International Education Rankings Suggest Reform Can Lift U.S.

A sobering report on the performance of American students relative to their peers in other countries should be a wake-up call for the nation, Secretary Duncan said Tuesday.

The latest scores of the world’s 15-year-olds on an international test of reading, math and science show the United States is merely an average performer, whose growth during this time of rising demand for highly educated workers has been stagnant. The good news, Duncan said, is that the U.S. is now pursuing education reforms that are hallmarks of top-performing countries, including high standards and investment in effective teaching.

“The mediocre performance of America’s students is a problem we cannot afford to accept and yet cannot afford to ignore,” Arne said in Washington alongside officials from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. OECD presented the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures how well students from more than 70 economies are prepared to meet the challenges they may encounter in the future.

Secretary Duncan provided this summary of U.S. students’ performance on the 2009 PISA:

  • In reading literacy, 15-year-old American students were average performers. The U.S. effectively showed no improvement in reading since 2000. Overall, the OECD’s rankings have U.S. students in 14th place in reading literacy among OECD nations.
  • In mathematics, U.S. 15-year-olds are below-average performers among OECD nations—ranked 25th. After a dip in our 2006 math scores, U.S. students returned to the same level of performance in 2009 as six years earlier, in 2003. U.S. students outperformed their peers in math in only five OECD countries.
  • The most encouraging finding from PISA is that our average science score is up. In 2006, American 15-year-olds had below-average skills in scientific literacy, compared to their OECD peers. Today, U.S. students have improved enough to become average performers in science among OECD nations, earning 17th place in the OECD rankings.

“The hard truth,” Secretary Duncan said at Tuesday’s PISA announcement, “is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades…In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground.”

PISA’s high-scorers include South Korea, Finland and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, and Canada.

How much money the U.S. spends on education isn’t the problem.  We spend more per student than any nation in the PISA study except Luxembourg.

“The real problem with K-12 spending in the U.S. is our low educational productivity,” Arne said. “Unlike high-performing systems, we achieve less per dollar. And we do less to target spending on the most challenged students and schools.”

All but three nations in the OECD study—the U.S., Israel and Turkey—spend as much, or more, on those schools serving disadvantaged students as they do on those serving more privileged students.

A separate OECD study of the characteristics of the world’s top-performing education systems, along with a similar study of American and international practices by McKinsey & Company, suggests that the U.S. can improve our standing by continuing to pursue reforms that have taken root in states and local school districts within the last two years. High-scoring nations set rigorous standards for their students, smartly use data to improve instruction, concentrate resources on the most challenged students, and invest heavily in the teaching profession. Those successful nations’ practices closely mirror the priorities of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, OECD and McKinsey found.

“Our policies are moving us in the right direction,” Arne said. “Yet to lead the world again in achievement and college attainment, success must become the norm.”

To continue and deepen the conversation among nations’ education policymakers and educators, the U.S. Department of Education, OECD and other partners will convene an international summit on the teaching profession in New York in March, Arne announced today.

“The highest-performing and most rapidly improving countries have a great deal to learn from one another,” he said.

The announcement of America’s middling performance on PISA followed President Obama’s call Monday for rebuilding our nation’s economy on a new and stronger foundation. Education and innovation are critical, he said, declaring, “Our generation’s Sputnik moment is now.” In a generation, the United States has fallen from 1st place to 9th place in the proportion of young people with college degrees. The President has set a national goal of regaining 1st place by 2020.

See the full text of the Secretary’s remarks regarding U.S. performance on PISA.


  1. Summer I hate to break it to you, but many teachers are more concerned with their pay, as little as it is, than their students. And slamming someone else’s typos does not make you any more right, just saying. Today it seems like a “great teacher” is one who will meet a student one on one to help them, and makes class entertaining as well as educational. Actually that is their job in the first place, so when we give an “excellent teacher” award, what we are actually saying is “congratulations you do your job!” Also the “beginning teacher qualifications” are basically the same here. My sister had to do them too, so don’t get all defensive just because you are naive enough to think that all teachers are as perfect as you.

