U.S. Education Pressured by International Comparisons

Print More
Teacher Yasim Hasan asks her 2nd-grade students at Crescent Town Public School, in Toronto, to point to their home countries. The school is among many in the district that embrace their role as community hubs, an approach that some say embodies the strength of the Canadian education system. [Photo by Nicole Frugé/Education Week]

Photo by Nicole Frugé/Education Week

Teacher Yasim Hasan asks her 2nd-grade students at Crescent Town Public School, in Toronto, to point to their home countries. The school is among many in the district that embrace their role as community hubs, an approach that some say embodies the strength of the Canadian education system. [Photo by Nicole Frugé/Education Week]

Americans learn a bit more every year about the strengths and shortcomings of the education systems in other countries, thanks to a steady raft of international test data, academic scholarship, and analysis arriving from home and abroad.

Today, elected officials of all political stripes and advocates for a range of school policies scrutinize the results from international exams and comparisons with the intensity that, a decade ago, would have been reserved for state and local test scores.

U.S. policymakers and researchers also study the teaching methods, curricula, and academic programs of high-performing countries for lessons that can be applied to American schools—and the influence of those foreign-born ideas can be seen in many nationwide, state, and district policies.

Many U.S. leaders say that the performance of American students on a handful of high-profile international tests and measures—while mixed—underscores the weaknesses of the American education system, and foreshadows the serious economic challenges the country will face if it does not improve the skills of its future workforce. Those results show the following:

• American 15-year-olds scored at the international average of industrialized nations in science and reading and below the international average in math on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, released last year.

• Although students in the United States scored above the international averages in both 4th and 8th grade math and science, they performed well below highfliers such as Japan and Singapore on the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS.

• U.S. 4th graders topped 22 participating jurisdictions, and were outscored by just 10 of them, on the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS, though American students’ literacy marks stagnated from the previous exam.

• Americans account for more than a quarter of the college-educated workforce among nations that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Group of Twenty, or G-20—the largest representation of any such country by far. But the United States’ share of the global college-educated population fell from about 36 percent among 55- to 64-year-olds to 21 percent among 25- to 34-year-olds, partly because of the surging college attainment in foreign countries, such as China.

Such numbers dismay many American policymakers, who say the country needs to raise its performance, or risk becoming a less prosperous, less productive, and less innovative nation.

“It is an undeniable fact that countries who outeducate us today are going to outcompete us tomorrow,” President Barack Obama declared at a White House event. “If we’re serious about building an economy that lasts—an economy in which hard work pays off with the opportunity for solid middle-class jobs—we’ve got to get serious about education.”

Elected officials and advocates routinely cite the United States’ mediocre standing, and what they know of the educational practices of high-performing nations, to gird their arguments for their favored changes to American education—from encouraging greater parental involvement to revamping school curricula and standards to paying teachers more.

But analysts and researchers caution that American elected officials and educators need to take a nuanced approach to interpreting test scores and lessons from abroad, one that considers the full basket of educational, societal, and cultural factors that shape school practices in top-performing nations, and in the United States.

“Education is a complex system,” says James Stigler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied teaching methods in Japan. “You can’t take one element or one variable out of a system and expect it to work. We need to understand how different countries are producing results, but we need to be sophisticated in how we interpret those results.”

At a forum on international education held last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said U.S. officials need to be selective, but also agressive, consumers of what works well abroad.

“Every nation, of course, has unique characteristics of its teaching profession, culture, and education system, which may not be directly analogous to the U.S.,” the secretary said. “But to the extent that the U.S. can copy or adapt, and beg, borrow, and steal, successful practices from other nations, we should do so.”

Worries about American students’ performance on the international stage date back decades. That belief has roots that can be traced back at least as far as the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and it echoed through the 1983 publication of the influential report “A Nation at Risk,” which described American educational mediocrity as a threat to “our very future as a nation and a people.” The theme resounded with the 2005 release of the report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which argued that U.S. economic growth would depend in large part on the capabilities of the education system.

Yet those warnings have always struck some educators as unduly pessimistic, given the relatively modest changes in the arc of U.S. performance on international measures over time. To the extent that the United States’ educational standing has slipped, it is largely because less-populated nations and countries that are surging economically have made faster gains, according to many analysts’ reading of those results.

