratic Party, which recently stated a goal of creating a “political, legal and economic environment that will be aimed at economic growth and population welfare, the rule of law and protection of rights and freedoms of citizens.” Alabama’s rising party is the Republican Party, which recently unseated its rival party from state Legislature control for the first time in 136 years.
Alabama’s new Republican majority exercised its power last month by passing a set of long-overdue ethics-reform bills. One of them focused on the power of the Alabama Education Association, the closest thing the state has to a teachers union. Little of that contentious debate centered on the pressing matter of lifting the quality of Alabama public schools.
Good-paying jobs and prosperity will look for areas with a well-educated and competent workforce. Alabama schools must start climbing the ladder of academic achievement, proving to a global economy that the state can rise above a developing nation that has witnessed brutality for decades.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.