The New Complacency About Schools Is Ill-Informed

Why the latest data on student performance doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels

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Just when you thought we’d reached a consensus on the need to dramatically improve America’s schools, a chorus is emerging to suggest all is well. First, a new book out from Harvard University Press, Is American Science In Decline? notes that “American high school students are … performing better in mathematics and science than in the past,” helping explain why the authors’ answer to the title question is “no.” This comes on the heels of a USA Today op-ed last month urging us to “Quit Fretting: U.S. is Fine in Science Education.” And why can the fretting end? Because, the pundits tell us, last year 65% of students had a “basic” grasp of science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), up from 63% in 2009. Their conclusion: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

(MORE: What Do We Do About Poor Science Scores? Take Kids Outside)

It’s hard to overstate how dangerous such complacency is. Not to mention how ill-informed. Popping the champagne corks over slight upticks in NAEP scores, for example, ignores what every serious educator knows: scores of “basic” on that test evidence only limited familiarity with a subject — as opposed to “proficiency,” which was demonstrated by only 35% of our eighth graders in math and 34% in reading.

The broader reality is even more sobering. Only the top quarter of America’s K-to-12 students are performing on par with the average students in Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, Taiwan, and South Korea. International comparisons of advanced achievement in math are even more depressing: 16 countries now produce at least twice as many advanced math students per capita as we do, an important predictor of how many engineers and scientists we’ll have in the future driving economic growth. Last year a Harvard report by Erik A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson and Ludger Woessmann placed U.S. math performance 32nd among 65 nations — all this as the U.S. continues to spend more on schools than many wealthy nations do as a share of GDP.

To be sure, there’s been some progress. A new Harvard study by the same authors that is being published today in Education Next looks at the pace of improvement on international tests and confirms the NAEP’s findings of modest gains by U.S. students in 4th and 8th grade, which the complacency crowd no doubt will cheer. (I am on the advisory committee of Harvard’s Program of Education Policy and Governance, which is one of the sponsors of Education Next.) But digging deeper into the data, the new study also shows that the pace of improvement in the U.S. has been no better than the median rate for all 49 industrialized and developing countries during the decade that the researchers analyzed. We’re being lapped by countries we wouldn’t ordinarily think of as playing in our league. The study shows that students in Latvia, Chile, and Brazil are improving at an annual rate nearly three times that of the U.S., and that students in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia, and Lithuania are moving ahead at twice the rate of our students. Meanwhile, modest gains among U.S. eighth graders are only about two-thirds that of our fourth graders, implying serious slippage in the middle years of schooling. The bottom line: slight improvements from inadequate starting points while other countries advance faster is no reason for America to celebrate.

(MORE: Do Mothers Hamper Their Daughters in Math?)

That’s why Arne Duncan, looking at the latest NAEP results last November, said, “It’s clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation’s children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century.”  Condoleezza Rice and I put it even more bluntly in a recent report by a Council on Foreign Relations task force that we co-chaired. “The United States’ failure to educate its students,” we wrote, “leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country’s ability to thrive in a global economy.”

This isn’t us being alarmist.  When the house is on fire, you can’t sound the alarm enough.

What would it sound like if we got serious about school improvement?  For starters, think of an agenda built around three T’s — teachers, time, and technology.

First, we need to recruit and train better teachers across the board, particularly in math and science, and make it a national priority. That will mean abandoning a uniform pay scale and adopting one based on merit. Today top math and science students almost never become teachers because they have more lucrative options elsewhere. If we boosted starting salaries for these specialties to $65,000, and made it possible for great math and science teachers to eventually earn $150,000, research suggests many top students would choose a career in the classroom.

(MORE: In Defense of School Testing)

Second, our kids need to spend more time on task. All the research shows that the amount of time students spend engaged in learning makes all the difference for student achievement, especially for poor children. Yet the U.S. has among the shortest school days and years among leading nations. We can change this.

Finally, we need to do more with technology. We’re on the cusp of an era of extraordinary breakthroughs that make learning more customized and engaging. Already such innovations — from Udacity to the Khan Academy’s web-based tutorials — are reaching millions of students. There’s no reason American innovators can’t lead the world in developing the next generation of education technologies, and deploy them via public-private partnerships that bolster teaching and learning.

The complacency crowd will ask why we should bother with such an ambitious agenda. But take it from someone who fought for eight years to improve our country’s biggest urban school district and knows how much further we still have to go: resting on inadequate laurels is no way to help America’s children prosper in a global age.

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