Competing Against the World
Students in the U.S. don't stack up well against their foreign peers. How to improve? Focus on curriculum, says one expert.
Americans try to comfort themselves with three thoughts when they hear how poorly U.S. students do on international comparisons: 1. Regardless of how America performs overall, our best and brightest stack up quite well against the academic elite overseas. 2. What we lack in rote memorization we make up for in problem solving. 3. While the state's and nation's schools have plenty of problems, they are largely confined to "the other schools" where parents aren't as involved and where children come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The problem with these three notions, says Michigan State University professor William Schmidt, is that they are myths. While the U.S. outperformed nine countries in a 2003 assessment of problem-solving ability -- including a number of less developed nations like Tunisia, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and Greece -- America trailed more than 20 European and Asian countries, including, at the top of the list, Korea, Finland and Japan. And it's not economically disadvantaged students who dragged the United States down. Our elites -- the top 10% in performance -- significantly underperformed the top 10% from the top countries.
Schmidt says another study, of our Advanced Placement calculus students -- the best we have in mathematics -- against the developed world's equivalent kids showed us lagging, too. "Even our best kids are not getting the education they should be getting," Schmidt says. "When it comes to math and science, it's very clear the popular image is correct: Our students don't do well."
"Clearly our curriculum needs to be revamped to ensure our students can compete not only internationally but with other states."
Florida Education Department press secretary Cathy Schroeder
Increasingly, business leaders recognize that the globalization of the economy renders U.S.-to-foreign comparisons as important as state-to-state. "U.S. economic leadership is at risk," Intel Chairman Craig Barrett told the Education Writers Association conference in June. "The new global economy is technology based. Everybody else is educating scientists. And if we don't start doing the same, we'll lose our lock on the innovations and markets of the future." In that context, Florida Trend set out to examine how the education received by Florida's high school students compares with that received by students in eight countries. The countries were chosen because of their status as trading partners, competitors, experiences with rising immigration or economic transformation. In choosing countries, we avoided comparisons with small, wealthy nations with homogeneous populations.
Looking for answers
How does Florida stack up against them and the rest of the developed world? Not well, although the evidence is indirect because research comparing Florida's students with those overseas is dated or not comprehensive. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test, Florida students were just average compared to the nation's, and the nation performed poorly compared to much of the developed world, according to results from two respected assessments, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Program for International Student Assessment. The U.S. holds its own at the fourthgrade level -- suggesting the raw materials, our children, are all right -- but slips below the mean by eighth grade and drops to near the bottom of a 50-country study by 12th grade, Schmidt says. In international comparisons, we excel in nothing and do particularly poorly in geometry and physics. (The most easily compared performances globally are in math and science.) Why so bad? Three reasons for U.S. mediocre performance stand out to Schmidt, an authority on international comparisons:
› Parental involvement and motivation. It's true, Asian parents do push their kids, but they aren't alone on the globe.
› Teacher quality. Teaching in Ireland, for example, still attracts up-per-tier students.
› Curriculum. This is the most important consideration, in Schmidt's view.
The top-performing countries share a curriculum with a strong focus. The U.S., meanwhile, is a "mile wide and an inch deep," he says. Second-grade math teachers cover double the number of subject areas as those in top-performing countries.
The best-performing nations have a rigorous curriculum. Their middle school aged kids knock off our high school algebra and geometry while ours are mired in arithmetic. Their middle school kids are well into physics and chemistry while our kids remain in "what I call rocks and body parts," Schmidt says.
Top curricula elsewhere also are coherent, following a logical, sequential order that is lacking in American education, where advanced topics are introduced too early -- when time should instead be spent on mastering basic numbers and computation so that students can advance.
Florida is taking some steps toward catching up. This school year, for the first time, performance in science on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) will join reading and math as determinants of a school's grade under Gov. Jeb Bush's grading system. Also, the 2006 Legislature required that algebra be offered as an option -- though not a requirement -- in middle school and raised the number of math credits required for high school graduation to four from three.
Curriculum change comes slower. Florida Sunshine State standards, the state's official curriculum, haven't been updated in a decade. "We recognize our curriculum is not where it should be," says Florida Education Department press secretary Cathy Schroeder. "Clearly our curriculum needs to be revamped to ensure our students can compete not only internationally but with other states."
Books and other instructional materials for the reading curriculum, revised this year, will be out for the 2007-08 school year. But revision of math standards, which got under way in June, won't be completed until 2007, and the books to teach to it won't appear until at least the 2009-10 school year. Change in science comes even later: Standards revision begins in June 2007 with the new texts out only in 2010-11.
Florida holds no patent on difficulties. Teachers and students in many of the countries we looked at report trouble with alcohol and in some cases with student discipline. Read the foreign press and you will find as much hand-wringing about education, testing, grade inflation and graduates' quality and preparation for the workforce as here. America seems to do fairly well by its immigrant population compared to some countries.
Our ace is higher education institutions. Many of the students we interviewed envy our number of university seats per capita. Schmidt, the international comparisons expert, knows his findings are depressing. But he offers a chance for optimism. Given our country's cultural strengths in entrepreneurship and creativity, U.S. education would be "the best in the world" -- if it gets its curriculum act together, he says.
|Spending on Education|
|Spending on educational institutions||Annual expenditure per student
(U. S. dollars)
% of GDP
|New Zealand N/A||N/A||5.53||N/A||N/A||N/A||35,034|
Notes: Financial and human resources invested in education; 2001 data, unless otherwise stated
1Converted using Purchasing Power Parities for GDP; 2Teachers’ salaries in public lower-secondary education after 15 years of experience — year of reference 2002; aIncludes pre-primary education; bPublic institutions only; cIncludes post-secondary non-tertiary education; dIncludes part of post-secondary non-tertiary education; ePublic expenditure only. www.oecd.org/edu/eag2004
Source: Education at a Glance — OECD Indicators 2004, OECD, Paris, 2004; www.oecd.org/edu/eag2004