Your kid’s school vs. the rest of the world

The U.S. may not ace international tests, but what abour your child’s school district? The Bush Institute’s Global Report Card 2.0 lets you rank 14,000 U.S. districts against 25 other developed countries, including high-scoring Singapore and Finland.

“Many of the school districts that we traditionally think of as high performers are found to rank near the middle of the pack when we compare them to international peers,” said Jay Greene, who conducted the study.

Americans are in denial about education problems, Greene tells The Atlantic. “When you tell people there are problems in education, elites will usually think, ‘Ah, that refers to those poor kids in big cities. It doesn’t have anything to do with me.'”

I checked out Palo Alto Unified, which educated my daughter. Palo Alto students outscore 83 percent of California students in math and 87 percent in reading. On a national level, Palo Alto kids earn a 75 percent in math and 80 percent in reading.  Compared to the rest of the world, scores slip to 67 percent in math, 79 percent in reading.

The comparison is “discouraging,” says The Atlantic.

. . .  if one of the wealthiest and most reputable districts in America, right in the cradle of Silicon Valley, can’t break the 70th percentile in math, what does that say about the rest of the country?

Dropped into Singapore, Palo Alto students would outscore 47 percent in math, 72 percent in reading.

Over the last 50 years, nations’ growth rates have correlated very well with math performance on basic tests, says Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist.

In an article last year ominously titled “Danger: America Is Losing Its Edge in Innovation,”Forbes reported that 70 percent of the engineers who graduate from U.S. universities are now foreign-born. According to a 2007 study at Duke University, more than a quarter of all U.S. tech start-ups between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant founder.

We like to talk about American innovation, but many of the people doing the innovating here were in fact born elsewhere,” says Hanushek. If America’s high schools could match the math scores of our top competitors, our GDP could increase five- to sevenfold, he estimates.

It’s a big if.

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  1. Strangely enough, all parents think the school their child attends (for the most part) is the greatest, but when comparing our kids to the rest of the world, we usually fall in the middle or lower half of the curve.

    Most of the other countries spend far less on educating students than we do…

  2. It is not the “district”, but particular school.
    You go to
    Then you find the school you are interested in, then, for that particular school you go to “Test scores and stats”, then inside this section go to “Teachers & Students”, from theree you go to “Students”. There you will see all you need to know.

  3. (1) Most other countries, especially the ones outscoring us, have moved many kids off the college-prep track and into voc ed, before they hit HS, so it’s not an even comparison.

    (2) Most other countries (SAA) put the focus on most able and motivated kids, while we spend pennies on the top kids for every dollar spent on kids who lack ability and/or motivation. For example, in the WaPo education section, there are frequent and regular whines about the elitism and lack of diversity at the TJ math/tech magnet school – complete with many comments echoing the whine. A recent article discussing the proposal for increasing the number of GT centers, also in Fairfax Co, VA, is more of the same whining.

    (3) Related to both (1) and (2) is our focus on the achievement gap between top performers (disproportionately white and Asian) and low performers (disproportionately black/Hispanic). The easiest way to decrease the gap is to prevent the top kids from moving ahead at the pace their ability and motivation justifies.

    My kids attended some of the “best” schools in some of the most affluent, highly-educated areas in the country and they were really not challenged in ES and MS. Yes, the schools “did well” but that was mostly because of the kids; both curriculum and instruction could have been better and the pace could have been faster. Their best teachers (content and academic focus) have since retired, both the curriculum and the instructional practices have deteriorated since then, and the leveled (ability-grouped) classes my kids had in ES-MS are increasingly rare. There are a few bright spots; in response to heavy parent pressure, my grandkids’ ES now uses Singapore Math. By the end of first grade, they will be responsible for mastery of addition and subtraction facts (timed tests) and other problems (also timed test). It’s a one-HS town system, which is vastly easier to influence than the big systems.

  4. I think that you are confusing percentiles with percentages. If Palo Alto students are able to outscore 47% of students from Singapore, this means that they are very close to being equal to Singapore in math achievement. Pretty respectable, considering Singapore’s high international standing. And if students from Palo Alto are able to outscore 72% of of students from Singapore in reading, this means that they are quite advanced compared to students from Singapore. It’s hard to see what is so “dismal” about these results.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      If our “best” match Singapore’s “average” there might be a problem …

      Or not … US news publications have been printing these stories since at least 1958.

  5. CarolineSF says:

    So why did those many people doing the innovating come to the U.S. to do it if we’re such failures?

    The U.S. has always scored unimpressively compared with other nations, for the entire time there have been international test score comparisons. Anyone who writes about education should be aware of the late-’50s Life Magazine cover story comparing a supposedly nose-to-the-grindstone Soviet teen and a supposedly feckless, happy-go-lucky Chicago teen. Retrospectives (including by the late Gerald Bracey, should anyone wish to research this) show that both young men grew up to have fairly similar careers and essentially life success.

