America’s public school system enjoyed the limelight for nearly a century. But in the last few decades our performance has been overshadowed by many industrialized nations.
The global achievement gap is glaring in international test scores, high school completion rates, and college graduation rates. It’s not that we are doing much worse; it’s that other nations are now doing better than we ever did.
Education policy regarding the gap is all about jobs and the economy. Education Secretary Arne Duncan states the purpose unequivocally, "..the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century."
What are the International Tests?
The foremost international tests are PISA and TIMSS. The PISA, starting in 2000, has assessed 15 year olds in reading, math, and science every 3 years. The TIMSS, starting in 1995, has assessed 4th and 8th graders in math and science every 4 years.
PISA stands for Programme for International Student Achievement. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, founded in 1961 by a group of nations to foster economic progress, conducts the test. Unlike our standardized tests, PISA assesses subject knowledge applied to real world problems. In 2009, 65 countries/economies participated.
TIMSS stands for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, or IEA, an association of research institutions and governments, conducts the test. In 2007, 48 countries participated.
How Does America Perform on PISA and TIMSS?
On PISA reading tests from 2000 through 2009, American students scored “average.” Though our scores were level, our rank declined from 15th to 17th. In science, we rank 29th out of 40 nations, but over the decade students improved from “below average” to “average.” In math, we rank 35th out of 40 and scores have remained “below average.”
On the TIMSS, America improved from a rank of 24th in 1995 to 11th in 2007. Why the big discrepancy between our PISA and TIMSS rankings? First, 22 nations scoring better than us on PISA don’t participate in TIMSS. Also, TIMSS test questions, unlike PISA, are similar in form to US standardized tests.
Which Nations Perform Best on the International Tests?
Over the years the top performers are Singapore, Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. For the most part England and Russia score higher than America.
In 2009, for the first time, Shanghai joined the nations participating in PISA. They took 1st place in all three subjects by a surprising margin. When the results were released, President Obama referred to America's performance relative to Shanghai's as "our generation's Sputnik moment."
For a long time the US ranked first in high school graduation but we have fallen to the bottom half of developed nations. Our rate is 72% compared to the first ranking nation, Denmark, at 96%. Japan is second at 93%. Germany and Poland tie for third at 92%.
Our college graduation rate, ranked first as recently as 1995, has been flat at 33%. We now rank 14th out of 24 developed nations. Many European and Asian nations improved their college graduation rate to 50%. Australia is highest ranked at 59%.
A frequent first response to these facts is that America must deal with more poverty. True, America has the third highest poverty rate at 17%, behind Mexico and Turkey. But, Japan is fourth, and its high school graduation rate ranks second at 93%. And Japan is frequently in the top ten ranking nations on PISA and TIMSS.
How Big a Problem is the Global Achievement Gap?
Today 70% of jobs require specialized knowledge and skills, compared to 5% at turn of the last century. The top 10 in-demand jobs did not exist 6 years ago. Economic competition is greater than ever. America's education system, economists say, must prepare citizens with 21st century knowledge and skills, or lose more ground.
Other experts, hoping to calm the collective hyperventilation that accompanied recent PISA results, say our economic competitiveness relies on many more factors than education. Government polices, property rights, business know-how, and American risk-taking keep the US competitive.
Is the global achievement gap this generation’s Sputnik moment? Is beating other nations on standardized tests this generation's moon walk?
Eric Hanushek, foremost education economist, explains how scores on international achievement tests relate to a nation’s economic growth and answers if we need to develop more rocket scientists or improve education for all.
Yong Zhao, Associate Dean of Global Education in the College of Education at University of Oregon, explains that Shanghai’s success on PISA is due to excessive teaching to the test and warns Arne Duncan about America’s testing policies.
Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an organization with a broad spectrum of stakeholders--the Education Department, governors, business, and labor—advocates for economic competitiveness. This report describes their vision of a 21st century education system.
Linda Hammond-Darling describes the education systems of the top ranking nations in her book, The Flat World of Education, Chapter 6.