We have been hearing a constant drumbeat from politicians, policy wonks, and pundits that America’s public education system is losing the educational “arms race” against other countries around the world. These advocates for reform use the widely reported results of testing of students from dozens of countries showing that U.S. students have gone from world leaders to middle-of-the-packers in a generation. As Thomas Friedman noted in a recent New York Times essay, “…the latest international education test results show our peers out-educating us, which means they will eventually out-compete us.” The ramifications of this dramatic decline in academic achievement are, according to these voices of impending educational Armageddon, nothing less than the loss of our intellectual, technological, and economic supremacy on the world stage for future generations.
But a recent email exchange with Dr. David Berliner, a leading education researcher from Arizona State University, has led me to conclude that these doomsayers may actually be more Chicken Little than Paul Revere. The comparisons of American students to an international cohort may not be valid because the differences that exist between the U.S. and other countries make direct comparison of achievement test results more like apples to oranges. Let’s look at why.
The U.S. has one of the highest poverty rates among developed countries, about 22% of our population live in poverty compared with, say, Finland and Denmark whose poverty rates are under 3%. Further, about half of the 40 million students in public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. qualify for free or reduced lunches. America has, by far, the greatest income inequity among developed countries as well. It also has the greatest demographic diversity, with more than 25% of public school students who speak English as a second language. Plus, we have among the highest rates of low-birth weight and among the worst health care among developed countries. All of these societal and economic factors have an immense impact on the over-all quality of our public education system and the test results that are used in international comparisons.
So what does all of this add up to? Let’s look at the numbers. The TIMSS test (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) is one of the most widely used academic achievement tests for comparing students across countries (along with the PISA test). It is administered to more than half a million students worldwide in fourth and eighth grade. The most recent results from 2007 demonstrate that when all U.S. students are included in the analyses, they do not, in fact, distinguish themselves when compared to their international brethren. For example, American fourth graders rank 11th in math (score: 529). By comparison, Hong Kong topped the fourth-grade math ranking with a score of 607. The results were similar for eighth graders and on the TIMSS science test.
But when the U.S. scores are broken down by the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches, a widely accepted measure of poverty, the results change dramatically. In schools with less than 10 percent of students relying on the subsidized lunch programs (i.e., schools in affluent communities), U.S. fourth graders had a math score of 583, placing them third internationally. In schools with under 25 percent of students on these lunch programs (i.e., schools in middle-income communities), American students scored a 553, putting them in fifth place in the international rankings. This block of students who attended middle-class and affluent schools comprise about 40 percent of all U.S. public school students. Comparable results emerged for eighth graders, the TIMSS science test, and among white and Asian-American students.
In contrast, schools with more than 50 percent of fourth graders on free or reduced lunch programs (i.e., schools in lower-income communities), U.S. students had a score of 495, placing them far down the rankings. The results were similar for eighth graders, the TIMSS science test, and among African-American and Hispanic-American students.
What can we conclude from this analysis? First, the words of warning from the Chicken Littles out there may be overstated because, when apples are compared to apples, the sky isn’t falling on us in terms of our international standing in public education. For a substantial segment of our student population, we are doing just fine on the global stage. Further, though the rest of the world was bound to catch up as standards of living in other countries approached ours, the future supremacy of America in the “knowledge wars” doesn’t seem to be immediately threatened.
This analysis, however, isn’t intended to diminish the injustice and tragedy of the 60 percent of our public school population who, for a variety of reasons, are not gaining the full benefits of a quality public school education. For this group of predominantly African-American and Hispanic-American children, we should be doing our best Chicken Little impressions. Those large chunks of the sky that are raining down on them include poor education, limited opportunity, and a vicious cycle of poverty. If this pattern continues, we will be doing a great disservice to a population that has already gotten the short end of the educational and economic sticks for generations. And, importantly, we will be losing out on much needed human capital that may be the only way to maintain our international preeminence in the generations to come.