  2. Hey Debbie, not to cut down your theory or anything, but some people genuinely can’t manage sports. I am one of those people, and even though I have tried sports I usually just hurt myself or someone else, and I have found it is safer for all involved if I just stay out of the way. On the arts side of it, I am far more artistic than athletic, but what about the people who aren’t? Why do you want to force students to do something they may not have a aptitude for, nor even enjoy? Forcing them to do something they don’t want doesn’t make them any smarter, believe me I know from personal experience and so do many other students.

  3. Jerry,
    As a teacher myself I find it quite discouraging that someone who is teaching “English in several cities in China” is unable to spell even the most simplest words. Perhaps you blame your poor spelling skills on your own neglectful experiences in school? I would like to respond to your comment about “beginning teacher’s qualifications”, here in New York we are required to complete a 4 year degree and six months of student teaching. We are also required to take and pass several teaching certification exams before even entering a classroom on our own. We dedicate much of our own time, money and supplies to support our classrooms and students. While I don’t believe that every classroom contains a “great” teacher, I do believe that for the most part teachers are well trained, well educated and above all, truely care about their students. How dare you undermine an entire profession of people who in at least some way helped you to get where you are!

  4. These responces are at the least uninformed. As one who has taught English in several cities in China, I have a close relationship with Chinese schools and Chinese students. The main problem in the US is without question is the quality of the teachers. Unions? Do they belong in an educational enviorment, I don’t think so. In Chuna most students I have taught were well balenced happy children. It is true they spent many hours working at school and at home on homework. This did not seem to affect their atitudes about most things. They were still children and seem to hace the same enthusium and atitudude that is common with children of all countries. So what is the problem in the US? We spend the most money yet have the lowest performing students. Our teachers are more concerned with their pay and benefits then the students welfare. Have you recently checked out the biginning teachers qualifications? I have and the situation is dismal. The average class size in China ellementary schools is 50 students! Whats up with that? How can they have a good teaching enviorment with a class size that large? Yet they do. It all comes down to disapline everytime. Bottom line? China is number one in Education.

  5. what i think is the problem is that U.S. kis are little motivated to do well and don’t try as hard as they could. We have the potential to do great if we set are minds to it.

  6. I own and operate a small private school here in the eastern region of the US. I have gained quite an education reading these comments about educational practices in other countries, especially from you Gordon. I will definitely visit the sites you offered.
    My daughter recently visited Korea and her comments completely align with what Michael said about the lack of creativity in the culture. She was amazed at the narrow mindedness that seemed pervasive, in spite of the incredible technological advances.
    As a teacher of primarily African American students, I believe that there is too much focus on athletic and music ability(some talent of is questionable). These abilities require creativity, but the creative focus must be developed in science and mathematics as well. As Debbie stated, there needs to be a balance within our academic culture. It needs to enhance the intellectual, creative, and athletic abilities of all students within the nation. No one group should be identified as the sole progenitors of science.

  7. Thanks for the interesting comments, especially Michael’s. Just before the 2008 US Presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s Education adviser, Dr Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford, took part in an interesting debate at Columbia, with the main adviser to the Republican candidate. Professor Darling-Hammond recommended that the US should lift its K-12 education sights from concentrating only o America, to studying the best from the rest of the world. Let me, as a New Zealand researcher and writer on the subject (and producer of 22 television programs on it in different parts of the world), endorse that view strongly. (Perhaps new Californian Governor Brown can name her services.)

    For example, since the PISA assessment system started in 2000, Finland has overwhelmingly come out top — until nudged off that spot in the most recent report (but still well up in the top three). And where does Finland shine?: (1) Brilliant selection program for students to train as teachers, through to master’s degree. (2) Shortest in-school day of virtually any country (I know of none shorter), but with excellent after-school activities out in the real world. (3) No “standardized test results” — and therefore, no one mesmerized by “teaching to the test” (the US system — in a land with its greatest achievements in “non-standardized innovation”); (4) Note: the PISA assessment is not a “standardized multiple-choice test”; it is an assessment of 14,000 15-year-olds in each country on how they can apply their basic education to “real life”; (5) physical activities, art and culture built into the normal school day — and free at-school meal program for every student; and (6) above all (in my view) “special needs” teachers fully trained and readily available to make sure that the “lower-level”, under-achieving students receive special assistance to make sure that they succeed as well. By the way, Finland spends much less per student on “education:” than the US and many other countries. (Finland, of course, a is an egalitarian society, and a country where one company — formally a big producer of lumber, rubber boots and toilet paper) is now the biggest producer of mobile phones in the world: Nokia.)

