U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests

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It’s not just about kids in poor neighborhoods

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FALL 2014 / VOL. 14, NO. 4

“The big picture of U.S. performance on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation…. Fifteen-year olds in the U.S. today are average in science and reading literacy, and below average in mathematics, compared to their counterparts in [other industrialized] countries.”

U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan spoke these grim words on the bleak December day in late 2013 when the international tests in math, science, and literacy were released. No less disconcerting was the secretary’s warning that the nation’s educational problems are not limited to certain groups or specific places. The “educational challenge in America is not just about poor kids in poor neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s about many kids in many neighborhoods. The [test] results underscore that educational shortcomings in the United States are not just the problems of other people’s children.”

In making his comments, Secretary Duncan challenged those who cling to an old belief that the nation’s educational challenges are confined to its inner cities. Most affluent Americans remain optimistic about the schools in their local community. In 2011, Education Next asked a representative sample to evaluate both the nation’s schools and those in their own community. The affluent were especially dubious about the nation’s schools—only 15 percent conceded them an A or a B. Yet 54 percent gave their local schools one of the two top ratings.

Public opinion is split on how well the nation’s schools educate students of different abilities. In 2013 Education Next asked the public whether local schools did a good job of teaching talented students. Seventy-three percent said the local schools did “somewhat” or “extremely” well at the task, as compared to only 45 percent who thought that was true of their capacity to teach the less-talented.

To see whether this optimistic assessment of the nation’s ability to teach the more able student is correct, we draw upon the latest tests of student achievement and find that, as Secretary Duncan has said, the nation’s “educational shortcomings” are not just the problems of the other person’s child. We have given special attention to math performance because math appears to be the subject in which accomplishment is particularly significant for both an individual’s and a country’s economic well-being.

When viewed from a global perspective, U.S. schools seem to do as badly teaching those from better-educated families as they do teaching those from less well educated families. Overall, the U.S. proficiency rate in math (35 percent) places the country at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).

There are examples of excellence. The six states with high proficiency rates (58 to 62 percent) among students from families with high levels of parental education rank among the OECD top 13 on this measure. But students from these states are a small portion of the U.S. student population, and other states rank much lower down the international list. In many places, students from highly educated families are performing well below the OECD average for similarly advantaged students.

There can be little doubt that education shortcomings in the United States spread well beyond the corridors of the inner city or the confines of low-income neighborhoods where many parents lack a high school diploma. While bright spots can be identified—particularly in some states along the country’s northern tier—the overall picture is distressing to those concerned about the potential evolution of economic well-being of the United States in the 21st century.

Conventional Wisdom

Not everyone agrees that the nation’s schools are in trouble. In their apology for the American school, David Berliner and Gene Glass seek to reassure Americans by trying to isolate the problem to minority groups or those of low income. “In the United States, if we looked only at the students who attend schools where child poverty rates are under 10 percent, we would rank as the number one country in the world,” they write.

These claims are highly misleading. The important question to ask is, Do students with similar family background do better in the United States than in other countries?

Defenders of the American school also like to compare the highest-performing states within the United States to all students in other countries. “Massachusetts…scored so high that only a few Asian countries beat it,” Berliner and Glass declare. “The states of Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado…ranked among the top-performing nations in the world.” It is true that Massachusetts schools stand up to world competition, but it is important to keep in mind that the K–12 students living in Massachusetts are just 2 percent of the nation’s total. One cannot generalize to the country as a whole from this small state.

The Study

Our state-by-state data come from the 2011 tests administered to representative samples of U.S. students in 8th grade by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Our country-by-country data come from the PISA tests, which are administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2012, OECD administered the PISA tests to representative samples of students at the age of 15 in 68 jurisdictions, including all 34 OECD countries. Our analysis compares U.S. performance to those of students in the other OECD countries.

ednext_XIV_4_peterson_method-smallThe proficiency and advanced standards used in this study follow those developed by NAEP. To equate proficiency and advanced performance rates across states and countries, we execute a crosswalk between the NAEP and PISA tests by identifying levels of performance on PISA that yield equivalent proportions of U.S. students that meet the NAEP proficiency and advanced standards (see Methodology sidebar).

To assess overall performance, we identify the percentage of students in the high school class of 2015 who are performing at proficient and advanced levels of achievement in math. (While not reported here, we also looked at reading and science, and the results are broadly similar to those for math.) We focus on how each state within the United States ranks relative to all 33 other OECD countries.

To ascertain whether the challenges facing the United States are concentrated among the educationally disadvantaged, we identify for each state and country the proficiency rate of students from families with parents of high, moderate, and low levels of education. If the problems are concentrated in ways that some would have us believe, U.S. students from families with high parental education should compare favorably with similarly situated students abroad. Such a finding would support the oft-repeated claim that the achievement challenges are limited to those who come from disadvantaged families (measured here by low levels of parental education).


How Well Do U.S. Schools Educate Different Students?

According to NAEP, 35 percent of the members of the U.S. class of 2015 reach or exceed the proficiency level in math. Based on our calculations, this percentage places the United States at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries (see Figure 1). The percentage of students who are math proficient is nearly twice as large in Korea (65%), Japan (59%), and Switzerland (57%). Other countries with performances that clearly outrank the United States include Finland (52%), Canada (51%), Germany (50%), Australia (45%), France (42%), and the United Kingdom (41%).

