US Education: Myth vs Reality (new data)

This new data brings new light to the issue of American education.

The main point that people have noted is that there is no evidence that education has declined over this past century, no evidence that there ever was a golden era of education. America never had the best education in the world, but on a positive note there has been improvement in recent years which undermines all of the endless criticisms we’ve heard in the media.

Because of my recent focus, I noticed the state comparisons. Sadly, my own state presently has a pathetically low education system when compared to the rest of the country. I’ve heard that Iowa used to have a quality education system. I don’t know what has caused this apparent decline. I was wondering if it might be related to the 2010 census data showing that Iowa has a decreasing population. As I recall, many who are moving away are of a younger demographic (young professionals seeking opportunities elsewhere).

Two myths of international assessments are debunked—the first, that the United States once led the world on international tests of achievement. It never has. The second myth is that Finland leads the world in education, with China and India coming on fast. Finland has a superb school system, but, significantly, it scores at the very top only on PISA, not on other international assessments. Finland also has a national curriculum more in sync with a “literacy” thrust, making PISA a friendly judge in comparing Finnish students with students from other countries. And what about India and China? Neither country has ever participated in an international assessment. How they would fare is unknown. [ . . . ]

Who’s winning the real race to the top? Both short- and long-term gains on NAEP are calculated with statistical controls for changes in the demographic characteristics of each state’s students. Eight states—Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, District of Columbia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania—stand out for making superior gains. At the other end of the distribution, Iowa, Nebraska, West Virginia, and Michigan stand out for underperforming. Five of the eight impressive states won grants, but three did not. And a few states won grants even though they are faring poorly in the race to boost student achievement. Some of the reasons why a program called Race to the Top could distribute grant money in this manner are discussed.

Kojo Nnamdi, host: It was the golden era of American education, a time when schools taught kids exactly what they needed to succeed in life, when teachers were paid what they were worth and when American schools were the best in the world. It all sounds nice, but the problem is that it’s next to impossible to actually find this “golden” era in the historical record. Today, we’re getting history behind the headlines; how some debates on education reform rely on simplistic ideas about the past, how complaints about teaching to the test heart back to the early twentieth century, and how partisans have dukes it out over math and science for five decades. Joining us in the studio is Tom Loveless, senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He authors the annual Brown Center Report on American Education. Tom Loveless, thank you for joining us.

Tom Loveless: Thank you.

Kojo: I mentioned this idea of a “golden” era of American education even though it’s often somewhat vague. There is a way of talking about our current challenges that implies that we’ve lost something that our education has somehow, our education system somehow has deteriorated. In what sense is that true and in what sense is it misleading?

Tom: It’s mostly misleading; we didn’t really have good measures of how well kids were learning in schools until probably the 1950s and 1960s. We didn’t for instance start taking a national snapshot of student achievement until late 1960s, 1969. International tests, the very first comparison of international countries didn’t happen until the 1960s. So the idea that American schooling somehow had this “golden” age in the first half of the twentieth century, we just simply don’t know. And much of it is just methodology based on people having gone to school and having good feelings about it.


Back in 1964, American 13-year-olds took the First International Math Study and ended up ranking in 11th place. Considering that only 12 nations participated, including Australia, Finland, and Japan, our next-to-last performance was pretty abysmal. Other international tests American students have taken over the years have also never showed that we were in the top spot. It’s a myth that we’ve fallen from our glory days.

American students first took the PISA, which is administered every three years, in 2000. The United States has always scored in the middle of the pack, meaning, as Loveless told Education Week, “We once were terrible and now we’re mediocre. I think that’s a more accurate description, but we’ve never had scores that we should be proud of.”

Indeed, we shouldn’t be proud of our mediocrity, but there is a silver lining in the results: Between the 2006 and 2009 PISA tests, our scores “increased 5 points in reading, 13 points in math, and 13 points in science.” Loveless says in his report that this improvement was strangely ignored by the media, politicians, and the education reform chattering class, but it’s a notable increase because, according to a researcher from Stanford University, Eric Hanushek,

“an increase of 25 points on PISA over the next 20 years would boost United States GDP by $41 trillion. If the gains from 2006 to 2009 are duplicated when the PISA is next given in 2012, the goal of making 25-point gains in math and science will be met far ahead of schedule.”

