Education Opinion

What International Comparisons Don’t Tell Us

By Philip G. Altbach — February 26, 1992 6 min read

Yet another international survey of educational achievement has ranked the United States near the bottom of the academic hierarchy (“20-Nation Study Shows U.S. Lags in Math, Science,” Feb. 12, 1992). The usual pundits are wringing their hands about the schools and about the implications of the scores for American “competitiveness” and for the future of society. American education is certainly in trouble, and the current climate of budget cuts is making the schools worse. There is a very direct relationship between good schools and a robust economy and a healthy society. Yet, one must be somewhat skeptical about these international comparisons. Cross-national educational comparisons are tricky--what produces good test takers in Korea may not work in New York.

The data tell a complex story. American children who attend schools in affluent, mostly suburban, neighborhoods compete well with students in other countries. The top 10 percent of American students who attend schools in which academic achievement is stressed are doing well. The problem is with schools in the inner cities that are dramatically underfunded and in which learning is not stressed; these are the schools about which Jonathan Kozol wrote so movingly in his recent book, Savage Inequalities. If one looks at America as two increasingly separate and distinct societies-the privileged and the rest, then those at the top are doing fine.

America’s schools are among the least competitive in the world--and always have been. The American philosophy is to put off hard choices as long as possible. In countries like Korea and Taiwan, which did best in the recent tests, secondary education is extraordinarily competitive because access to higher education is limited and there is a tremendous stress, from both schools and families, to do well in high school in order to get into a university. In Japan, which did not participate in this round of tests, the intense competition in high school is well known. Achievement in high school in the United States is not so crucial because virtually everyone can enter college and “prove themselves” there even if they do not do so well in secondary school. America is alone in the world in offering universal access to higher education, and this helps to shape the ethos of secondary schools. In America, there is always a second chance. In many other countries, if one does not do well in high school, one’s life-chances are seriously diminished.

In most countries, schools are academic institutions that have a single purpose--to teach traditional academic subjects. In America, schools have always had a much wider role in a multiethnic and multiracial society. Schools have for generations “Americanized” immigrants. Americans take the goals of social mobility and equality more seriously than do most countries. Schools are seen as institutions that are supposed to provide equality of opportunity for everyone--to create a level playing field even if family circumstances or economic deprivation may have put some pupils at a disadvantage. Americans have placed special burdens on the schools and have often expected the schools to do much more than teach. The current controversy concerning drug education in the schools, for example, is an example of the wider and increasingly complex roles that have been assigned to schools in the United States. Schools in Taiwan, Korea, and indeed in most countries are expected to teach academic subjects and citizenship. That is about all. Academic achievement is less emphasized in a school environment that is laden with many other responsibilities and goals.

Schools reflect societies. And it is not surprising that American schools are in trouble. The society itself is in some difficulty and is searching for a focus. And the schools have traditionally been expected to provide leadership--not only in the academic area but also in terms of morality and civic virtue. Again, this is highly unusual internationally. While the former Soviet Union ranked somewhat above the United States in the current tests, it would be surprising if this slight lead were maintained, given current societal problems in that part of the world.

American schools also have an internationally unique pattern of funding and administration. In virtually no other country is the financial burden of public schooling placed so heavily on local taxpayers, and few countries have the kind of local autonomy and control that is characteristic of the United States. This means that there are wide variations in support for education, differences in curriculum, and divergent philosophical orientations to schooling. The inequalities in financial support between wealthy suburban districts and poor inner-city systems are well known. In most countries, the national government supports and often controls the schools. This ensures an adequate level of support for education nationally and a common approach to schooling. It has been said that American schools are overloaded with administrators. It is true that the United States has more administrators per capita than other countries, but it is also true that our school districts are smaller and, as discussed above, the schools perform more diverse functions.

The organization of American schools is a direct result of American policy regarding education financing and governance. It may be less efficient but reflects deeply ingrained philosophies.

American teachers are comparatively disadvantaged. They have significantly lower prestige than their colleagues in many other countries. In the Confucian-oriented nations of the Pacific Rim (with contemporary China as an exception), teachers have traditionally been held in very high esteem. In Europe, the status as well as the salaries of secondary-school teachers is impressive. If anything, American teachers face increasingly bleak circumstances. While salaries have modestly increased in recent years, teachers have not been given much more autonomy and they feel themselves beleaguered in difficult circumstances.

Finally, there is an immense amount of research that says that “time on task"--that is, the time actually devoted to the established curriculum--is a key ingredient in determining educational achievement and, by implication, raising test scores. American schools fall far short internationally in the days that students spend in school per year and in the time during the school day devoted to the traditional curriculum. The school year is shorter than in most of the 20 countries that participated in the recent tests. Further, the American curriculum is less focused on the traditional academic subjects than is the case in many countries, and there tend to be more distractions in the school day.

Given all of these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that the United States does not score at the top of the international lists. What does all of this tell us? If Americans want their schools to score at the top, it will take more than the plaintive wheedling of politicians and school-bashing to do it. Increased funding that is targeted directly at the academic subjects is needed. But a fundamental restructuring of American schools is also necessary. And if this restructuring takes place, test scores may improve but there will be many other costs and the process will be extraordinarily difficult. The first step to school improvement is to figure out what we really want from our schools and then perhaps to look abroad for some useful models to follow. Simply bemoaning the modest academic achievement of many of America’s children will not get us very far.

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 1992 edition of Education Week as What International Comparisons Don’t Tell Us