To see whether the low U.S. ranking in math is due mainly to social class factors separate and apart from the schools, we next identify proficiency ratings for students from families with differing amounts of parental education.

Low parental education. Only 17 percent of these U.S. students are proficient in math (see Figure 2). This is half or less than the percentage of similarly situated students (those whose parents also have low levels of education) in Korea (46%), the Netherlands (37%), Germany (35%), and Japan (34%). Among OECD countries as a whole, the United States ranks 20th, placing it slightly ahead of Austria and France and just behind Denmark and the United Kingdom. In simplest terms, many other countries do a much better job of educating young people whose parents lack a high school diploma.


Moderate parental education. The relative standing of the United States is even worse among students from moderately well educated families. The math proficiency rate (26%) for this group is again around half the rate enjoyed by Switzerland (57%), Korea (56%), Germany (52%), and the Netherlands (50%). Other major countries that outperform the United States include Japan (48%), Canada (43%), Poland (43%), the United Kingdom (39%), and France (35%). When it comes to instructing the children of the moderately well educated, the United States comes in at the 30th rank among the 34 OECD countries, 10 ranks lower than was the case for students from families with low parental education.

High parental education. The percentage proficient of 15-year-olds from families with high parental education is conventionally thought to be the exception to this bleak picture. Indeed, the proficiency rate of 43% is higher than the rate for families with low (17%) or moderate (26%) levels of education. But the relative standing of the United States vis-à-vis other OECD countries remains near the very bottom (see Figure 3), at the 28th rank. When viewed from a global perspective, U.S. schools seem to do as badly teaching those from better-educated families as they do teaching those from the less well educated.


Countries with high proficiency rates among students from better-educated families include Korea (73%), Poland (71%), Japan (68%), Switzerland (65%), Germany (64%) and Canada (57%). Perhaps the only comfort the United States can take is that it is only 5 percentage points behind its mother country, the United Kingdom (48%).

Across the OECD, there is a strong relationship between the math performance of students from families with high and with low educational backgrounds. Mexico and Chile are particularly weak at educating those from better-educated families, however. Conversely, Poland and Slovakia are particularly weak at educating students from families with less education, given the performance of those from families with high education. The relative performance of the U.S. education system is pretty much the same across social groups. It is weak at the bottom, no less weak at the middle, and just as weak with respect to educating the most-advantaged. As Secretary Duncan said, it is not a problem of some other person’s child.

Ranking States

The overall math proficiency rate of 15-year-olds varies widely among the states—from a high of 51 percent in Massachusetts to a low of 19 percent in Mississippi. Striking differences remain when one divides students according to parental education. For students from families with low parental education levels, Texas (28%) and New Jersey (25%) have the highest proficiency rates, well ahead of Massachusetts and Minnesota (both at 18%), putting them in 7th and 8th place among U.S. states for this category of students. Maryland and Illinois are at about the national average, while New York, in 27th place, falls slightly below. California (9%), West Virginia (6%), and Utah (5%) rank at embarrassingly low levels. (See the interactive map for a picture of the overall pattern throughout the 50 states.)

Many people assume that students coming from families with high education levels are keeping up with their peers abroad. Indeed, in some parts of the United States that is in fact the case. More than 62 percent of students from Massachusetts families with high levels of parental education are proficient in math, placing that state just behind Germany (64%) and Switzerland (65%), two of the top-five OECD countries. Only a bit further back are Vermont, Minnesota, Colorado, New Jersey, and Montana, all of which have a proficiency rate of 58 percent or 59 percent for students from better-educated families. Internationally, that places these states in the same league as the Czech Republic (58%), Canada (57%), and Finland (56%), which are among the OECD top 13.

But those six states are the highest-performing states in the Union. Other states rank much lower down the international list. In many places, students from highly educated families are performing well below the OECD average for similarly advantaged students. For example, Wisconsin, if ranked as a country on this measure, would come in 21st, just below Ireland. California is large enough to be an OECD country in its own right. If it were, its 43 percent proficiency rating would place it 30th, just below Italy, and New York’s 40 percent rating entitles it to assume position number 31, just below Turkey. Florida’s 38 percent rating gives it the 32nd position, just below Sweden, which has registered an abysmal performance given its level of economic development. Ranked near the bottom, Alabama, West Virginia, and Louisiana do worse than all OECD countries with the exception of Chile and Mexico. (See the interactive map for an overall portrait of the pattern among the states.)

Similar to the international comparisons, states that rank well for math education among students with high parental education tend also to rank highly for students from less-advantaged backgrounds. But some high-performing states, such as Massachusetts, Vermont, and Colorado, do relatively better with students from families with higher educational backgrounds than they do with their less-advantaged peers.

Advanced Performance in Math

The U.S. economic strength has been built in large part through its record of invention and innovation, things that themselves depend upon the country’s historic strength in science, technical, engineering, and math fields (STEM). The pool of people prepared to go into these fields in the future is dependent on students who have developed advanced skills in math and science in school.

