Report: Nation’s Best School Districts Trail Global Competition

Published December 21, 2012

Wealthy suburban school districts lack the academic heft many believe they have, according to the Global Report Card 2.0. The updated 2012 findings match the 2011 edition’s conclusion: Even the best U.S. school districts rate mediocre when compared to international peers.

“Suburbanites falsely believe that education reform has nothing to do with them,” said GRC coauthor Jay Greene, head of the University of Arkansas’ department of education reform. “I want suburbanites to understand that quite often the problems of the education system are found in the suburbs, and therefore education reforms are something we all have to be interested in.”

For example, Montgomery School District, which has five of Maryland’s top-performing schools, ranks in the 66th percentile for math, when compared to the rest of the country. This means the average Montgomery student performs better than 66 percent of his U.S. peers. Compare the district to the world, however, and its performance drops to the 57th percentile.

In only 9 percent of U.S. districts did the average student rank in the top third internationally.

The GRC uses the latest international test score data to compare U.S. students in every school district with their foreign peers in reading and math. It includes an interactive online map where parents and taxpayers can see how their local school district stacks up.

‘Losing the Brain Race’
These results demonstrate the United States is “losing the brain race” with other countries, says Lance Izumi, director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

“Even though America is an economic superpower now, that doesn’t mean that in the future we’re going to keep that stature,” he said.

Suburban parents shouldn’t sit comfortable believing their children are getting a good education based on statewide or even national comparisons, Greene said.

The mental and academic ability of a country’s students directly correlates with its future prosperity, says Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist who has conducted well-regarded research on education and economics.

“We are becoming much more an integrated, international world where people compete across national boundaries all the time. We’re in an age where skills and human capital are what determine who’s going to do well,” he said.

Implications for Reform
Greene refrained from recommending specific policies to address the deficiencies his work revealed, as many reform ideas are divisive. His main goal is for Americans to acknowledge the problem so districts, policymakers, and reformers can work toward a solution.

School districts “almost universally” ignore international comparisons, Hanushek said, because “the news isn’t very good for them, and they don’t like to have bad news.”

Hanushek suggests districts and lawmakers should work to improve teacher quality because it has a major effect on student achievement.

“Effective school systems don’t let bad teachers stay in the classroom for long,” he said, noting education systems in other countries. “They might find ways to improve the teachers. They might find ways to move them to other jobs, but one way or another, they keep from having bad teachers in the classroom for very long.”

Union Obstacles
Union contracts prevent thousands of schools from removing poor and mediocre teachers, he said.

“[Districts are] constrained by teachers’ contracts and state laws and numerous other things from making decisions on the teachers in their district, but that’s what they need to do,” Hanushek said.

Students using school choice programs, such as vouchers, do better academically, Izumi noted, and expanding that opportunity to more children would help the country economically.

“We won’t see the effects economically for some time, but we will see them, and that means we have to address [the need for reforms] now, before it’s too late,” Greene said.


Learn more:
“Global Report Card 2.0,” George W. Bush Institute, December 2012:

“Top U.S. School Districts Trail the Global Competition,” Education Next video interview, September 2011: