Wasting Talent

Education Next Issue Cover

Everyone’s local school needs to do better


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Winter 2011 / Vol. 11, No. 1

Americans know the nation’s schools are not doing well. According to results from the 2010 EdNext-PEPG Survey released in this issue (“Meeting of the Minds”), only 18 percent think the schools deserve an “A” or a “B,” while 25 percent assign them either a “D” or an “F.” These are the worst grades the U. S. public has given its schools since it was first asked to grade them back in 1981.

Americans tend to think their local elementary and middle schools are much better than those of the nation as a whole. The problems with schools, people seem to believe, are found somewhere else: Schools are dreadful in the inner city, perhaps, or in other parts of the country, maybe. My local schools are just fine.

On some measures, they may be right. Yet schools across the country fall short when it comes to challenging the best and brightest. In this issue’s cover story (“Teaching the Talented”), my colleagues and I find that schools in 29 countries are doing a better job of lifting students to the highest level of accomplishment in math than are schools in the United States.

In honor of W. E. B. Du Bois, I like to refer to the students who can reach the highest levels of accomplishment as the “talented tenth.” Du Bois, renowned scholar, activist, and founder of the NAACP, believed it would take a small group with exceptional talent to lift his fellow African Americans out of poverty into the mainstream of American society. His vision has been proven more right than wrong by the many outstanding black scholars, educators, entrepreneurs, musicians, and community leaders.

Du Bois’s insight applies as much to countries as to ethnic minorities. It takes some portion of the total community who have exceptional talent to sustain an increasingly productive national economy. That portion is not fixed at 10 percent, however. The percentage of a generation who are of high accomplishment can be as little as 1 percent or as high as 25 percent. It depends very much upon how they are educated.

Unfortunately, the United States educates only a little more than 6 percent of its students to an advanced level in math according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a small percentage when compared to the proportion in many other countries that score at a comparable level on the international PISA test. The countries that do better spread from just north of the 49th parallel (Canada) across Europe (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) to nations crossed by the Arctic Circle (Finland, Iceland, and Sweden) to the farthest reaches of Asia (Taiwan, Korea, and Japan) to just short of the South Pole (Australia and New Zealand).

Some people blame the state of the American school on a rising immigrant population or the black-white education gap. But the picture does not change much when one looks only at white students (only 8 percent of whom score at the advanced level) or at those who have a parent with a college degree, only 10 percent of whom are advanced. Even for these more-advantaged groups, achievement in math is well below what many other countries are doing for all of their students, regardless of ethnicity or parental education.

Countries with good schools become more productive and watch their economies grow, while those with poor schools eventually pay the price. If the United States is ever to pay off its vast and rising public debt, as well as the growing deficits in its teacher pension accounts, it will have to fix not only the nation’s schools but local ones, too.

–Paul E. Peterson

Comment on this article
  • tmbeck says:

    I think you may be on to something. We are willing to put the poor and uneducated in jail faster than any other country in the world. If, the United States wants to keep ahead of the rest of the word not just keep up then ignoring sections of our society can no longer be done.
    I don’t think most middle class Americans see the education of all as a must. One only has to look at the Pledge to America and the crippling of public education.

  • John-Michael Caldaro says:

    I have three questions regarding this article.
    1. By what measure do Americans “know” that our schools are not doing well? If they are only going by what the press may say it is a very potentially uninformed decision. All you have to look at is the public’s opinion of human induced climate change. The best scientists in the field indicate it is happening but the press loves the controversy so the make it an even balance in their reporting. So I do not trust the “opinion” of the American people on an issue as important as this. I am not saying that our schools do not need to improve but an uninformed opinion will do nothing to advance the improvement.
    2. I would appreciate a citation of the research you are using to say: “Countries with good schools become more productive and watch their economies grow, while those with poor schools eventually pay the price.”
    3. Why do you throw in “teacher pension accounts” into our economic woes and leave out so many other economic problems? It immediately says to me you think our educators our overpaid and have it too easy when they retire after spending 30 + years at low pay. It must be those lazy and poorly functioning unionized teachers who are at the root of our economic problems. What about the obscene incomes hedge fund managers get? What about multimillion dollar athletes? How about the income disparity between the top earners and the average worker? Let’s reduce their income in retirement so they have to scrape by. By including that phrase you distract from the issue and target one group as I have done in response.

  • Joe T. Eddins says:

    Where is the education reform to increase the number of advanced math and science students?

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