So why was everyone up in arms just a few months ago when students in Shaghai beat out everyone else in the last Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam? In case you don’t remember, the media was in a frenzy last December, searching for reasons why Chinese students had possibly outperformed the US. Perhaps American students should spend more time studying exam subjects and less time playing sports, studying music, and engaging in other activities. Or maybe it’s our teachers who, compared to those in China, are underpaid and under trained. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Associated Press at the time that, “the results are an absolutely wake-up call for America. We have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”

Out of 34 countries, the US ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th (below average) in math on the 2009 exam. This sounds less than stellar, but Loveless’s new report, contradicts the panic these scores inspired, saying that “the US performance on PISA has been flat to slightly upward since the test’s inception and it has improved on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, another major series of tests, since 1995.”

Loveless says no. “There was no sharp decline–in either the short or long run,” he says. “The U.S. performance on PISA has been flat to slightly up since the test’s inception, and it has improved on TIMSS [the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, another major series of tests] since 1995.”

This is not exactly good news, but context is important. If we have managed to be the world’s most powerful country, politically, economically and militarily, for the last 47 years despite our less than impressive math and science scores, maybe that flaw is not as important as film documentaries and political party platforms claim. And if, after so many decades of being shown up by much of the rest of the developed world, we are improving, it might be time to be more supportive of what we already doing to fix our schools.

Loveless is one of the nation’s leading experts on PISA and TIMSS. He has been part of the cohorts of specialists who advise those programs. In his report he says the first international test comparable to those two was the First International Math Study (FIMS) in 1964. It assessed 13-year-olds in 12 countries. The United States placed next to last, just ahead of Sweden.

We were beaten by Israel, Japan, Belgium, Finland, Germany, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, France and Australia, in that order. Other age groups were tested with similarly disappointing results for the United States.

In the latest PISA and TIMSS tests, the United States did better, scoring in the middle of the pack. On PISA, the United States was up 5 points in reading, 13 points in math and 13 points in science. If we maintain that pace, Loveless says, we will boost the U.S. gross domestic product by at least $41 trillion in the next 20 years, according to an analysis of PISA results by Stanford University economist Eric A. Hanushek.

Loveless, a former teacher, cannot resist tarnishing the shiny reputations of our most celebrated international competitors, while he is on the subject. He declares that the often-heard assumption that Finland has the best educational system in the world, with India and China coming on strong, also is a myth.

This blogger has been dumping on the strength of the Chinese and Indian school systems for a long time. Loveless agrees that they are very large, very poor countries that are so ill-equipped for international tests that they have never participated in them as countries. Shanghai scored number one on the latest PISA, but that is no indicator of how China would do.

“Shanghai’s municipal website reports that 83.8 percent of high school graduates enter college,” Loveless says. “The national figure is 24 percent.” The American figure is about 66 percent.

Loveless is less dismissive of Finland, which has been scoring well for several years. But he says Americans who love the Finnish model of paying teachers higher salaries, decentralizing authority over educational decisions and eschewing high-stakes standardized testing should tune into the debate the Finns are having about their schools.

Finnish children were doing well on international tests before those reforms were adopted. That suggests that cultural and societal factors might be the more likely reason for their success. Many Finnish mathematicians say that the country is catering too much to PISA, which emphasizes word problems and practical applications of math, and neglecting to prepare students for college math.

Loveless says more than 200 university mathematicians in Finland petitioned the education ministry to complain of students increasingly arriving in their classrooms poorly prepared. “Knowledge of fractions and algebra were singled out as particularly weak areas,” Loveless says.

Spend any time exploring the world of ed reform, and the concept that gets sold to you again and again is choice. “School choice” is the term of art, within the ed reform movement, for private school vouchers.

