Special Report

U.S. Education Pressured by International Comparisons

By Sean Cavanagh — January 09, 2012 18 min read
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Americans learn a bit more every year about the strengths and shortcomings of the education systems in other countries, thanks to a steady raft of international test data, academic scholarship, and analysis arriving from home and abroad.

Sometimes, what they learn inspires them. Sometimes, it confuses them. And sometimes, to judge from the collective angst on display, it alarms them.

Today, elected officials of all political stripes and advocates for a range of school policies scrutinize the results from international exams and comparisons with the intensity that, a decade ago, would have been reserved for state and local test scores. U.S. policymakers and researchers also study the teaching methods, curricula, and academic programs of high-performing countries for lessons that can be applied to American schools—and the influence of those foreign-born ideas can be seen in many nationwide, state, and district policies.

Many U.S. leaders say that the performance of American students on a handful of high-profile international tests and measurements—while mixed—underscores the weaknesses of the American education system, and foreshadows the serious economic challenges the country will face if it does not improve the skills of its future workforce. Those results show the following:

  • American 15-year-olds scored at the international average of industrialized nations in science and reading and below the international average in math on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, released last year.
  • Although students in the United States scored above the international averages in both 4th and 8th grade math and science, they performed well below high fliers such as Japan and Singapore on the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, which compares developed and nonindustrialized nations.
  • U.S. 4th graders topped 22 participating jurisdictions, and were outscored by just 10 of them, on the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS, though American students’ literacy marks stagnated from the previous exam.
  • Americans account for more than a quarter of the college-educated workforce among nations that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Group of Twenty, or G-20—the largest representation of any such country by far, according to OECD data released last year. But the United States’ share of the global college-educated population fell from about 36 percent among 55- to 64-year-olds to 21 percent among 25- to 34-year-olds, partly because of the surging college attainment in foreign countries, such as China.

Driving the Debate

Such numbers dismay many American policymakers, who say the country needs to raise its performance, or risk becoming a less prosperous, less productive, and less innovative nation.

“It is an undeniable fact that countries who out-educate us today are going to outcompete us tomorrow,” President Barack Obama declared at a White House event in September. “If we’re serious about building an economy that lasts—an economy in which hard work pays off with the opportunity for solid middle-class jobs—we’ve got to get serious about education.”

Elected officials and advocates routinely cite the United States’ mediocre standing, and what they know of the educational practices of high-performing nations, to gird their arguments for their favored changes to American education—from encouraging greater parental involvement to revamping school curricula and standards to paying teachers more.

But analysts and researchers caution that while self-examination is a good thing, American elected officials and educators need to take a nuanced approach to interpreting test scores and lessons from abroad, one that considers the full basket of educational, societal, and cultural factors that shape school practices in top-performing nations, and in the United States.

Yasim Hasan, right, asks her 2nd grade students at Crescent Town Public School in Toronto to point to their home counties during an English as a Second Language class. From left are Azman Nazim, 8, of Bangladesh; Nitya Khare, 7, of India; and Samanta Dam, 7, of Bangladesh.

“Education is a complex system,” says James Stigler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied teaching methods in Japan. “You can’t take one element or one variable out of a system and expect it to work. We need to understand how different countries are producing results, but we need to be sophisticated in how we interpret those results.”

Still, frustration with the United States’ lackluster showing on international tests is widespread and bipartisan. Elected officials at all levels routinely point to high scores turned in by such nations as Finland and South Korea—and economic growth in countries such as China and India—as evidence of American complacency, and the urgent need to improve.

"[O]ur nation is falling behind,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in arguing in 2010 in favor of legislation designed to strengthen K-12 and college math and science. The goal, said the former U.S. secretary of education, is “to preserve America’s brainpower advantage, so our high-paying jobs don’t head overseas to places like India and China.”

Looking Beyond U.S. Borders

The Editorial Projects in Education Research Center asked state education agency officials whether their agency uses international education comparisons to inform reform efforts. Officials in 29 states indicated that their agency uses such comparisons. In 21 states and the District of Columbia, respondents said they are not currently using education data from other nations as a policy resource.

