Boom! U.S. Falls Again in Global Education Rankings But Could Learn a Lesson or Two

America has work to do, and the latest PISA study offers some helpful observations.

Experts have ideas about why American education continues to slide in comparison with other developed nations. (Photo: JenniferPhotographyImaging/Getty Images)

Dec 4, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

For years, President Obama has preached about how American kids aren’t competing with their foreign peers. Now another well-regarded international study backs him up.

Today the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its 2012 triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of 65 global education systems, and it shows that the United States continues to slip in each of the study's focus areasreading, math, and science “literacy”among 15-year-olds.

In math, American students fell to 29th place from 24th place in the prior 2009 OECD study. In science, U.S. students now rank 22nd instead of 19th. Perhaps most shocking, they fell from 10th to 20th in reading.

Despite the slide, the OECD noted that over the last decade, “there has been no significant change [in the United States] in these performances over time.” American teens remain average in reading and science skills; they are below average in math.

“U.S. teens perform average for the developed world in reading and science,” says Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World. “Our weakest area is math, where we perform below average for the developed world. Interestingly, American 15-year-olds underperform in math at every socioeconomic level. Even our most privileged teens score below their privileged peers in 27 other countries. That's pretty remarkable, given that those kids have highly educated parents and well-resourced schools. The 2012 PISA results, and plenty of other research, suggest we are systematically underestimating what our kids can do in math.”

Meanwhile, their Asian counterparts are surging. The top five education systems were Shanghai, which was the highest performer in all three areas, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea.

The U.S. spends more per student than most countries, but the money doesn’t translate into better performance, nor does it transcend socioeconomic influences. The report showed that disadvantaged students show “less engagement, drive, motivation and self-beliefs.”

Ripley says that’s no excuse.

“There are now a handful of countries with relatively high child poverty levels that have managed to radically improve their education results,” she says. “So we know it is possible to do better. Poland, for example, scored below the U.S. and below average for the developed world in 2000. Now they are scoring in the top tier, right up there with Finland, Canada, and Germany.”

One major point in the study is that more than 80 percent of U.S. students attend schools whose principals reported that achievement data are posted publicly—this compared with an OECD international average of just 45 percent. The study notes that the United States is “one of only three OECD countries that tends to rely not only on national examinations, but also on other, non-national, types of examinations in upper and lower secondary education."

Such data has come under fire by education advocates who say that it is often used toward teacher evaluations and raises, which is often unfair and devalues teaching methods in the classroom.

It is perhaps this culture of testing in America that is halting students’ progress, say some education experts.

“No one should be surprised that U.S. rankings on global tests should be stagnant and declining,” says Mark Naison, director of Fordham University's Urban Studies Program and an expert on standardized testing. “The obsession with testing and evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores has driven some of our best teachers into retirement, crowded out science, history, and the arts, and made rote learning and memorization rather than critical thinking the major characteristic of classroom learning.”

In fact, the PISA study noted that U.S. students have “particular weaknesses” with higher cognitive demands, “such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.”

Naison says, “The narrowing of curriculum and the demoralization of teachers is not consistent with a healthy school experience and will make the U.S. less, not more, competitive with other nations in educational performance.”

In Ripley's opinion, the implementation of the new Common Core could improve U.S. standings. "The standards are more coherent and rigorous than before,” she says. “They've invested in more rigorous teacher training and, at the same time, granted their schools and teachers more autonomy to choose how they reach those core targets. Based on the successes of other nations, they've worked to keep all kids together in the same schools and classes for as long as possible (before separating them out into vocational, AP, or other advanced programs). And they've dedicated the most resources towards the poorest neighborhood schoolsworking to attract effective teachers to the most challenged classrooms. Improving education is not mystical, it turns out. Which is good news.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary 'TEACH,' produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.