October 3, 2022


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.

Mike Vogel | 8/1/2006

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."

Problem Solving
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2003 devised a series of multivariable problems to test 15-year-olds' ability to do more than apply routine solutions and color in answer sheet bubbles. The problems required reading and math skill but also the flexibility and creativity to troubleshoot, deal with multiple variables, devise solutions and communicate them. More than 70% of students in Finland, Japan and Korea scored at the highest result levels. The mean U.S. score was at the basic-problem solving level. One quarter of the students in the U.S. couldn't even rise to that level.

"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.

Right direction

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)
and private
% of GDP
% of
Australia 5.97% 4.53% $5,052 $7,239 $12,688 $40,479
Austria 5.78 5.56 6,571 8,562 11,274 33,138
Belgium 6.36 5.97 5,321 7,912c 11,589 N/A
Canada 6.14 4.88 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Czech Republic 4.58 4.21 1,871 3,448 5,555 16,453
Denmark 7.10 6.82 7,572 8,113d 14,280d 35,809
Finland 5.84 5.74 4,708 6,537 10,981 36,552
France 5.98 5.61 4,777 8,107 8,837 32,933
Germany 5.26 4.28 4,237 6,620 10,504 47,165
Greece 4.06 3.82 3,299a 3,768 4,280 25,563
Hungary 5.18 4.61 2,592b 2,633b 7,122b 10,412
Iceland 6.70 6.15 6,373 7,265 7,674 19,377
Ireland 4.49 4.14 3,743 5,245 10,003 38,066
Italy 5.31 4.87 6,783b 8,258b 8,347b 30,220
Japan 4.63 3.47 5,771 6,534d 11,164d 44,345
Korea 8.20 4.79 3,714 5,159 6,618 46,269
Luxembourg 3.64 3.64 7,873a 11,091c N/A N/A
Mexico 5.87 5.12 1,357 1,915 4,341 20,722
Netherlands 4.90 4.51 4,862 6,403 12,974 38,697
New Zealand N/A N/A 5.53 N/A N/A N/A 35,034
Norway 6.37 6.12 7,404 9,040c 13,189 30,533
Poland N/A 5.56 2,322b N/A 3,579b N/A
Portugal 5.85 5.77 4,181 5,976 5,199 31,876
Slovak Republic 4.11 3.99 1,252 1,874c 5,285 6,611
Spain 4.89 4.33 4,168 5,442c 7,455 36,930
Sweden 6.46 6.25 6,295 6,482 15,188 27,359
Switzerland N/A 5.43 6,889b 10,916b 20,230b 55,431
Turkey 3.51 3.46 N/A N/A N/A N/A
United Kingdom 5.48 4.66 4,415 5,933c 10,753 N/A
United States 7.34 5.08 7,560 8,779 22,234c 42,801
Country mean 5.62% 4.96% $4,850 $6,510 $10,052 $33,345
Financial and human resources invested in education; 2001 data, unless otherwise stated
Converted 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

Average combined science literacy scores of 15-year-old students, 2003 PISA results:
Country Science Literacy
Finland 548
Japan 548
Hong Kong 539
Korea 538
Liechtenstein 525
Australia 525
Macao 525
Netherlands 524
Czech Republic 523
New Zealand 521
Canada 519
Switzerland 513
France 511
Belgium 509
Sweden 506
Ireland 505
Hungary 503
Germany 502
Poland 498
Slovak Republic 495
Iceland 495
United States 491
Austria 491
Russia 489
Latvia 489
Spain 487
Italy 486
Norway 484
Luxembourg 483
Greece 481
Denmark 475
Portugal 468
Uruguay 438
Serbia 436
Turkey 434
Thailand 429
Mexico 405
Indonesia 395
Brazil 390
Tunisia 385
Average combined math literacy scores of 15-year-old students, 2003 PISA results:
Country Math Literacy
Hong Kong 550
Finland 544
Korea 542
Netherlands 538
Liechtenstein 536
Japan 534
Canada 532
Belgium 529
Macao 527
Switzerland 527
Australia 524
New Zealand 523
Czech Republic 516
Iceland 515
Denmark 514
France 511
Sweden 509
Austria 506
Germany 503
Ireland 503
Slovak Republic 498
Norway 495
Luxembourg 493
Poland 490
Hungary 490
Spain 485
Latvia 483
United States 483
Russia 468
Portugal 466
Italy 466
Greece 445
Serbia 437
Turkey 423
Uruguay 422
Thailand 417
Mexico 385
Indonesia 360
Tunisia 359
Brazil 356
Average combined reading literacy scores of 15-year-old students, 2003 PISA results:
Country Reading Literacy
Finland 543
Korea 534
Canada 528
Australia 525
Liechtenstein 525
New Zealand 522
Ireland 515
Sweden 514
Netherlands 513
Hong Kong 510
Belgium 507
Norway 500
Switzerland 499
Japan 498
Macao 498
Poland 497
France 496
United States 495
Denmark 492
Iceland 492
Germany 491
Austria 491
Latvia 491
Czech Republic 489
Hungary 482
Spain 481
Luxembourg 479
Portugal 478
Italy 476
Greece 472
Slovak Republic 469
Russia 442
Turkey 441
Uruguay 434
Thailand 420
Serbia 412
Brazil 403
Mexico 400
Indonesia 382
Tunisia 375

Tags: Around Florida, Education

Florida Business News

Florida Trend Video Pick

Ransom Everglades School students test their experiment to be carried by NASA rocket
Ransom Everglades School students test their experiment to be carried by NASA rocket

A NASA-sponsored rocket will carry an experiment devised by physics students from Ransom Everglades School to the edge of space. See how they tested their experiment.

Video Picks | Viewpoints@FloridaTrend

Ballot Box

Apart from electing a new governor, what is your top voting issue in Florida's 2022 elections?

  • Inflation
  • The economy
  • Abortion
  • Gun policy
  • Immigration
  • Climate change
  • Education
  • Health care
  • Other (Please share your comments in the comment section below)

See Results

Florida Trend Media Company
490 1st Ave S
St Petersburg, FL 33701

© Copyright 2022 Trend Magazines Inc. All rights reserved.