Using Global Comparisons
Those states indicating that they used international comparisons often cited a need to align student preparation with the demands of a global economy and learn from ”best practices“ in high-achieving nations. In describing the specific ways in which they use data from other nations, states most frequently pointed to the role of international indicators in comparing student achievement and developing academic-content standards.

Of the 29 states using international comparisons for specified purposes:

  • 18 are comparing student data
  • 12 are developing academic content standards
  • 9 are improving assessments and accountability systems
  • 8 are identifying support structures for current and future teachers
  • 5 are establishing performance standards for state assessments

Source: EPE Research Center, 2012

Specific policies in high-performing nations are also held up as worthy of emulation. Both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for instance, have noted that South Korea has a significantly longer average school year than the United States does, and have argued that American students’ academic skills tend to wither during long summer breaks.

At a forum on international education held last year, Duncan said that while U.S. officials should be selective in weighing the merits of high-performing countries’ education systems, they also should be aggressive consumers of what works well abroad.

“Every nation, of course, has unique characteristics of its teaching profession, culture, and education system, which may not be directly analogous to the U.S.,” the secretary said at the event, sponsored by the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Washington. “But to the extent that the U.S. can copy or adapt, and beg, borrow, and steal, successful practices from other nations, we should do so.”

In one sense, American policymakers’ interest in other countries’ education systems is easy to understand, because the comparison with those nations—at least on a superficial level—is as easy as looking at a test score.

Concerns about American students’ performance on the international stage date back decades. Over time those worries have become increasingly intertwined with a belief that mediocre scores on nation-by-nation comparisons point to a loss by the United States of its overall economic edge.

That belief has roots that can be traced back at least as far as the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and it echoed through the 1983 publication of the influential report “A Nation at Risk,” which famously warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education that threatened “our very future as a nation and a people.” The theme resounded with the 2005 release of “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a report published by the congressionally chartered National Academies that argued that U.S. economic growth would depend in large part on the capabilities of the education system. That report was widely circulated on Capitol Hill and in the business community.

‘Decline’ Dispute

Yet the “nation at risk” rhetoric has always struck some educators as unduly pessimistic, given the relatively modest changes in the arc of U.S. performance on international measures over time. To the extent that the United States’ educational standing has slipped, it is largely because less-populated nations and countries that are surging economically have made faster gains, according to many analysts’ reading of those results.

In front of the main gate of an examination hall in Seoul, South Korean high school students cheer senior classmen, wishing them success in the high-stakes College Scholastic Ability Test.

From a statistical standpoint, “there is no decline on any measure that we have for the United States,” says Andreas Schleicher, the head of education indicators and analysis for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based group that administers PISA. The issue, he says, is that “the rate of improvement in other countries, in terms of getting more people into school and educating them well, is steeper.”

For instance, the percentage of Americans who have completed at least a high school education has risen over time to 88 percent from 78 percent, according to the “Education at a Glance” report released last year by the OECD. The report compared the attainment of adults born between 1975-84 and those born a generation earlier, between 1933-42. But the data also show that while the United States has improved in that category, countries that were once behind now meet or exceed the U.S. standard. Some of them, such as Finland and South Korea, have “transformed themselves from countries where only a minority of students graduated from secondary school to those where virtually all students do,” OECD officials noted in the report.

The United States, in fact, has a history of performing poorly on international comparisons, which belies the notion that the skills of the country’s students have eroded, says Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washington. In 1964, three decades before the inaugural TIMSS, the United States participated in the First International Mathematics Study, along with 11 other nations, including Australia, England, Finland, and Japan. The United States’ 13-year-olds finished 11th out of 12 countries taking part, beating only Sweden, according to an analysis by Loveless, who examined those results in a report published in 2010.

The idea that the United States has slipped educationally from a position of global dominance is a “myth,” he says. Much of the press coverage following the release of the 1964 math results carried the same worried tone that TIMSS and PISA inspire today, notes Loveless, who went back and read those stories.

