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.