Are U.S. Students Behind?


he conventional wisdom is now firmly established: American students can't

hold their own against their peers in other nations. They can't read, they can't

do math, they are abysmally ignorant of science. That has been the message of

countless stories in the media, supposedly backed up by international data. And

this poor performance, we have been told, is responsible for the economic woes

the United States has experienced in recent decades.

But global comparisons show no such thing: American students look better in

international tests than the critics would have us believe, and the schools have

little to do with the "competitiveness" of the economy. For decades,

the media have uncritically reported unfavorable comparisons of educational

performance, often based on dubious research, and have slighted more positive

findings. The result is that an inaccurate picture of total national failure

dominates educational policy and politics. American schools do need improvement.

But the crux of the problem lies among the lower third of schools and requires a

far more targeted and discriminating approach than the heralds of educational

apocalypse have called for.


The fretting over American schools' international performance became a

national pastime during the 1950s, when there was a real source of anxiety: the

space and weapons races with the Soviet Union. Some cold warriors were famous

educational worriers, such as Admiral Hyman Rickover, who looked at European

schools and without a lot of evidence declared them more rigorous than our own.

More serious for Rickover were the numbers supplied to him by CIA director Allen

Dulles showing that the Soviet Union would produce far more scientists,

engineers, and mathematicians than the United States would. Rickover repeatedly

admonished his audiences, "Let us never forget that there can be no second

place in a contest with Russia and that there will be no second chance if we


The Russians' launch of Sputnik in October 1957 seemed to confirm what the

critics had been saying. The following March, Life magazine published a

five-part series on the "Crisis in Education," prominently contrasting

a stern-faced Russian student conducting optics experiments in his school lab

with a happy-go-lucky American in typing class ("I type about a word a

minute," he says). A large photo shows the American boy laughing as he

returns to his seat after "struggling" with a geometry problem at the

blackboard. The text reads, "Stephen amused class with wisecracks about his

ineptitude." Obviously, the Russians were going to "bury" us, as

Nikita Khruschev would soon tell Richard Nixon.

The 1980s saw a replay of the same alarm, this time with

"competitiveness" as the worry and Japan, Germany, and Korea playing

the role of educational heavies. In 1983 the widely publicized report A

Nation At Risk put the schools in an unremittingly harsh light and announced

a virtual state of national siege. "If an unfriendly foreign power had

attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists

today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." In the 1990s, the

going wisdom persists that our schools are awful. American students "come

in last or next to last in virtually every international comparison," wrote

Louis V. Gerstner, IBM's chief executive, in 1994. In October 1997, Chicago

Tribune columnist Joan Beck was so certain of the outcome of national

testing that she declared, "Testing fourth graders in reading and eighth

graders in math will only tell us what we already know. The United States lags

behind most industrial nations in educational achievement."


hat do the data actually say about American kids in relation to their

peers abroad? It depends on what's tested. In the major comparative study of

reading, conducted in 1992, American students finished second in a comparison of

31 nations. The only students who did better came from Finland, a small,

homogeneous country that taxes its citizens at a far higher level. And the

Finns, of course, have no immigrant population that needs to be taught Finnish

as a second language, which might be a daunting task. The top 10 percent, 5

percent, and 1 percent of American students were the best in the world at both

ages tested, 9 and 14. In other words, our best readers outscored the best

readers in all other nations that participated in the test, even the Finns.

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One reason why Americans believe their children compare poorly to foreign

students is that for 12 years, the Reagan and Bush administrations promoted a

conservative agenda hostile to the public schools and gave bad news about

education far more publicity than good news. The treatment of the reading study

by Bush's Department of Education illustrates the point. Although the department

had held a press conference only a few months earlier to publicize negative

findings on American students' performance in science and mathematics, it held

no press conference to announce the results in reading. And no one noticed the

study. It even took Education Week, the industry's newspaper of record,

two months to discover the report; USA Today then carried front-page

coverage featuring a quote from a Bush administration official dismissing the

study as irrelevant. No other media outlet thought the story newsworthy.

Indeed, the study was so neglected that in June 1996 Secretary of Education

Richard Riley re-released the report. USA Today once again put the news

on page one. A few other papers ran a story by Josh Greenberg of the Los

Angeles Times. When I asked Greenberg why his paper paid attention to a

study that was four years old, he replied, "We were very suspicious about

the story, but when we checked around we found that no one knew about it, so it

was still news." By that criterion, it still is.


Mathematics and science are generally considered disaster zones in American

schools. Many people have heard, for example, that only the top 1 percent of

American students score as high in math as the average student in Japan. This

statistic comes from research conducted by Harold Stevenson of the University of

Michigan and has been widely disseminated by respected journalists. But the

publicity given Stevenson's work illustrates how data showing America's schools

in a poor light are accepted less critically than are favorable data.

Stevenson's methods violate two cardinal principles of research: The samples of

students must be representative of the nations being compared, and they must be

comparable to each other. Stevenson's samples meet neither of these criteria.

(His American sample contains a large number of poor families, 20 percent of

whom did not speak English at home, while his Japanese sample contained many

more well-educated parents than the country as a whole.) If American students

had finished ahead of Japanese students, the study's methodological flaws would

probably have been quickly spotted and the research never published. (I am

convinced that if a study comparing American and Japanese students found the

Americans finished ahead, the headlines would read: "Japanese Students

Second; Americans Next to Last.")

