Feeling Too Good About Our Schools

By 01/18/2011

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Each time international tests of student achievement are released, there is a parade of glib commentators explaining why we should not pay much attention to the generally poor performance of U.S. students.  The arguments have become fairly standard.  Don’t worry, these tests really do not indicate anything that is very important.  Moreover, if one reads the results carefully, it is possible to find areas where the U.S. looks pretty good.  And if we just look at our best students, they are competitive with students from other countries.  The recent article by Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post actually collects each of these arguments into one concise statement.  Not surprisingly, many people are willing to don the blinders offered by such discussions, because they offer a much easier path for public policy.

Unfortunately, each of these common arguments is either terribly misleading or wrong.  Simply looking for blue sky in the test results ignores a substantial body of scientific research.  While many people want to be reassured that things are going just fine, ignoring the real message of these tests actually imperils our economic future.

Let’s start at the top.  The recently released PISA results that compare 15-year-olds around the world in reading, math, and science place U.S. students above the developed-country average in reading, at the average in science, and below average in math.  If one focuses just on reading, perhaps we are not doing so badly, even though we still trail 17 countries.  But reading is very difficult to assess accurately in the international tests.  And reading scores have proven less important than math and science for both individual and national success.  In math, we place 31st in the world rankings.

Research has shown that international performance on these tests is very closely related to the economic growth of nations.  Does the difference between 550 points (roughly Finland) and 500 points (roughly the U.S.) make a difference?  By the historical record of growth, such a difference is consistent with one percent per year in the growth of per capita income.  If we project this out over the lifetimes of children born today, the present value of economic gains from the U.S. reaching the level of Finland would be $100 trillion!  These potential economic gains from improved schools should be compared to the huge political fights in the U.S. over a stimulus package of one trillion dollars, or one hundredth of the magnitude of the gains we are leaving on the table from ignoring the achievement in our schools.

The challenge to the U.S. is clearest when one looks at the proportion of students achieving at the advanced level in math.  Presumably our scientists, engineers, and innovators are drawn from these high performers.  Paul Peterson, Ludger Woessmann, and I assessed not only how well our best states were doing but also how well our white students and our children of college educated parents were doing in advanced skills.

The performance of U.S. students of the Class of 2009 as a whole trails 29 countries.  Sixteen countries actually produce twice the proportion of advanced math students that we do.  And there are more highly talented math students in the whole population of 18 countries than in U.S. families with a college educated parent.

Yes, the U.S. has had advantages that have covered up the poor performance of our schools.  The free and open labor and product markets of the U.S. along with the generally limited intrusion of the government and respect for individual property rights have promoted an innovative society and have attracted the brightest from abroad.  But our relative advantages in these areas are swiftly eroding as other countries emulate our economic institutions and as other countries attract their bright and well-trained students back to work at home.

The feel-good message offers solace to those who counsel maintaining the current course.  It is, however, a bad message that truly threatens our economic future.   To be sure, it will not show up very clearly for some time, maybe even a decade or two.  By then, recovery will at least be much more difficult, if not impossible.

– Eric A. Hanushek

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