Measured against the rest of the world, U.S. students have not fared too well. The most recent results of the Program for International Assessment (Pisa) — a test in reading, math and science given every three years to 15 -year-olds around the world — reveal once again that U.S. students trail those in Asian countries including China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Singapore.
Average U.S. Scores Are, Well, Very Average
A quick glance of the figures released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that U.S. students are, in general, distinctly average. U.S. students’ average scores are lower than those of about half the other countries’ and higher than those of the other half.
Specifically, average scores on the PISA tests in mathematics literacy ranged from 613 in Shanghai-China to 368 in Peru, with the U.S. average score being 481 (lower than the OECD average of 494). In science literacy, average scores ranged from 580 in Shanghai-China to 373 in Peru; the U.S. average score was 497. In reading literacy, average scores ranged from 570 in Shanghai-China to 384 in Peru; the U.S. average score was 498.
When it comes to math, U.S. students score at the same level as those from Hungary, Russia and the Slovak Republic; they showed particular problems with geometry, modeling and real-world applications of mathematical concepts. In science, the U.S. scored the same as Italy, Latvia and Portugal (and ahead of Russia). U.S. students did the best in reading, ranking 17th in the world and on a par with students in the U.K., France and Austria.
“A Picture of Educational Stagnation”
Despite bipartisan efforts to improve the U.S. education system, American students’ scores have stayed the same for a decade. Education secretary Arne Duncan did not mince words at the announcement of the PISA test results which he called a “picture of educational stagnation.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized the emphasis in the U.S. on testing, evaluating and sanctioning teachers and closing failing schools.
Notably, two measures that have gotten a lot of play in attempts to reform U.S. education — reducing class size and increasing school choice — are not, according to the OECD’s analysis, linked to better performance on the test.
Wealth, Poverty and Educational Performance
Some features of the PISA test results are revealing. For the first time, three U.S. states (Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida) paid to have the tests administered to additional students beyond those needed for a national sample. Doing so provided these states with their own PISA ratings. While Florida scored well below the U.S. average in science and math and at the average in reading, Massachusetts ended up with outstanding results in both reading and science and notable scores in math. Connecticut’s performance was not as strong but just a bit behind.
While there is a correlation between educational spending and better performance on mathematical tests, South Korea trumped this as it spends below the average of other countries. Within the United States, though, students from affluent school districts (defined as those in which fewer than 10 percent of children qualify for subsidized lunches) did so well that “if treated as a separate jurisdiction, they would have placed second only to Shanghai in science and reading and would have ranked sixth in the world in math.” In contrast, students from poverty-stricken school districts did very poorly on the PISA tests, on a par with those in Kazakhstan, Romania and Cyprus.
As Care2 writer Judy Molland wrote about the previous PISA results, the school systems in countries in the Asia-Pacific are set up differently and Asian cultures have traditionally held teachers in high regard:
… teachers are routinely recruited from among the top high-school graduates. Teaching is a highly regarded profession and the selection and training of teachers and principals is a priority.
Students also have longer school years and often longer school days, so that they have the equivalent of several more years of schooling by the time they graduate. What’s really interesting too is that Asian nations have built strong school systems by traveling the world to find effective practices and then weaving them together in ways that mesh with their own cultural values.
It is also the case that many families in Asian countries supplement their children’s education with tutoring and training in cram schools that, in more than a few cases, have gotten a bad reputation for drilling students rotely. Judy also notes that a number of students have taken their own lives.
U.S. Colleges and Universities Are Full of Chinese Students
Foreign students (the most, of late, from China) have been flocking in droves to U.S. colleges and universities. The U.S. higher education system has plenty of its own imperfections, but 819,644 students from China enrolled as undergraduates at American schools in the 2012-2013 academic year.
Such students often pay full tuition and U.S. schools have been eager for them to matriculate on their campuses. My husband teaches religion and American Studies at Fordham University in New York City and has seen more and more Chinese students in his classes over the past decade. While many stand out in their preparedness and focus on their studies, he has noted that, with each passing year, the Chinese students struggle more and more with writing, reading and using English; they often search out Chinese translations of the books he assigns. They are driven but with a notable focus on grades and on scoring well on their assignments without applying what they have learned.
U.S. education is far from perfect. It’s alarming to see such disparities between students from different economic backgrounds. But in reforming our schools, we should give a thought to what U.S. teachers are doing right as well as how our American education system needs to change.
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