“People assumed our schools were number one, and they weren’t,” says Loveless. Unimpressive test scores periodically trigger American anxieties about educational atrophy, he argues, particularly when the U.S. leaders and the public feel challenged—as they did after the launch of Sputnik, or during Japan’s rapid economic expansion of the 1970s and 1980s. The tendency is “to look at the American school system, and say, ‘Something’s wrong’,” Loveless observes.

Reason for Worry

Others say there are clear reasons to be worried about the United States’ uninspiring international test results and their potential implications for the economy.

Economists have long seen a connection between the strength of nations’ education systems and their long-term economic prosperity. While myriad factors, including the stability of a country’s economic, political, and legal institutions, can contribute to national productivity, researchers say, an educated workforce is widely regarded as critical to producing innovations and allowing businesses to make use of them.

Importing Ideas

Policymakers in the United States have become increasingly keen on the lessons that American schools can draw from foreign nations, particularly those that outperform the United States. Some foreign-born strategies and practices have already worked their way into the American education system, on a small or large scale.

Lesson Study
Since the 1990s, U.S. schools have used or experimented with Japanese “lesson study,” a strategy designed to help improve teachers’ instruction. Known in Japan as jugyou kenkyuu—roughly translated as “lesson research”—the practice asks teachers to plan together, observe each other’s classes, and work to continually test, refine, and improve teaching methods. Florida is supporting schools’ use of lesson study through its $700 million award in the federal Race to the Top competition.

Singapore Math
Originally developed by Singapore’s Ministry of Education, this curriculum has taken hold in many American school districts. It emphasizes extensive coverage of a relatively small number of concepts at early grades, compared with many U.S. math textbooks, and integrates math concepts, such as algebra and geometry, in secondary grade levels. A commercial developer, SingaporeMath.com Inc., says its materials are used in more than 1,700 schools in the United States.

Reading Recovery
This intensive one-to-one tutoring program, which focuses on the lowest-achieving 1st graders, originated in New Zealand in the 1970s and took hold in the United States in the 1980s. An estimated 63,000 students in 1,500 school districts per year receive Reading Recovery, and an estimated 2 million have been served over time, according to the Reading Recovery Council of North America.

Montessori Schools
These schools, which typically group students by age rather than grade, shun formal testing, and encourage students to progress at their own pace, were the creation of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who founded the first school in Rome in 1907. The concept migrated to the United States, where interest surged, by some accounts, in the 1950s. Known mostly as a private school program, the Montessori concept has spread to public education.

International Baccalaureate
This demanding, college-prep curriculum, which places a heavy emphasis on international language and culture, was founded in 1968 in Geneva, Switzerland. Today the program, which has expanded to elementary and middle schools, is in place in about 1,300 schools in the United States and is the best-known alternative to another college-prep curriculum, the College Board-directed Advanced Placement program.

School Inspections
Some U.S. districts, including those in New York City, Charlotte, N.C., and Sacramento, Calif., have recently experimented with the use of formal school inspections to help gauge academic quality. National inspection systems have long been in place in some nations, including England, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Singapore.

Source: Education Week

Over the past few years, some scholars have sought to draw a specific link between the kinds of academic skills that can be measured on international tests and nations’ economic growth.

One of those researchers is Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University. While the average number of years of education has often been cited as an indicator of a country’s “human capital,” Hanushek and others have found cognitive skills in math and science have a stronger effect on a nation’s economic growth rate in later years, particularly if the country has a relatively open economy.

By Hanushek’s calculation, if the United States managed to boost its math performance by 40 points on PISA, to reach roughly the level of Canada, it would add between 7 percent and 11 percent, on average annually, to the nation’s gross domestic product over the next 80 years. Projected over that time period, the increased productivity would amount to pumping an additional $75 trillion into the U.S. economy, as measured in present value, or the current worth of the future additions to GDP. The United States’ current annual GDP, by comparison, is roughly $15 trillion.