Eight percent of the U.S. class of 2015 proved its merit by scoring at the advanced level on the NAEP in math. That could be regarded as a triumph were it not for the fact that it leaves the United States 28th on the OECD list. Other countries do a much better job at bringing students up to the advanced level of performance. The eight world leaders are Korea (30%), Japan (23%), Switzerland (20%), Belgium (19%), the Netherlands (18%), Germany (17%), Poland (16%), and Canada (16%). Disturbingly, our neighbor to the north turns out twice as high a percentage of students at the advanced level in math as the United States.

The percentage scoring at the advanced level is only 2 percent for U.S. students from families with low levels of educational attainment and only 4 percent for students from moderately educated families. Those disgraceful numbers could be offset by unusually high performances among the better-educated, however. Does the United States achieve a breakthrough at least among this group? Some may wish to take pride in the fact that 12 percent of the students from better-educated families reach the advanced level in math. But such pride is misplaced, as the feat still leaves the United States in the 28th position out of the 34 OECD countries. Only Sweden, Spain, Turkey, Greece, Chile, and Mexico do worse.

Advanced Performance by State

The four states with 13 percent or more students performing at the advanced level in math are Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Vermont, with the Bay State taking honors with 15 percent of its students scoring at that level. All of these states rank alongside the top 13 OECD countries, and Massachusetts ranks 9th, just below Canada, though still well below Korea and Japan. With less than 7 percent of students performing at the advanced level, New York and California rank 31st, just ahead of Turkey and Greece. The two lowest-performing states, Alabama and Louisiana, however, do outrank the two lowest-performing OECD countries—Chile and Mexico.

The same states—Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Vermont—are top performers on this measure for students from families with high educational backgrounds; in all four plus Colorado, 18 percent or more of such students perform at the advanced level. That places them in the same league as Canada and France but well behind Korea, Poland, Japan, Switzerland, Belgium, and Germany. But only 15 percent perform at this level in Pennsylvania and 14 percent in Wisconsin, and less than 10 percent do so in New York, Michigan, and Florida. If states do well with students from better-educated family backgrounds, they tend to do well with those from less-educated ones. But there are clear exceptions to this pattern. West Virginia, Louisiana, and Mississippi score particularly badly on their capacity to teach students from more-educated backgrounds.


Lacking good information, it has been easy even for sophisticated Americans to be seduced by apologists who would have the public believe the problems are simply those of poor kids in central city schools. Our results point in quite the opposite direction. We find that the international rankings of the United States and the individual states are not much different for students from advantaged backgrounds than for those from disadvantaged ones. Although a higher proportion of U.S. students from better-educated families are proficient, that is equally true for similarly situated students in other countries. Compared to their counterparts abroad, however, U.S. students from advantaged homes lag severely behind.

As long as the focus remains on distinctions within the United States, then the comfortable can remain comforted by the distance between suburbia and the inner city. But once the focus shifts to countries abroad and fair, apples-to-apples comparisons are made, it becomes manifest that nearly all of our young people—from privileged and not-so-privileged backgrounds—are not faring well.

Some say that we must cure poverty before we can address the achievement problems in our schools. Others say that our schools are generally doing fine, except for the schools serving the poor. Bringing an international perspective correctly to bear on the issue dispels both thoughts.

The United States has two achievement gaps to be bridged—the one between the advantaged and the disadvantaged and the one between itself and its peers abroad. Neither goal need be sacrificed to attain the other.

Eric A. Hanushek is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Paul E. Peterson is professor of government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. Ludger Woessmann is professor of economics at the University of Munich and director of the Ifo Center for the Economics of Education and Innovation. An unabridged version of this report is available at hks.harvard.edu/pepg/.


Comment on this article
  • Michelle Furtado says:

    I’ll be watching to see how adopting Common Core standards is supposedly going to remedy the situation. Today there is a wide disparity between students’ test scores. If indeed the standards are higher than what my state, Massachusetts, currently has then how are students who test well below our students going to fare? And how long is it supposed to take to see drastic results? Mandating national standards is not the solution.

  • Michelle Festa says:

    In the United States all children are educated regardless of ability. Several years ago I saw a news report stating that some countries only educate the brightest kids so that the less intelligent kids are not included making their scores seem higher. Is this true currently for higher scoring countries? Regardless I am not surprised at the findings.

    Even if weeding out low performers is a factor for other countries, I think that the shift in teaching methods has been disastrous for our kids. Student-centered teaching across all subjects seems to be the norm, favoring the touchy feely right brain techniques over the analytical left brain practice and mastery. It places the less social kids who used to excel in especially math and science at a
    disadvantage. This change in the classrooms across America is ignored while low performance is used to push blind adoption of the nationalized Common Core Standards. Think about it-how do you master a skill without practice? Where the dreaded CCCS math homework sheets may only have 9 problems -9 problems that each try to implement reading, spelling and social
    awareness- may take as long to complete as 50 or 100 math-only problems, but with more frustration, discouragement and a lack of mastery that I will bet requires much more review time each September.