From a statistical standpoint, “there is no decline on any measure that we have for the United States,” says Andreas Schleicher, the head of education indicators and analysis for the OECD, the Paris-based group that administers PISA. The issue, he says, is that “the rate of improvement in other countries, in terms of getting more people into school and educating them well, is steeper.”

The United States, in fact, has a history of performing poorly on international comparisons, which belies the notion that the skills of the country’s students have eroded, says Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washington. In 1964, the United States participated in the First International Mathematics Study, along with 11 other nations, including Australia, England, Finland, and Japan. The United States’ 13-year-olds finished 11th out of 12 countries taking part, beating only Sweden, according to an recent report by Loveless.

“People assumed our schools were number one, and they weren’t,” says Loveless. Unimpressive test scores periodically trigger American anxieties about educational atrophy, he says. The tendency is “to look at the American school system, and say, ‘Something’s wrong’.”

Some say there are clear reasons to be worried about the United States’ uninspiring international test results and their implications for the economy.

Over the past few years, some scholars have drawn a link between the kinds of academic skills that can be measured on international tests and nations’ economic growth. One of those researchers is Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University. By his calculation, if the United States managed to boost its math performance to reach roughly the level of Canada, it would add between 7 percent and 11 percent, on average annually, to the nation’s gross domestic product over the next 80 years. That increased productivity would amount to pumping an additional $75 trillion into the U.S. economy, as measured in present value, or the current worth of the future additions to GDP. The United States’ current annual GDP, by comparison, is roughly $15 trillion.

“We face very, very different economic futures, depending on how our schools develop,” Hanushek says.

Others, such as Hal Salzman, a Rutgers University economist, contend that the link between the educational and economic prowess of nations, as measured by tests like TIMSS and PISA, is tenuous at best. He says that the intense focus on international test performance among U.S. business and political leaders in recent years “leads to a certain distortion about where to focus” efforts to improve education and workforce skills.

“If the reason we’re concerned about education is economic competition,” Salzman says, it’s worth noting that “a large portion of those high-ranking countries are economic train wrecks.”

Some observers suggest the United States is not keeping pace with the earlier educational standards it set, which proved so essential to its economic prosperity. In the 2008 book The Race Between Education and Technology, Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz argue that for most of the 20th century, advances in technology boosted the demand for educated American workers, and U.S. education kept pace, resulting in strong economic growth, shared across income groups.

But beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, educational attainment, as measured by high school and college completion, began to lag behind technological advances in that “race,” they say, leading to reduced economic growth and rising inequality. Large numbers of high school dropouts, students graduating without college-readiness, and financial barriers to college contributed to that imbalance, the authors explain.

At the same time, many researchers say that attempting to simply replicate features of high-performing countries’ education systems in the United States is a mistake, unless policymakers account for the role that cultural norms play in shaping school policies in other nations.

For instance, when U.S. officials look at teaching methods in Japan, they’re often surprised by the extent to which educators in that country allow students to struggle through problems, and they wonder why American instruction isn’t modeled on that tough-love approach, says Stigler, of UCLA.

But it’s not that simple. Japanese cultural norms—transmitted by parents and others—create different expectations for what goes on in the classroom, he notes.

American students “aren’t socialized to struggle hard,” says Stigler. “They’re socialized to put their hands up and say, ‘I don’t know.’ ” While Japanese parents would be inclined to tell a child’s teacher, “Thank you for helping my kid struggle,” he suggests, American parents are more inclined to say, “Why are you torturing my kid?”

Even so, some researchers see shared characteristics among top-performing education systems that transcend culture. For example, high-scoring countries tend to recruit and retain talented teachers and help them continually improve their classroom skills; they also combine clear, ambitious academic standards for all students with a strong degree of autonomy at the local school level, argues Schleicher, of the OECD.

Gauging the kinds of academic skills will prove most valuable to U.S. students is difficult, Goldin says, but evidence suggests that students need a strong educational foundation, without “breaks in the chain,” from early education through college. It also seems likely that demand will continue for skills that are not easily replaceable, such as analytical faculties, and the ability to think abstractly across disciplines, she says.

Such skills, adds Goldin, are not always easy to test, internationally or domestically—or to develop in the classroom.

“It’s much easier to teach with a textbook,” she says. But “life is not about answering questions correctly. That’s why it’s difficult to teach it right.”

Republished with permission from Education Week. Copyright © 2011 Editorial Projects in Education, Inc. For the full Quality Counts report, visit www.edweek.org/go/qc12.