“We face very, very different economic futures, depending on how our schools develop,” Hanushek says. “Other nations are investing in the education of their populations, and they’re doing other things to make their economies better. We’re no longer going to be able to assume we’re at the forefront of the world, in terms of our economy.”

Others, such as Hal Salzman, an economist at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., say there’s little evidence that economic growth of that magnitude would result from improved educational performance. The link between the educational and economic prowess of nations, as measured by tests like TIMSS and PISA, says Salzman, is tenuous at best. The intense focus on that connection among U.S. business and political leaders in recent years “leads to a certain distortion about where to focus” efforts to improve education and workforce skills, he says.

“If the reason we’re concerned about education is economic competition,” Salzman says, it’s worth noting that “a large portion of those high-ranking countries are economic train wrecks.”

Salzman and Lindsay Lowell, of Georgetown University, in Washington, are the authors of research arguing that, despite concerns that the United States’ K-12 system is not producing students with sufficient skills, specifically in math and science, American schools are in fact meeting and exceeding the current need of the U.S. labor market in that area. They examined data going back to the 1970s and concluded that the flow of students with math- and science-related skills who are choosing and staying in those fields is strong and has gotten stronger over time.

The exception was among high-achieving students, who appear to be choosing other careers—not because they lack the necessary skills, but because they seem to regard math- and science-focused careers as less attractive than other options, such as business, health care, and the law, the authors conclude.

Some observers suggest the United States is not keeping pace with the earlier educational standards it set, which proved so essential to its economic prosperity. In the 2008 book The Race Between Education and Technology, Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz argue that for most of the 20th century, advances in technology boosted the demand for educated American workers, and U.S. education kept pace, resulting in strong economic growth, shared across income groups.

But beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, educational attainment, as measured by high school and college completion, began to lag behind technological advances in that “race,” they say, which led to reduced economic growth and to rising inequality. Among the factors contributing to that imbalance: large number of high school dropouts, students graduating from the secondary system without the preparation to succeed in college, and increased financial barriers to college, Goldin explains.

When the workforce cannot keep up with demands for skills, “those who can make the adjustments as well as those who gain the new skills are rewarded,” Goldin and Katz write. “Others are left behind.”

One of the persistent questions American policymakers ask: Should the United States be more concerned about raising the performance of high achievers than with raising the achievement of the vast pool of students performing at relatively low levels, by the measure of tests like TIMSS and PISA?

But some of the countries and jurisdictions that outperform the United States on various measures, such as Canada and Japan on the PISA reading scores, also have smaller gaps between their highest- and lowest-performing students, suggesting that their education systems do a better job in challenging students at all levels. The takeaway is that “you don’t have to compromise equity to achieve high levels of success,” says Schleicher, of the OECD.

Hanushek, who has described the question as a debate over “rocket scientists” vs. “education for all,” has done research suggesting that improving the skills of students at the basic level and improving those of elite achievers are equally important to economic growth.

The Role of Culture

One of the most common mistakes that policymakers make in interpreting international test results is focusing on one aspect of high-performing nations’ school systems and assuming it can be replicated wholesale in American schools, many analysts say.

Loveless, of the Brookings Institution, sees that tendency in the view that national standards are driving high performance in high-achieving countries, when in fact many low-scorers have national standards, too. Advocates of various policies tend to “seize on one country, one policy, and say that’s why the test scores are going up, when in fact it was a dozen things,” Loveless argues. “You have to look at policies over the full distribution of countries, if you want to get lessons.”

Any single-policy analysis also fails to take into account how great a role cultural norms play in shaping the effectiveness of educational strategies in high-performing nations, others say. For instance, when U.S. officials look at teaching methods in Japan, they’re often surprised by the extent to which educators in that country allow students to struggle with problems, rather than help them, says Stigler, of UCLA. Americans look at those methods and wonder why U.S. instruction isn’t modeled on that tough-love approach.

A wealth of testing data has nations looking over their shoulders to see how they stack up. Students in England take exams.