    Since 2000, my own country, New Zealand, has also scored way up near the top in the PISA assessments: generally in the top three in literacy (reading and writing); top four in science, and top 10 in maths (which is where Asian students often to score high — maths of course being the “subject” where rote learning can flower. Chinese students score brilliantly in memorizing the time table; but if they were were really the stars, why did California, not China, invent Silicon Valley based around 1 + 0 as the on-off symbols to calculate anything

    Although “digital multimedia literacy” (what I would call “21st century literacy”) is not assessed under PISA, I am certain, from 20 years of personal and ongoing hands-on world research, New Zealand elementary school students would rate, overwhelmingly, near the top. But we have (unfortunately) a long tail of under-achievement in certain areas of our country — with, it must be recorded, an ethnic component

    Marry Finland’s overall system with New Zealand’s 21st-century literacy achievements and you might be surprised at how much they would both soar. (In New Zealand, we think 11 Academy Awards in one night for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is a much better exam system than standardized testing.)

    Both, fortunately, have a “non-standardized test” system and “curriculum guidelines”(but not textbook-dominated lesson plans), and a great deal of freedom delegated to professional teachers (including the freedom to build on the specific learning styles and abilities of each child.

    Add on to that your incredible American research universities — and you might just end up with the best system in the world.

    Then, in passing, add in Nan Nang Polytechnic in Singapore (in my experience the best of its kind in the world), and Wow! At Nan Yang, to qualify in any discipline, each student (either individually or collectively) has to negotiate a practical project, under a financial contract with a major organization, and has to actually produce that finished product. That product could be a movie or (and Nan Yang is famous for this) a robot or robotic system. The “final test”: the finished project has to work to the highest professional standards. (Anyone for a “multiple choice” written test on robots?)

    Now add in the US college “sporting scholarships” (and use them as the model for specific talent development but for all talents)

    Mind you, America does benefit from the world’s worst education system of any large country: India’s.

    There almost the entire K-12 system is designed to weed out the top 3000 leading maths and science students (at senior high school) to go into India’s seven Institutes of Technology. And what is their ambition on graduation? Go off to Silicon Valley:-)

    Meantime, around 47% of Indian villages don’t have a school.

    Finally, in my view by far the most useful part of the recent PISA reports are the individual summaries of selected countries: Finland, Shanghai-HongKong and Canada. Very thorough — and Finland in particular

    The Pearson Foundation also has some interesting video coverage and interviews shot in each of those countries: (Change only the country name to watch the others).

    Gordon Dryden, co-author (with American doctor of education Jeannette Vos) of UNLIMITED: The new learning revolution and the seven keys to unlock it: for free introduction to book.

    PS: Michael – you’ve set the pattern for length:-) Thanks.

  8. Michael…thank you for your well written ridiculously long comment. It is great to hear directly from an Asian student who has experienced both an Asian education and an American one. I don’t know much about the Chinese education system but we’ve just taken in a Chinese student whose Chinese education sounds very much like your Korean one. School beginning at 6 am, finishing at 10 pm. He does not play an instrument (musics is not taught in the schools), does not participate in any sports (not a focus in his school in China), nor Artistic.

    On another viewpoint, my children spent 8 years in the UK education system. Their school day was slightly longer than the US schools but they also included 10 or 11 subjects in addition to Sports. Art, Music and Sports are all required during their high school and elementary years. We returned to the US when my youngest son began high school. He was far ahead of the US education system in every area. The US has cut out Creative Arts (budget cuts) but often for many students, it is the creative arts that help stimulate the brain to learn the basic skills of Math, Reading and Science. Sports are not really a focus within the school day, they are primarily an extra-curricular activity so students who are not athletic may often elect not to participate. In the UK, all students are required to participate despite their athletic ability.