  • Hilary Appelman says:

    I would be interested to your response to this in a recent column by Diane Ravitch (and it would be nice if you didn’t call people who don’t agree with you names such as “apologists.”):

    “It is true that we get mediocre scores on international tests, but we have been getting mediocre scores on international tests since the first such test was offered in 1964. We were never a world leader on the international tests. Most years, our scores were at the median or even in the bottom quartile. Yet in the intervening fifty years, we have far surpassed all those nations–economically, technologically, and on every other dimension– whose students got higher test scores. Basically, the test scores don’t predict anything about the future of the economy.”

  • informed_citizen says:

    Here’s what Arne Duncan won’t tell you about the PISA: The US is the only country that tests every child. In those countries that consistently rank above the US, students are tracked beginning in elementary school. If students don’t perform well, they are not on the honors/IBA/college-bound track. Only those students who qualify for the advanced track are tested in those countries. The US, by contrast, tests students with severe learning, cognitive, and developmental disabilities, as well as non-college-bound students who will not perform as well on those international measures. It is a false comparison, and it’s about time that was acknowledged.

  • Jimmy Kilpatrick says:

    I often asked this of parents when my 3 boys were is high school. Both white parents, both college educated and both high professional jobs. Yet, the rankings of their children was far below the Asian and Indian students in our school districts.

  • Charles Burger says:

    What % of children in foreign countries actually go to school?

  • Martin Andler says:

    @ informed @ Burger @ Festa : The interesting point about the Pisa study is that countries are allowed to exclude only a very small proportion of children ; besides in all advanced countries, schooling is compulsory until the age of 16 — hence a study of 15 year olds does not put the US at a disadvantage.

    @ Appelman, quoting “Yet in the intervening fifty years, we have far surpassed all those nations–economically, technologically, and on every other dimension” : 1° The US was much richer than most countries after WWII ; it has not advanced as fast in the last 50 years as many other countries. 2° the US remains ahead largely because of its capacity to attract talent from foreign countries (at the expense of those countries) ; one question is : will this continue, now that several poor countries are not so poor anymore ?

  • Saundra Offenburger says:

    I would like to see the level of poverty in each country. To make a comparison like this, even with this so-called affluent students isolated, how many households were impacted by the 2007-2012 economic disaster in the USA? When dealing with humans and their multilayer characteristics, you cannot make determinations from one standalone statistic. Doing so invites simplistic and incorrect solutions to issues that are more complex and nuanced. Why aren’t these deformers talking to real teachers yet about these things? Clearly, these last 15 yrs of testing and data have NOT improved anyone. Just doing more of the same is insane.

  • Meri R-C says:

    While I disagree with the analysis presented in this article, as well as the underlying premise that higher math test scores = potential economic prosperity (and yes, I have tracked that argument at length), it is interesting to note, and only to note, that some of the states that have had in place the most aggressive educational reforms (Florida, Tennessee, and Louisiana, for example) are at the bottom of all lists. Maybe our methods of reform – accountability and round-the-calendar testing – are not having the intended effects of raised scores?

    That is, if we can take a single data point, generalize it across a state, and correlate it to “teaching ability,” which I maintain we cannot.

  • R Stiggins says:

    Has anyone ever done (or even seen) an investigation of the correlation between scores on these international tests and any index of the social, political, or economic well-being of the nations involved? I know of none. Why is that? Why do we think these studies are important anyway? What do they help us achieve in terms of cultural development?

  • Arthur Camins says:

    Back in December, 2013 when the PISA results were released I wrote an article for the Huffington Post, entitled: PISA Results: A Chicken Little Moment?

    It began: The current debate regarding interpretation of recently released results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) implies that we need to choose between two interpretations: 1. The educational sky isn’t falling. Although US students have never done well on international tests, as a nation we have made remarkable economic progress and remain the strongest most innovative economy; or 2. PISA results should be a wake up call. PISA assesses important 21st century skills. Our students’ abilities remain stagnant while other countries are racing ahead.

    Could these both be valid claims?

    Critique of overreaching evidentiary claims is essential, but the results of the debate may not move us forward toward effective solutions. As Jack Buckley, Commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics said, “These kinds of studies [PISA analyses] are really good at describing where we stand and maybe looking at trends. They’re not good at all at telling us why. The study design is not one that supports causal inference.”

    Critique of current education reform strategies does not imply acceptance of current conditions or outcomes. In fact, I think it is important to stipulate up front that we have
    urgent and substantial problems to address in two areas that are essential to student success.

    Read the full article at: http://www.arthurcamins.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/PISA-Results-A-Chicken-Little-Moment-.pdf

  • Vivian Sawicki says:

    What is Massachusetts doing right? Can we all learn from it?

  • Steve Cordogan says:

    The pseudo-scientific nature of this article makes it all the more worrisome, since the true invalidity of its findings can be obscured by what seems to be a well-thought out research design. But the fundamental flaws of the assumptions underlying the tests upon which the study is based renders the findings largely meaningless.

    Let’s give an over-tested high school student a test that has no meaning or value to them, and one from which they and their school will never see the results, and expect them to take it seriously. And then let’s make global conclusions from the findings. This is the foolish reality behind NAEP and PISA.

