U.S. Students Improve Since 1995, Still Lag International Peers

Published August 14, 2012

In the past 14 years American fourth and eighth grade students’ average academic performance has advanced a year, not enough to move the United States ahead of most international peers, a recent Harvard University study found. The study’s findings have implications for federal education policy, the U.S. economy, and the country’s future, its authors said.

“Mediocre performance has enormous implications for the United States,” said Eric Hanushek, a study coauthor, economist, and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “In present value terms, reaching the German level of achievement would be worth three times the current level of our gross domestic product.”

The study tracked math, reading, and science test scores among fourth and eighth grade students in 49 industrialized countries from 1995 to 2009. The U.S. is exactly in the middle.

“No Child Left Behind’s accountability system has had a positive impact on American education, [but] its impact hasn’t been good enough,” said Paul Peterson, a study coauthor and director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.

More Work Needed
This study, like previous work from its authors and others such as the Global Report Card (which compares U.S. student achievements to international peers­), presents “clear and convincing evidence” U.S. education “badly” needs reform, said Jay Greene, a professor at the University of Arkansas and a Global Report Card researcher.  

“Our problems are not confined to large, urban districts,” Greene said. “Our affluent suburbs barely compete with the average student in other industrialized countries. It’s time to consider more dramatic reform and to try it outside of central cities.”

Instead of continuing “utopian” approaches to education reform such as No Child Left Behind, goals for improving education should be more realistic, the report says. NCLB mandated every student would be “proficient” in math and reading by 2014.

“We need to focus more on challenging students and on giving more choice to parents,” Peterson said.

‘Sense of Urgency’ Needed
The three states improving the most and fastest from 1995 to 2009 were Maryland, Florida, and Delaware. Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Maine comprised the bottom five. Iowa dropped from first to 22nd, and Wisconsin dropped from fourth to 12th.

“It’s time for a sense of urgency to come to the Midwest,” Peterson said.

The best states improved both top and bottom students.

The researchers also found increased spending did not boost student achievement.

“[Public] schools spend money in unproductive ways,” Hanushek said. “More accountability, choice, and local control is likely to improve the use of funding, by all the evidence we have.”

U.S. education is not internationally competitive, the researchers said.

“The quality of our labor force and our society’s knowledge will determine our future, and right now we’re not on a path that will benefit our children,” Hanushek said.


Learn More:
“Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance,” Harvard University, July 2012: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/Papers/PEPG12-03_CatchingUp.pdf

Image by Jun.