Choice has to do a lot of work, because the evidence doesn’t. More study is absolutely necessary to evaluate the value of private school vouchers, just as more study is necessary when it comes to charter schools. But the extant evidence is not good. In fact, if you’re a champion of vouchers, it’s downright bad.Here’s recent bad news from Ohio. Here’s bad news from Milwaukee. The news from DC is, thus far, howlingly controversial; here’s some data (PDF). When it comes to DC, I personally am disturbed by the lack of quantifiable gains that aren’t educator dependent—that is, the fact that graduation rates are significantly higher but testable knowledge is not at least raises fair questions about the pressures for schools receiving vouchers to graduate students even if they have underperformed. (One of the consistent problems with school vouchers is the fact that they directly incentivize schools putting their fingers on the scale, and often with no accountability beyond the honor system.) These are just recent cases, but you can survey the available data and say with little doubt that a compelling empirical case for school vouchers doesn’t exist.

(A bit out of date but good overview on the flagging voucher movement from theWashington Monthly is here.)

Voucher proponents, in the face of this failure, have to sell hard on the idea of choice. Ross Douthat, in a typically goofy response to the repeated and public failure of school vouchers to produce better results, changed his mind doubled down, echoing Charles Murray in saying that producing results was never the point. (Hey, who says that advocating something is the same as claiming it’s effective public policy?) It’s all about freedom, giving people choices and making them happier, even if those choices don’t actually accomplish anything. But is choice in this individualistic sense even a virtue in this case? I would submit that it’s not, and in fact that it’s directly opposed to the essential social compact that modern governance relies on.


In November, it came out that one of the scenes in Superman had been staged. Guggenheim wasn’t around to film Francisco’s mother Maria touring the Harlem Success Academy, a charter school with lottery based admissions. By the time Guggenheim filmed the scene, Francisco had already been rejected from the school. The ensuing dust-up and complaints that Guggenheim had faked part of his film to gin up emotions was negative press the film didn’t need.

The Washington Post also cites a litany of other problems withSuperman—all revolving around the film’s approach to education reform.

“Guggenheim edited the film to make it seem as if charter schools are a systemic answer to the ills afflicting many traditional public schools, even though they can’t be, by their very design. He unfairly demonized Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and gave undeserved hero status to reformer and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Guggenheim compared schools in Finland and the United States without mentioning that Finland has a 3 percent child poverty rate and the United States has a 22 percent rate.”

And, not everyone was cheering for the documentary in the first place. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch famously destroyed Superman in the New York Review of Books by pulling out data that disproved many of the film’s points.

The variety of charter schools is consistent with the original mission to provide new options to families and to promote innovative ways to organize a school and deliver a curriculum. But that same variety makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the instructional effectiveness of charter schools as a sector. Research findings vary widely, depending on the schools studied and the research methodology employed.

Nearly all large-scale studies that have examined the effectiveness of charter schools across many states have relied on statistical controls to handle differences in student background between students attending charter schools vs. regular public schools. Several of these studies find that students attending charter schools do no better than students attending regular public schools. [ . . . ]

In summary, the overall body of research on the academic effectiveness of charter schools suggests considerable variability in impact. Thus knowing that a school is organized as a charter school does not, in and of itself, say much about whether the school is good, bad, or mediocre. Some charter schools are unambiguously providing a more effective education for students than is provided by regular public schools serving similar students. Other charter schools are no better than the public schools with which they compete, and some are worse.

Research on charter schools paints a mixed picture. A number of recent national studies have reached the same conclusion: charter schools do not, on average, show greater levels of student achievement, typically measured by standardized test scores, than public schools, and may even perform worse.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found in a 2009 report that 17% of charter schools outperformed their public school equivalents, while 37% of charter schools performed worse than regular local schools, and the rest were about the same. A 2010 study by Mathematica Policy Research found that, on average, charter middle schools that held lotteries were neither more nor less successful than regular middle schools in improving student achievement, behavior, or school progress. Among the charter schools considered in the study, more had statistically significant negative effects on student achievement than statistically significant positive effects. These findings are echoed in a number of other studies.




5 thoughts on “US Education: Myth vs Reality (new data)

  1. Having gone through finnish education system and studing math in the uni there I have to disagree with some of the statement. Finland does score regularly high in math, reading and writing. I would also challenge the “Finnish model of paying teachers higher salaries”. Teachers are famously underpaid in Finland and salaries have not generally been in the US levels. I taught a bit in the uni and got peanuts.