    NAEP and PISA also use volunteer, not random, samples, often begging for participants (contrary to an earlier posting, the testing is very far from universal in the U.S.). As for the financial incentives PISA offers administrators for having their students take the test, the promised honorariums are questionable and the all-expenses-paid Washington D.C. conference is an inappropriate bribe. And such motivators skew the sample toward those districts that need the incentives.

    So what thinking person would take NAEP/PISA seriously?

    If we have a universally (or consistently) administered assessment that is important to the test-taker, and we adjust for the change across years for at-risk test–takers (e.g., don’t compare across years when the level of under-prepared students increases substantially, like for our current college entrance exams), then we can have meaningful measures of student performance. That also assumes that we’re using a good assessment.

    NAEP/PISA may well be good test instruments, but the findings are largely worthless. Not-for-profits and government entities like NAEP/PISA need headlines to keep their funding going, and negative headlines work best to prove that the organizations are needed. The media always seem ready to swallow the proclamations no matter how much they don’t seem to hold up in the real world.

    Yes, our media and electronics saturated children could do better, and our expectations of them have been too low for too long. Hopefully, the new assessment consortia (PARCC and Smarter Balanced) will provide good academic performance data across states without (though I’m not holding my breath) resorting to sensationalized reports. But this study is nothing more than bad research receiving far more publicity than it deserves.

  • Gillian Thorne says:

    I find little about attitudes toward hard work and study and habits of mind in the commentary on education in the United States. We are no longer “hungry” for knowledge and achievement; affluent parents tend to protect their children from interfacing with reality and responsibility for themselves; social media have taken the place of discussion and reflection. Memorization and building blocks of learning are cast aside in favor of, as one coment mentions, a more touchy feely approach to education. Teaches are no longer allowed to teach creatively, or to use their professional judgment in choosing teaching methods and working with children as individuals. Too many parents expect too little and too many children are lazy and believe it when their parents tell them they are special when they are simply normal. We all need a dose of reality, which means being willing to work hard and striving to achieve and better ourselves.

  • Ruth Reynard says:

    Actually, I have lived in the UK and Ireland, Canada, and Germany and all kids in school in those countries are tested.

  • Theresa Daem says:

    In an article titled Tenuous Findings, Tenuous Policies and published May 19, 2014, Dr. Iris C. Rotberg examines the “methodological problems” that “have plagued international test-score comparisons from the time they began 50 years ago.” She asserts that “since then the number and type of countries and other jurisdictions participating in the comparisons have increased, as have the methodological problems“. More importantly, Dr. Rotberg states unequivocally, “the policy implications drawn from the comparisons are based on seriously flawed data.”
    To make her point, Dr. Rotberg points out that the “test-score results for Shanghai, one of the richest cities in China, are included in the rankings along with results for entire countries.” Furthermore, she says, “even in Shanghai, the sample of children tested is not representative of the demographics of the city because most of the children of the millions of migrant workers are no longer in school at age 15 when the test is administered or have been sent back to their home provinces . . .”
    Assuming her facts are correct, one must agree that the “test results, therefore, are far from representative of the population of Shanghai, much less of China.”
    Dr. Rotberg tells us that this is but one example. There is a plethora of research available to those who care to know the facts. Isn’t it reasonable to ask Secretary Duncan to verify the validity of data before he cites it as a basis for describing U.S. education as “educational stagnation”?
    Tenuous Findings, Tenuous Policies
    Teachers College Record. Date Published: May 19, 2014
    http://www.tcrecord.org, D Number: 17537, Date Accessed: 5/20/2014 5:51:24 PM

  • Dave Sibley says:

    I have some background in this area, being an educator with 20+ years of teaching and a Ph.D in education. In my research and experience, it is not the level of parental education that is the key factor, but the expectations set by the parents. Expectations about hard work, behavior, and focus on doing well in school. This is hard to measure, but most teachers can tell you after talking with parents, what they are saying to their children about school. One would think that parents with advanced degrees would promote education in their children, but it is no guarantee. If the US wants better educated students, we need to get everyone on board promoting the importance of being educated- not just schools. How about recognizing students who are gifted academically the same way we glorify those who can carry a football?

  • Stuart Carroll says:

    I suspect that the comparison is reasonably accurate, though perhaps the United States has a slightly higher participation rate in secondary education. That said, the big problem is most likely the problem of affluence and not anything to do with teaching methods – American teenagers who wish to excel in Mathematics will find a way to do so, but most would rather not work so hard. In the long run it is hard to imagine that this will hurt US economic competitiveness, as high achievers from many other countries wish to emigrate to the United States, and as long as that is the case we will remain a world leader. Our native born children may end up somewhat poorer, but the decline of the middle class in the US is nothing new.

  • Linda M says:

    I’m disappointed that this article did not take a look at the correlation with poverty. The U.S. has the highest child poverty rate of any industrialized nation, far higher than the next competitor, and, as Berliner and Glass found, if you look at the U.S. schools with 10% or less poverty (which is still more than the top nations on PISA), the U.S. leads the world. The comparisons based on parental education level are interesting, but without also including the analysis based on poverty, are only part of the story.

