International Comparison not Kind to the US

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Last week was not a good week for the United States, depending upon what one’s measure is. But if it happens to be mathematics and science—it wasn’t good. (EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are Canadian, it wasn’t a bad week at all!).

This is because PISA came out last week. For those not in the know, PISA is the Program for International Student Assessment, the international comparative study on how students in secondary education compare in science, mathematics, and reading. PISA is conducted by the OECD, with support from Departments or Ministries of Education around the world. In 2006, over 400,000 15-year old students from 57 countries participated in PISA. According to OECD, these countries collectively account 90 percent of the world economy. PISA is conducted on a triennial basis, and the 2006 report just released is the third such study since 2000.

According to the OECD, the US has the advantage of being the “first-mover advantage” (a great term), which means that the US is ahead because it has had a global advantage since WWII. However, this advantage continues to dissipate over time. In the mid-1960s, the US led OECD countries in high school completions. In 2006, it placed 21st out of 27 countries. In college-level completions, the US has dipped from 2nd to 14th between 1995 and 2005.

Of course, none of this is to say that the US is doing poorly. Rather, the rest of the world is doing better. Much better. In science, the US ranked 29th out of 57 countries in the PISA study. Finland was first; Canada third. In mathematics, the US ranked 25th of 30 OECD countries or 35th in the entire study. Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) topped the list, with Finland second and Canada 7th.

Interesting to note are the data when disaggregated. Education Week, in their article on the issue (and in this edition of Week in Review), said this:

Not only did many industrialized countries outperform the United States in science on a recent international exam, but American students’ academic achievement was also more likely to be affected by their wealth or poverty and family background than was their peers’ in higher-scoring nations.

Of course, I’m stunned. Wealth and poverty have an impact on achievement in the United States? I guess the real issue is that poverty didn’t have as much as an effect in most other countries. At least that’s my read. But from a US point of view (and I can’t see this being any different in my native country to the north), this is stating the obvious. As a qualifier, has anyone stepped into a school in a poverty-stricken area lately, or seen the differences between schools in affluent suburbs vs. intercity (many, at least) areas? Night and day, my friends. Even in public schools, which are supposed to be somewhat equitable, by most state standards, the differences are stark. Affluent public districts or counties not only have higher property taxes to collect from, but also typically fundraise to ensure that their schools have the tools necessarily to properly serve students (there is something truly wrong about a local school asking for paper and pencils from parents at the start of a year, which I’ve seen happen in my own area in Virginia). PTAs and PTOs in affluent areas pay for six-figure playgrounds or computer labs, while other districts are forced to settle for what the state may transfer to them in equalization payments.

This is perhaps a side issue to the PISA data, but it is ultimately the crux of the entire education issue, from at least a US perspective. In sheer numbers, with maybe the exclusion of China and India, the US produces more of the best than anywhere else. A country of over 300 million can do that. The education system in the US isn’t bad. In fact, it can be argued that K-12 education in the US is really quite good, producing scientists and mathematicians, let alone artists, that are tops in the world. Where the US doesn’t shine is in ensuring that other, perhaps less fortunate students get the same opportunities and care as the affluent or at least those who are brought up in proactive families or within the district boundaries of “good” versus “bad.”

Although I must surely admit that the mean science and mathematics PISA scores certainly show the US at a considerable disadvantage compared to the Fins and Canadians, among others, it isn’t enough to worry me that we aren’t doing a good job and that the US is in trouble in the global competitive race. But the US could certainly do better if it could lift those from the bottom rungs of the ladder up to mid-level. A rising tide lifts all boats? So true, but that only occurs when policymakers focus on raising the tide. Atmospheric conditions can only do so much; it takes targeted, prudent public policy to ensure that some of our disadvantaged students have access to the same level of education as others.

I have seen students excel in old, dilapidated schools. But I think it’s easier to learn in a nicer school. My son’s middle school, a pretty decent school by all accounts (NOTE: the annual PDK/Gallup survey on education consistently finds that almost everyone thinks their local schools are fine but education as a whole is a mess; too funny), has over nine portable units which blight the school area. Luckily, inside those portables are good teachers, which can be harder to find than decent portables. But we’re lucky because our school district is one of the best in the country and attract good teachers. Other school districts have huge troubles attracting teachers who excel, with many teachers on probationary licenses until they complete certification.

This is an ongoing problem in the US and one that we haven’t taken seriously. Much of this comes down to money, and policymakers don’t like to hear that it’s about money because “you can’t keep throwing money at the issue!” I think we have hardly thrown money at the issue. Education is an expensive public good, but it is, ultimately, the foundation of a nation.

What we learn from studies like PISA is not only that the US is falling in comparison to other countries—that isn’t really the important part. Rather, we learn that (a) on a larger scale, we do a decent job of educating the masses, and (b) we have significant space for improvement. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t rocket science. We ‘get’ the solutions in many cases. The rocket science is in the politics. Getting different factions (and that’s what they are) to agree on what students can learn (not even going to talk about Kansas), what level of facilities should be provided, and how best to improve teacher education and teacher salaries to attract and retain the best teachers is the hard part.

I don’t expect the US to travel up the PISA scales anytime soon, if ever. But if we can improve some of the conditions I’ve noted herein, the kids will be alright tonight.

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