    I saw more centralizing authority over educational decisions as books, curriculum and national tests are standardised and almost all schools are state run.

    It is worth mentioning that almost all teachers have Masters or Bachelor level education and Finnish schools have less sports programs than the US schools.

    • If you have data to share, I’d be glad to look at it. I don’t know about teachers’ salaries in Finland, but that wasn’t a central point. If Finland has lower average teachers’ salaries than US, that would be very sad. Some US states pay decent salaries for teachers, but on average US teachers don’t get paid much.

      Anyway, if your point is that Finnish schools aren’t all that great, that would seem to fit with the quoted material I shared. The point was that the high test scores on the PISA were misleading. The point is that Finnish schools aren’t as good as some thought and US schools aren’t as bad as some thought.

  2. I studied a senior high school year in the US and I think students were not pushed at all. Teachers were good, but I think more kids chose to take many easy subjects (typing, power mechanics, sports). In Finland the centralized curriculum and really tough final high school exam force/pushes students to perform. I felt in math the US high school were at least one year behind Finland and tougher math classes were optional at least in the high school I went.

    In Finland if you wanted to study math in a uni there were tough entry tests and maybe 20% of people trying to get in got in.

    I think it’s wrong to blame the test. Usually people claim something is misleading when they get poor result. Finland consistently scores near the top on all indicators. Google “interactive Newsweek the world’s best countries”.

    Finland has better health care system, more democratic society and political system, better quality of life, cheaper education (uni was practically free if you got in), higher educated teachers. I think it all adds up to a slightly better school system. PISA report stated “Finland shows consistently high performance, regardless of where its children go to school.”

    Finnish web site estimates that the basic teacher salary is around E2600 gross, E1700 after tax. I used an online calculator for high school math teacher with MSc degree and 10 years experience. He gets E3144 gross (E2100? after tax). This equal US$51k/year gross (dollar used to equal Euro couple of year ago and that would make it US$38k/year).

    Googling “US high school teacher salaries by state” I get estimation from $35k – $67k. Median is reported to be $53k/year. So I would say the US teacher get paid slightly more and pay less taxes (even after US$ value slide).

    Anyways, I wouldn’t say US schools are bad, the difference between the US and Finland were overall small. Perhaps the US kids need to be pushed academically harder. I would put more blame on students and their parent than teachers. My kids are young and in a school in Australia and they are pushed quite hard by the school (harder than I was pushed that age)

    • I can’t speak for all schools across the entire US. It’s a large country after all and every state runs their schools differently. But I can speak about the schools I’ve been to. I think they probably fit your assessment. Then again, I went to high school in South Carolina which isn’t known for having the best education system in the country.

      I agree tests are relevant, but I think you might be missing the point of the most recent data. From what I understand, there are many different tests that aren’t all designed the same way. So, Finland does extremely well on some tests and less well on other tests.

      As for Finland being a great country, I have no doubts. I don’t know much about Finland, but I do know that many European countries are better than the US when comparing many factors. I have a post that compares the US and Germany.

      I wouldn’t know how to make the same salary calculation for US math teachers with 10 years experience. For teachers in general, the average salary I saw for data from this year varies from $23k/year to $53k/year depending on the state with with the average being around $40k+/year depending on what kind of teacher. This average teacher salary is equivalent in the US to the salary of an office manager.

      However, US teachers probably have a lot of extra costs such as medical that they have to pay themselves. This is particularly significant as medical costs can bankrupt someone in the US. Living in Europe, a teacher gets many benefits from social programs that an American teacher doesn’t get. I don’t how such benefits would be calculated in terms of $ per teacher.

      I don’t have any grand opinions because the data is so complex. The main point of this post has three parts. First, looking at all tests rather than just one, Finland isn’t doing as well as some thought and the US isn’t doing as bad as some thought. Second, it’s a myth that US schools have become worse because they have consistently remained moderately good since testing began. Third, in recent years, US schools have been improving and so it would appear the US school system is relatively successful (although with plenty of room for further improvement). All of this is based on the most recent assessment of the data. If you disagree with it , don’t blame me. 🙂

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