  • Alice in PA says:

    I am curious about two methodological points

    1) why did you not just disaggregate the PISA scores themselves. That is what other researchers have done who have claimed the poverty effect. Why go through the messiness of equating two different tests which all psychometric analysts know is impossible to do given the different goals of tests. Also, the score of proficient on NAEP is equivalent to a very high advanced score.

    2) why use education level as a measure of poverty? Why not the OECD definition or the FRL status which again is what is the norm for the field?

    This study uses unusual proxy measures that ,if I were suspicious, were chosen specifically to get the desired results

  • Anne Pember says:

    While the comparisons with international results may lack transparency with respect to how many and which students take assessments in other countries, we need to remember the US is not other countries. We choose, appropriately so, to provide a free an public education to all our children. And so, as we review the results of the assessments, and see the disparities based on family status, and the deficiencies in academic performance we must address our education system to rectify these issues. Our public school teachers need professional development to improve the instruction for all our children. This is a very timely and informative report.

  • Adeline says:

    @Martin Andler, as a former international school teacher, I can attest that what foreign countries “allow to exclude” and what these countries actually do are two different concepts. As for this test, it is not a high stakes test for the students. They know that it does not affect their grades in classes; it is not reported on their report card; their prospective college never learn of their score; students themselves do not know or understand the scores. When students in my present school were told that they would sit for the test, they shrugged their shoulders and talked about missing classes for a day. In this age of overtesting students learn where to put their efforts; if the result has no bearing on them, they will put little effort into demonstrating their best. With that understanding and a pretty solid understanding of how to read data (I’m a teacher; it’s what I do), I don’t get how people can automatically attribute a gap in scores to underperforming schools. I don’t even see a causal relationship here because there are so many other factors that could be influencing the results. It is this type of knee-jerk analysis/reaction that will continue to damage education because it is poor analysis that influences policy. Additionally, we are using one score from one test. Any qualified education researcher knows that that is highly unreliable data and one of the primary reasons why schools encourage students to take the SATs multiple times. This is poor data collection and research.

  • Jean says:

    There is no place like a America.Yes! a country that gives EVERY child the opportunity to succeed academically at their level. Although the USA is trailing these high performing countries , their students are eager to study here in our Universities..Hummm… is it because we incorporate creativity and talent in our learning instead of rote and memorization?

  • D Woods says:

    As a 30-year teacher and also teacher trainer in research affecting education, one concern I have is the lack of information about other factors that affect student performance. With the more well-to-do American families, we find a number of obstacles, including but not limited to: failure of parents to impress on their children the importance of education; the sense of many middle- and upper-income students that college is what counts, and they’re waiting until college to actually work; working parents who do not have time to interact with their children in reading and other enrichment activities; and parents who do not model reading and thinking skills. The home environment matters for families of all incomes, and some home environments are more productive for student learning than others.

  • Nadine O. says:

    I agree with many of the points made in the previous comments:
    1. The article tries to prove a point with backup from only the one study.
    2. Education in the U.S. is comparatively challenged because public schools are mandated to educate ALL children.
    3. Not all students in the U.S. will take seriously tests which don’t affect their grade.
    4. Educational motivation in the U.S. is not what it should be. Many (most?) students don’t have the hunger for a good education that is needed to motivate true, concerted effort.
    I would like to add one more: many of the more motivated students (ones who want to get into good universities) are often seriously sleep-deprived. The cost of a college education in our country is so high that scholarships are desperately needed, so students over-involve themselves to build a good resume, sacrificing the sleep that is necessary in order to really do their best. Scientific evidence shows that teenagers need 9 hours of sleep a night, and that their sleep cycles are different from younger children and adults. Too often they are expected (or need to) work a job, get their studies done, and be involved in clubs/organizations, besides attending school starting early in the morning. What do we expect??

  • Tom Rains says:

    It seems that while the United States attempts to educate all young people many other countries may educate only the potentially out standing students, leaving those behind who might not succeed. This is contrary the United States policy that all young people be educated. How is this unbalanced comparison to be adjudicated? Perhaps some mathematical adjustment can be made in the numbers in order to balance out the comparison. That said, clearly the United States lags most other nations regardless of mathematical comparisons. This is the fundamental problem and should be addressed through refined educational policy … schools, funding, teacher quality, student requirements, etc.

  • Tom Rains says:

    Further, parental education seems to be irrelevant in many comparisons within the United States. The assumption is that those students with higher educated parents will outperform those who do not. Perhaps also to be considered would be the amount of time parents spend with their children in the learning process. It might be assumed that those students whose parents have higher eduction levels would enjoy greater involvement of their parents and thus higher learning levels, although given the comparisons stated this may be only conjecture.

  • Thomas P. says:

    I wish I could compare this study to when I went to school, in the 50’s & 60’s. When I goofed around in class, I was punished in school & I was punished when I returned home. Know the teachers can’t even scold the students without getting into trouble. I don’t mean abuse. This factor has gone way overboard in taking control from the teacher. There are many factors that influence this study. Too numerous to mention here. I agree with Nadine O. and her comments. But they are just the tip of the ice berg. The outrageous cost of education in the US is a huge factor. The USA cannot compete on the world stage because of money. We face a serious problem and I not so sure how many Americans are aware of it.