But it’s not that simple. Japanese cultural norms—transmitted by parents and others—create different expectations for what goes on in the classroom, Stigler says.

American students “aren’t socialized to struggle hard,” says Stigler. “They’re socialized to put their hands up and say, ‘I don’t know.’ ” While a Japanese parent would be inclined to tell a child’s teacher, “Thank you for helping my kid struggle,” Stigler suggests, an American parent might be more inclined to say, “Why are you torturing my kid?”

Education, he says, “is a cultural system, and cultural systems evolve over time to satisfy the needs of a whole range of forces.”

Shared Traits

Even so, some researchers see a number of shared characteristics among top-performing education systems. For example, high-scoring countries tend to recruit and retain talented teachers and help them continually improve their classroom skills; they also combine clear, ambitious academic standards for all students with a strong degree of autonomy at the local school level, argues Schleicher, basing his analysis on OECD data.

By looking at those characteristics, “you can actually go pretty far in understanding what makes education systems succeed, at least in the policy area, and derive a lot of lessons from them,” he says.

Where, then, should U.S. policymakers direct their attention in gleaning lessons from abroad? Some say that the most important educational lessons are found at home, in Massachusetts and Minnesota, which have participated as individual states in the TIMSS and scored exceptionally well. Those states have roughly the population of high-performers like Finland and Singapore, those observers argue, and focusing on them removes many of the cultural and political variables across countries.

Others say that one of the keys to understanding the success of high-performing countries is not to focus on specific policies, but on the quality of the work the United States puts into implementing policies that fit within its educational, political, and cultural context.

A student from Hashikami Junior High School, in Japan's Miyagi prefecture, holds a certificate during a graduation ceremony that had been delayed by the devastating earthquake in that nation last year.

A number of scholars who have studied Asian nations’ educational success, for example, say those countries do a much better job than the United States of improving and revising their policies in curriculum, instruction, and other areas, rather than simply focusing on the immediate results they bring.

“They really worry about quality and implementation,” says Alan Ginsburg, a retired director of policy and program studies at the U.S. Department of Education, who has examined Asian education systems. “That’s time-consuming. We don’t do that. …We worry much more about outcomes than about how to get there.”

Stigler, the UCLA researcher, agrees. He cites the effect of an “improvement culture” that infuses Japan’s education system—one that requires patience and attention to detail in putting new policies in place.

“The story of education reform in our country is that things get rolled out very quickly, and there’s a lot of variability in how [they] get used,” Stigler says. American school leaders “are on a short time frame. They want to know that it will improve results at the end of the year. It takes time and [patience] for that to happen.”

Ginsburg says one lesson from high-performing jurisdictions is that U.S. policymakers and researchers should look to new approaches to building core math and science skills among a much broader swath of the student population, rather than just designing and implementing curriculum and instruction for students who are already on a college track.

American schools could do more to integrate algebra, geometry, statistics, and other core competencies across the curriculum—especially in such course areas as career-and-technical education—and give struggling and average performers more time to master those concepts, he argues. That approach would give students an understanding of the practical application of academic work, he says, and it would provide students, especially those who don’t go to a four-year college right away, stronger workforce skills.

Too often, U.S. schools promise to make students “career- and college-ready,” Ginsburg says, but they end up not ready for either one.

Goldin, the Harvard economist, says gauging what kinds of skills will prove most valuable to U.S. students is difficult, if not impossible. But evidence suggests that students need a strong educational foundation, without “breaks in the chain,” from early education through college, she contends.

It also seems likely that demand will continue for skills that are not easily replaceable, such as analytical faculties, and the ability to think abstractly across disciplines, she says.

Such skills, Goldin points out, are not always easy to test, internationally or domestically—or to develop in the classroom.

“It’s much easier to teach with a textbook,” she says. But “life is not about answering questions correctly. That’s why it’s difficult to teach it right.”

Alan Ginsburg, Hal Salzman, and James Stigler all served on Education Week’s advisory board for the 2012 edition of Quality Counts.

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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