    Perhaps the UK system is a good balance between the American and Asian school designs. I think the US needs to bring back the Arts to the required course curriculum and require all students to participate in sports (sports vary over the course of the year).

  9. I know not much about education and let alone its policymaking. But I have an interesting cultural viewpoint as a Korean student studying in the states, who has attended an international high school for 9 years back in Korea, and lived his entire life in South Korea.

    I seek principally to discount the often praised Asian education, culture, and parenting, solely based on STEM achievement, standardized test performances, or college admissions data. There are less statistically visible, and often undercurrent cultural trends in Koreans, that, as much as it is hard to point out statistically, hard to prove it to be flatly incorrect or bad.

    But my personal accounts (which I deem to be pretty reasonable, as it is based on acquaintances through almost 10 years span, at least), hopefully with some intuitive thoughts, would shed another light unto Korean culture (and Asian culture, although I am hesitant to let it generalize, as I am not so aware of other countries) or at least not-so-easily-depreciable differences between cultures. It never hurts to have another dimension or another angle when looking at bunch of trends, and thinking of future.

    In South Korea, I’m not overstating this: Korean kids in Korea have one of the most restricted mindset, uncreative culture, and uniform life. In schools, sports is not big, nor is music, forensics, leadership or any other extracurricular events. Life is school, hagwons (after school private academic institutions) home, and reading rooms. Kids come back home at 10 PM to 1 AM and wake up to go to school at 7 AM. Life is not happy, nor creative for most kids. Such banality, Americans may call it work ethic. But what’s economically good is not all there is to it in life.

    The cause of this is most obviously the past five decades being all about reconstructing the nation from the ruins of colonial rule by going to college and earning more money. Same goes to all the immigrants in the US, who came to US with the idea of economic success in mind. The job choices are engineers, doctors, or lawyers. Go to and earn a lot of money; forego all else. And as our parents generation were brought up this way, we were handed down that same parenting mentality.

    But the times have changed, and changed so rapidly in just a time of a generation, creating a gap too big between one generation to adjust. The culture, the technology, the wealth and the industry have changed too much for a mere college degree to get some innocuous student a job. Granted, the work ethic in all labor classes is a economic propellant. This, however, doesn’t justify that Korea can stay this way- especially in time where creativity per se is becoming a red ocean, is not enough. The system right now is not helping.

    This may be similar to the outlook of US unto its educational situation- no matter what the story is, there has to be something done. On the recent policies that reflect such urgency, I wish to share my crude opinion later.

    Again on a less economic standpoint, I really do admire the nature-loving, life-hobby-supporting, and sports-loving part of American culture. If ridiculous work ethic is what Americans lack, Koreans lack creativity, leadership, or just simple pleasures of life, which is equally as important as being number one in math. Such things are almost nonexistent in Korean culture, and it will enrich Korea so much. So noting the life- and economic-dimensions of “the Korean way,” it may not be the best way.

    So what is?

    I cannot say that any country, in this case US or Korea, has gotten a solution to. It is invariable that US lacks many STEM majors, going into fields of technology. But as I’ve mentioned, there’s a factor of creativity in the coming economic era, and perhaps, it’s not systematically achievable state.

    And on this point, my views on NCLB and the Race to the Top program root itself.

    Although I may have sounded like I’m blindly praising American life, but I am not. Personal disclaimer: I was fortunate enough to not be born in by any means repressive family, and so I have no blind admiration for something I just lacked before. I do know the severe self-reinforcing racial and cultural problems or indifferences, inveterate economic conditions, et cetera.

    And facing so much problem, and fearing the economic stagnation, US has pushed hard on its reform. And this is precisely the problem that I have with the policy reforms. NCLB set out a threat. A threat so incoherently organized that schools escaped through them. A threat, with no positive reinforcements or help. It was as if it expected schools to always have known how to improve themselves, asking them to do well and shut down if they can’t.

    Obama’s policy changes the paradigm a little bit towards more efficiency. Submit something that works, get money. With the success cases, all schools will follow them and become equally successful. And one more addition, treat teachers better. His, metaphorically, sets up a race, prepares the judges, and announces the reward- but most essentially, there is no coaching given.