  • Jeff Gerken says:

    I retired in 2010 after 35 years as an engineer and scientist with a large electric utility company, and immediately began working to become certified as a math and science teacher. I worked as a substitute teacher in Ohio for two years, and am now in my second year as a substitute teacher in North Carolina. As a sub, I see a variety of different students and classrooms, and I believe that high expectations, on the part of everyone involved, are key to successful educational outcomes. I see students from affluent backgrounds who coast because their parents expect the schools to promote them without any real effort or curiosity on the part of the students. I see other students from bleak family situations who excel because their parents, or in many cases parent, have demand full effort from their children. But it is not only the parents who must have high expectations. I teach at one high school where the principal has low expectations of both the students and the teachers, and as a result I can see gang activity in the halls, disrespect for authority in the classrooms, and lower educational progress than should be attained given the socioeconomic environment in the area. At another high school in the same system, the principal enforces the dress code, discipline problems are handled as they arise, and academic success is highly valued, and the results are much greater.

    In parallel with my reading for this course, I am reading “The Smartest Kids in the World” by Amanda Ripley. She compares the experiences of three American students who spend time as exchange students in schools in South Korea, Finland, and Poland, to their experiences back home in the United States. She chose those countries because of the scores of their students on the PISA. In South Korea, of course, it is the parents who have extremely high expectations of their students, to a point that I would certainly not want any of my children to be educated in that system. In Finland, the government mandated that teachers had to meet high expectations, and trained and paid them accordingly. (I have not yet finished reading about the system in Poland, but it appears that they too determined that education was going to be the key to their recovery after years as a Soviet satellite.) All three of those countries, by the way, far surpass the U.S. in the rankings mentioned in this reading.

    On a different tack, I would like to take a look at the three charts and the comparisons among states here in the U.S. that jump out at me. In particular, I wanted to look at the three states where I have lived – Ohio, Massachusetts, West Virginia, and now North Carolina.

    Ohio has had a long history of reasonably good schools – the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (?), which established what would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois, provided that the proceeds from selling one square mile in each township would go toward supporting schools in that township. Unfortunately, Ohio has in recent history failed to comply with its constitutional mandate to provide an efficient system of education. Much of the support for individual school districts comes from local real estate and income taxes, with the result that schools in very rich or heavily industrialized districts are funded at high levels, while schools in rural or blighted areas are left to struggle. In the charts in the study, Ohio placed 16th overall among the state, but 30th for students in the “low parental education” category. Interestingly, Ohio was only 18th in the high parental education category, so they must have done considerably better in the middle category, the chart for which was not shown.
    Massachusetts, which has had a strong tradition of public education since about 1620, placed first in the overall category and in the high parental education category, but only seventh in the low parental income category, where Texas (!) was first. I would like to see more comments in this course about why Massachusetts is lower in that category, as well as why Texas is first.
    I’m not going to say too much about West Virginia. When I lived there, I didn’t see much expectation of any kind, and the charts show them as placing 48th, 47th, and 46th.
    North Carolina, which at one point paid teachers at a level above the national median, is now at 46th in the nation. The current governor and both branches of the legislature have adopted an inimical stance toward the teachers, teachers’ unions have been abolished, morale is about as low as it can be, and teachers are leaving in droves. (At one of the high schools where I was the “go-to” math sub last year, five of the eight math teachers left over the summer.)
    My older daughter attended first and second grades in what was considered, at the time, a reasonably good public school system in Ohio. (It has since fallen on very hard times due to the funding issues I mentioned above.) When we saw the direction in which those schools were headed, however, we pulled both her and her younger sister out of the public schools, moved thirty miles to a different city, and put them into a private all-girls school there. They got an excellent education at the private school, largely because of the high expectations at that school, and have prospered since. Unfortunately, that type of education is not available to everyone.

  • BLESSINGchukwudi says:

    Other factors both connected and extraneous can also account for why the students from educationally advantaged backgrounds in the US lag behind their counterparts from other OECD countries. Would any one like to probe the influence of excessive extra-curricular activities like basketball which many US 15-year old are deeply obsessed with? Do these students allocate more time to the pursuit of their hobby or to partying than they do to their studies( talking private studies now)? From all indications, the US has got much of what it takes to lead the other countries of the world in terms of quality education delivery to her youth.

  • Nicolas says:

    It’s pitiful that Diane Ravitch thinks that the value of education lies in helping “the economy.”

  • Consuelo Yukiko Yamaguchi - Mayorquin says:

    Texas ranks first in the “low educated parents” categories largely because those parents respect and support what teachers are doing to educate their offspring. There are a lot of initiatives targeted to our “at risk” student population. Ethnicity and socioeconomic factors play a big part on student performance. Since the late 1990s we have been immersed in “high stakes” testing and accountability in the lone star state, which has provided valuable information on student performance. This segment is expected to perform equal to the most advantaged students; whose schools and families have more resources to enhance the learning process. High expectations from all stakeholders is a big factor, but also vocation and unselfish work from educators. Each state faces different challenges to educate our youth, but as a nation I believe it’s time to rethink our traditional public school system, which is designed after the 1800s one-room school model

  • Tina Haskell says:

    I agree with the article that wealth and education levels of parents do not determine academic success. My father came to the US at age 10. He was placed in a class for foreign language speakers and then in Kindergarten. He was harrassed by neighborhood kids and learned English quickly to survive. He never made it to high school. My mother was born in the US, but education was looked down upon in her family, so she quit high school. These two people have two children that are highly educated, each having two degrees, graduating with honors. The difference is attitude toward education. Both of my parents, especially my mother, value education as a top priority. My mother was involved in my school community until I was in high school, when at parent-teacher conferences, the teachers asked what she was doing at the conference. Why did she come? I was doing well, so why did she bother to show up? Attitude. It’s about attitude.