    The U.S. has posted unimpressive test scores in international comparisons during the time we won the space race, were the world’s economic powerhouse and led the world in innovation and entrepreneurship. Again, why did those immigrants who participated in all that leave their far-superior countries to come here to achieve their successes?

    I’m not downplaying the challenges of our nation’s educational system — which are most closely linked to our sky-high child poverty rate, which is near the top of developed nations’ and far exceeds that of the “successful” countries’. But the cliche that our students are uneducated morons compared with other nations’ — usually accompanied with the falsehood that they’ve “fallen” — is an old right-wing cliche.

    • CarolineSF,

      When I see high school age students who cannot solve basic math problems, write a coherent sentence, or be able to read instructions, and follow them (which is a statement which many employers today seem to be complaining about), I know the students aren’t learning the skills they’ll need 10-20 years after they graduate from high school.

      The deli clerk in her mid 20’s who cannot figure out what 3/4’s of a pound of corned beef on a digital scale is a prime example. That’s stuff I learned in elementary school in the early 70’s.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      “So why did those many people doing the innovating come to the U.S. to do it if we’re such failures?”

      Dare I say this? Capitalism. Traditionally, the American economic system has been a lot more open than most other countries.

      The idea that, instead, prosperity depends on how well people do in school, that we are “falling dangerously behind” other countries in education, and that lots more money should therefore be spent on schooling is one that has traditionally been more popular on the left than the right.

    • Our child (and adult) poverty rate is closely related to single motherhood, particularly among the young, poorly-educated, never-married group – which typically gets little to no help from the sperm donor(s). I’ve not seen reporting about other countries that shows a similar long-term pattern. Various European countries have essentially common-law arrangements, where the parents do not marry, but do remain together long-term and raise their kids together – a very different situation.

  6. I disagree that that’s more popular on the left — the claim that we used to be No. 1 and have fallen comes from the big right-wing propaganda shops like Hoover et al. A lot on the left fall for this lie, but the right is the source.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Caroline, you may be right about the relative popularity of the “we used to be number 1” meme. I have seen on the left both “we used to have a wonderful public school system before it was corrupted by test-mania, corporate values, etc.” and “the American public school has always failed the poor, minorities, the disabled, etc.”

      I think we can agree, though, that both the left and the right are comfortable with the rhetoric of “falling dangerously behind” other countries.

      • Thanks. Yes, the right tells the lie and the left falls for the lie. The far greater sin is in the telling — and the repeating.

  7. GEORGE LARSON says:

    So why did those many people doing the innovating come to the U.S. to do it if we’re such failures?

    Because we had fewer barriiers to innovation than most countries. It may no longer be true.

    I agree with CaolineSF. We were never number 1 in the quality of our students. The advantage I think was allowing late bloomers and non academic elite outsiders to move up to higher education and we were less credential crazy than a lot of other countries. I am not sure this is still the case.

    • Thanks, George, I felt that your comment was very insightful, and cut to the core of the issue.
      It’s often hard to explain that innovation is often the product of personal freedom and not coercion (and I won’t attempt it here).

      Educators have always had an unsavory preoccupation with unfree countries and their accomplishments, both real and imaginary. Nobody ever talks about Japan anymore; Japanese schools were the hot topic of discussion when I was growing up. Because of the schools, they were the invincible juggernaut that would bury the United States! Haha, we all remember that, right?

      In reality, of course, the Japanese system is rather bad. Their universities aren’t that great, they employ many outdated, ineffective methods (but are too rigid to change them), and Japan in general is not known for its innovativeness, if measured by patent holdings. But we were enticed by its merciless discipline, nothing else. Nobody stopped to look hard at what Japanese culture is really like, or what that system does to its charges (allowing them to think for themselves is not among them). And today, these folks who get all misty-eyed for Singaporean-style discipline have no interest in talking seriously about the social side effects of such a brutal system (though I’m sure there’s a self-styled international studies expert out there who’ll lambast my ignorance, and show me how Lee Kuan Yew is a great libertarian and Singapore is a bastion of personal freedom. Flame away!)

      We ARE consistently getting more credential mad, and these reports are a direct byproduct of that craze. How to reverse this trend would be a more fruitful topic, I think.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        I think your overall point is reasonable, but using patents to show that Japanese are not innovative isn’t helping your cause. According to Wiki, in 2008 Japan led the world in both patents applied for and patents granted.

  8. I think there is a true educational dilemma in the United States. Our students are coming out of high school very unprepared, and even college is failing to catch us up to the world standard. I’m not certain of a solution, but I do believe that America has lost its thirst for knowledge. The country was founded by thinkers who valued the promise of a new idea. I hope that we can find our way! Thanks for the post!