Politics & Policy

USA: We’re Number 20!

Much worse than coming in fourth.

With the 2008 Summer Olympic Games receding in our memories, there’s still consternation in some parts about the fact that China bested the United States in the gold-medal count. But with 110 first-, second-, or third-place finishes to its credit, the United States Olympic team performed many times better than our Education Olympics team — which won only a single medal in this year’s competition. Where’s the consternation over that?

In August, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted the “Education Olympics” at www.edolympics.net. While our “coverage” of the games appeared in real-time, the actual competition took place over the past several years, via international exams such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

That countries such as Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and New Zealand would dominate the games may not come as a surprise, and perhaps savvy readers aren’t shocked by America’s 20th place finish. But it’s particularly depressing to glance at the events where the U.S. flopped completely. By far our worst showing was for our lowest-performing students. The United States placed 38th in the world in terms of getting our 15-year-olds over PISA’s most basic achievement level in science. The United States has 15 times more students than Finland does performing below this level, and more than three times as many as our Canadian neighbors.

Test scores aren’t the only things worth knowing about education. But they are something. How important they are has, of course, been debated for decades — at least since A Nation at Risk rang the alarm and argued that other countries were passing us by.

After A Nation at Risk’s publication in 1983, some disputed or downplayed its significance. Some do the same thing today when faced with mediocre international results. Consider the latest reflections in the Wilson Quarterly from Jay Mathews, the crackerjack veteran Washington Post education reporter. He writes that “there is scant evidence that test scores have much to do with national economic performance.” Mathews seemed to insinuate that, even if mediocre international results are real, we need not worry because test scores have no relationship to economies.

Perhaps Mathews should acquaint himself with Eric Hanushek’s recent research on this very topic. Hanushek and his colleagues used student performance on twelve standardized international tests in math and science as a measure of “cognitive skills” among those entering the workforce. They analyzed these data for 50 countries from 1960 to 2000. The countries included 30 democracies with market economies and relatively high levels of economic development and 20 countries with lower levels of economic development.

Though the analysis was complicated, Hanushek’s key finding was simple: The level of cognitive skills of a nation’s students has a large effect on its subsequent economic-growth rate. Differences among countries’ GDP growth could be attributed, in part, to higher levels of cognitive skill as measured on international tests. In fact, the researchers estimate that a highly skilled workforce can raise economic growth by about two thirds of a percentage point every year. Upon first blush, this doesn’t sound all that impressive, but consider that a one-percent higher growth rate sustained over 50 years yields incomes that are 64-percent higher.

So, then, a relationship exists between increased student achievement on international measures and a healthy economy. But not so fast, say challengers in the “defend-American-schools-at-all-costs” camp. They’d likely point out (Hanushek does) that the U.S. has never done particularly well on international assessments; we’re as average as they come. Still, our GDP growth rate has been higher than average over the past 100 years. The authors, then, pose a reasonable question: If cognitive skills, as measured by international results, are so important to economic growth, how can we explain what’s happened in the U.S.?

The short answer, according to Hanushek and colleagues, is that we have other educational and economic advantages. The manner in which we expanded our education system over the 20th century — opening secondary schools in record numbers — is credited with stimulating economic growth, as are our renowned U.S. colleges and universities. The researchers also extol our freer labor markets, reduced government regulation of firms, less powerful trade unions, and lower tax rates as growth boosters. (One of us recently posited that perhaps the American K-12 system deserves some credit too.)

Lest we be content to rest on our laurels, though, Hanushek et al. close with this warning:

Although the strengths of the U.S. economy and its higher-education system offer some hope for the future, the situation at the K-12 level should spark concerns about the long-term outlook for the U.S. economy, which could eventually have an impact on the higher-education system as well. . . . Other countries are doing more to secure property rights and open their economies, which will enable them to make better use of their human capital. Most obviously, the historic advantage of the U.S. in school attainment has come to an end, as half of the OECD countries now exceed the U.S. in the average number of years of education their citizens receive. Those trends could easily accelerate in the coming decades.

Simply put, we’re living on borrowed time. Can we really afford to ignore what can only be described as our students’ very ordinary performance on international exams? Isn’t it possible that time is running out in terms of maintaining our economic edge? What are we going to do to ensure that, come the 2012 Olympic Games, our students are ready to compete with the rest of the world?

– Michael J. Petrilli is vice president for national programs and policy and Amber Winkler is research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington, D.C. Both are also affiliated with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


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