  • Mambert says:

    Poverty in the United States, means to be rich in many third world countries, a clear example is Cuba; a Nation where students most of the time are going to School without to eat a regular breakfast. However, there are no High School students in Cuba without an acceptable knowledge with respect to Fractions, Percent, Algebra, among other math subjects. The same apply upon reading, and science. Therefore, poverty is not a primary factor for a student to fail. Good teachers, and prohibition of calculators seeking answers,it is in my opinion a positive response to increase the level to an acceptable range. Math is a mechanism controlled by rules. Most Teacher in USA do not explain in detail the rules that control the fundamental knowledge to success in High School. They fail to explain the origin of the answer.

  • Laurie Peterson says:

    I have been an educator for 25 years, and I have seen the “climate” in ours schools change as our society has changed. As the needs, expectations and norms of society change, so do those of the students in our schools, yet we in the profession tend to hold onto those norms of days gone by. Right or wrong, good or bad, American society is changing and our schools need to change to accommodate a new generation of learners. But, how much is too much? If our American students do not value an education as much as those students in many of the countries that are outperforming us do, then we will never close the gap. Our students often make excuses and blame others (teachers, parents, “the system”) for their lack of performance, rather than look inward and take responsibility. My colleagues are working day and night to understand, practice and implement the new Common Core standards; they are trying new teaching methods to reach all of our students; they are incorporating technology at every feasible opportunity, yet students are not doing their part. Until education is valued and respected and students are willing to do the hard work required to get a quality education, all of our efforts will continue to produce mediocrity.

  • Chuy Vazquez says:

    It is great to know that there is a way to measure somehow the level of achievement of the educational system. The only detail I see as not fitting quite right is the fact that every state in the US has different systems and even from district to district. How can the best practices be cascaded down to the states or districts that need it more? Or how can other countries succeed while the US is falling behind? Teaching techniques seem to be stagnated along with the whole system. Society units seem to have lost momentum in pushing ourselves and challenging individuals and systems to improve, innovate and change the course.

  • Shravani Sakpal says:

    It is rather exasperating to read overwhelming proof of just how much the education system of the US needs to improve. What I find interesting is, as mentioned in one of the previous comments, how the daily schedule of a student–most often determined by his socio-economic status (perhaps a job if he needs to help out his family financially, etc.)–can truly build up and have a profound impact on academic performance. But, obviously, advantaged students are lagging behind as well. I believe there is an inherent lack of motivation and curiosity, inquisitiveness, in several students. Most are cynical about the concept of education, and hold a general disregard for it. Maybe motivating the students is something that should be done in order to inch closer to the solution to this seeming quagmire? Perhaps.

  • Bernard Mlenga says:

    This article displays US performance on the 2012 (PISA) as straight forward and stark. It shows educational stagnation. Arne Duncan stated that the nation’s educational problems are not limited to certain groups or specific places.

    Most affluent Americans remain positive about the schools in their local communities. America’s educational shortcomings are not just the problems of the other person’s child.

    From a global perspective US schools seem to do as badly teaching those from better-educated families as they do teaching those from less educated families. Students from highly educated families are performing well below the OECD average for similar advantaged students.

    Many people assume that students coming from families with high education levels are keeping up with their peers abroad. US students from advantaged homes lag severely behind.

    Some say that we must eradicate poverty before we address limitations in our schools. Others say that our schools are doing well except for schools serving the poor.

    Bernard Mlenga

  • christopher gordon says:

    I believe that as a nation we have lost the motivation or hunger for advancement in the world because we have been the top dog for too long. Comfort and security have a way softening the edge and the edge is what makes hard work less of an obstacle. Seems simplistic but history has shown what can be achieved when people have a goal and the proper incentives whether positive or negative i.e. the space race, disaster relief programs, Hitler and the Nazis.

  • Gunhild Horne says:

    Personally, I believe that there’s a strong correlation between money and resources and quality of education particularly in the US.
    When our children were little we had the choice between buying a house in a poor district which would have given us more of a house or buying a little house in a suburb which was known for it’s excellent schools. The amount of taxes paid in suburbs often exceeds the money paid in poorer districts like the inner cities or rural areas as well. The result are better funded suburban schools and a better education in general. There might be exceptions to the rule but there must be a reason why many inner city parents are eager to get their children bused to the suburbs so that their children can attend school there. From my point of view the US school misery is a political issue. As long as not all the money gets evenly divided to all schools, not every student has the same opportunity to excel and be competitive with the suburban privileged peers there will always be a status quo.

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