    I understand that this idea of “coaching” them is hard. But the government cannot again presume schools’ capacities. They have limited number of talented teachers and it will always be this way. They have limited funding, and most importantly limited guidance. The rather indifferent parenting culture is a big problem, but I have no opinions on that, as it is very hard area to tackle with policies. (It tries to, by supporting the occupation of a teacher. But parenting culture? So much harder.)

    The guidance part of the policy, I believe, is lacking because the government is in a hurry. They want results now. They want the numbers to be better in the next half of a decade. They want to avoid the critiques immediately and they expect the culture to change just as promptly. Now that will take time. Even if the numbers change, there’s a good chance it could just be numbers. Students do better in math but never find interest in them- it happens often. Numbers do mean something, but not as much as we want them to mean.

    To not sound like a bitter downer, here are some of crude ideas I thought of. (That does not include “teacher professional development conferences” which at one of Harvard educational conferences, a speaker said that almost no one actually applies what they have learned in the conference) Incorporate writing into all areas: there is no significant finding on writing-to-learn helping math, but nonetheless, ability to write fosters all areas and also gives path to non-STEM students. The effects of writing has been shown in various researches, including NEA’s. Train Teachers: TFA right now brings non-education major students, and the official state teacher certification process does not teach the teachers effectively. Make voucher and choice system gone and start helping the schools: and I think having the good schools be affiliated with a nearby poorly-performing school is a good idea to promote awareness for other regions and also foster an individualized and regional care. A good school may make a poor school into a sister school, merging the administration, and sharing the facilities. Students will be divided into half, and so will the teachers. It’s not taking an A school down to B and a C school up to B. It’s making A school help C school become a B. Teaching process is greatly helpful for all aspects of learning, and the same should apply to administrative levels.

    And upon those notes, I abruptly end this ridiculously long comment. Thank you for reading, if you have read up to here.

  10. Acknowledging one does not know well enough is the first genuine pointer to a readiness to improve. That readiness is missing in the psyche of the average American and the not-so-average. Sadly, a misplaced ethnocentric machoism is often mistaken for patriotism. Kilpatrick’s (1937) admonition on the way forward for American education is relevant even today, though the work is dated. There are many current works that match Kilpatrick’s effort. For now, we must first discard our penchant for political correctness and living on the sweats of our heroes past to stand a chance of educationally matching even our immediate neighbors to the north. In a knowledge management economy of today’s global world, educational prosperity translates to economic prosperity. Even Shanghai PISA kids already know that. Sometimes, I wonder if the acronym PISA is a fatty play on words.

  11. Are ALL 15 year old students in other countries tested regardless of how severe their physical and/or learning disabilites as in the United States? If the United States are the only ones who have ALL students involved in the testing, then it is not a fair comparison. That makes me suspicious of the purpose for making this report so “news worthy” unless it is just one more way to attack teachers’ tenure and retirement system.

  12. Ada, there is soo much truth in your comment. Perhaps when top officials meet in New York in March to compare notes, they will see the other components, aside from schooling, which lead to children who become well educated and well rounded adults.

  13. How can this study be the “wake-up call”? How do you account for the fact that Asian (Chinese, Indian, Taiwanese, Korean, etc.) far outscore white, hispanic and black students on state-wide testing in almost every state in the United States and has been for years? This, DESPITE the fact that most Asian students do not come from the wealthiest strata and many are new immigrants. Governments throwing more money at education obviously has nothing to do with the PISA results as the U.S. far outspends every country that outperformed it. Here’s the secret: Asian parents watch very closely to what their children are doing every day. They do not allow their children to waste time or their hard-earned money on pursuits that are not related to getting a better education. There is also a lower divorce/ single-parent family situation among Asians which results in less chaotic environments at home. Perhaps instead of constantly blaming teachers and schools, Americans should start looking at their own lack of parenting/ relationship skills?! The wide disinterest from parents in participating in their children’s education development is what is at the root of this problem. Then, those children grow up and perpetuate this disinterest in their own children. Don’t just observe/criticize! Actively engage in educating your children!

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