There is no doubt that Japanese children do better in mathematics than do

Americans at the same ages, but Stevenson's data exaggerate the gap. Three

larger, more sophisticated mathematics studies provide a more reliable picture

of international differences in math and science: the 1996 Third International

Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the 1992 Second International Assessment

of Educational Progress (IAEP-2), and the 1989 Second International Mathematics

Study (SIMS).

I emphasize TIMSS here because it is not only the most recent international

study, but the largest and the best controlled methodologically. Some nations

are obsessed with appearing in a positive light in international comparisons

and, accordingly, do not provide a sample with a proportionate number of low-performing

schools. The TIMSS report notes which countries failed to meet the

sampling criteria. About 50 countries began the TIMSS and 41 completed it at the

eighth-grade level, with 26 countries also testing fourth graders. TIMSS has not

yet provided data on twelfth graders, nor have its directors clarified how they

will handle the methodological problems that those data will pose. Countries

differ enormously in the proportion of students who remain in school through

grade 12, the proportion at that level who still take mathematics and science

courses, and the number of courses that different groups of students have taken.

Paradoxically, a country with a high dropout rate may appear to perform

better because the students who would have scored lowest don't show up in

the sample.

In math, American eighth graders finished slightly below average among the 40

nations. They got 53 percent of the items right, while the international average

was 55 percent. American fourth graders, on the other hand, finished above

average, ranking twelfth of 26 nations. In science, American eighth graders were

slightly above average, scoring 58 percent correct compared to an international

average of 56 percent. At the fourth-grade level in science, American students

finished third among the 26 countries. However, only about 15 percent of

American students scored as high on TIMSS math as the average Japanese student,

while about 39 percent of American students scored as well as 50 percent of the

Japanese students in science.

Overall, then, American students are near the top in reading, just below

average in math, and just above average in science. (In a small international

comparison in geography, American students finished in the middle of the pack.)

These results are comparable to earlier studies that found American students

scoring high in reading and near the average in other subjects. For instance,

among 20 nations in SIMS, American eighth graders were tenth in arithmetic and

thirteenth in algebra. The algebra result is interesting since most American

students don't take algebra in the eighth grade. American eighth graders taking

algebra or pre-algebra—about 20 percent of the total—did nearly as well as the

Japanese students, who had the highest average score of any nation; even a

comparison of those 20 percent of American students to the top 20 percent of

Japanese students found the scores to be quite close.


sian nations have regularly occupied the top ranks in these

international math and science tests, but that may not chiefly result from

differences in schools. A number of powerful extra-school influences affect

students in Asian societies, who work very hard in the middle and high school

years. For Asian teenagers, getting into the right high school and then the

right college are life-determining events. Kazuo Ishizaka, president of the

Japanese Council on Global Education, observes, "Japanese society tends to

judge people on the basis of the schools they attended, rather than their

ability and skills." Children in Japan often come home from public school

at 3:30 in the afternoon, eat, and go on to a private school or tutor. They

attend school on Saturdays, and many go on Sundays as well. And an article on

Korean schools claims that "today's South Korean students make the famously

intense Japanese students look easygoing."

Americans might worry that students who followed an Asian-style regimen were

missing valuable experiences. American parents expect their children to become

involved in extracurricular activities, to date, and to take after-school jobs.

Short of a cultural revolution, it is not clear that American schools, however

re formed, could produce the test results that extreme social pressures generate

in Asian students. Moreover, American higher education, which is more widely

available than in Asian countries, seems to make up for a less intense pace at

the primary and secondary levels.

Among the countries that appeared to beat the United States in math and

science was Singapore, but the reasons may have nothing to do with the

superiority of its schools. Many poor people cross into Singapore each day from

Malaysia, do the low-level service jobs, and return home, sparing Singapore the

task of educating their children. Longer-term "guest workers" from the

Philippines and Indonesia also leave their families behind. In addition, some

Singapore families of means whose children are not doing well in the Singapore

educational system send their children to school in Malaysia, while some

Malaysian children who score well on tests are admitted to the Singapore

schools. The relevant numbers aren't available; these are not the kind of

statistics that the dictator of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, likes to see made

public. But Singapore may well get its high scores by exporting low-achieving

students, while importing high-achieving students.

Aside from the four Asian nations at the top and a slightly larger number of

developing countries at the bottom, the remaining roughly 30 countries

(including all the developed countries of the West) look very much alike in

their TIMSS mathematics scores. Students from 18 countries—including Israel,

Sweden, England, Norway, Germany, and Denmark—score within five percentage

points of American students. The TIMSS science scores also fall within a narrow

band. When scores are so compressed, small differences in the percentage of

correct answers make huge differences in rank, but such rankings may be


Once again the media coverage is instructive. When American fourth graders

scored third in the TIMSS science tests, the results hardly received any notice,

but the eighth graders' lower rank got plenty of attention. The media have been

treating the average scores and rankings in international tests as if they

prefigured the fate of the nation, but the averages may be entirely the wrong


Focusing on the average scores of the United States (or any nation) obscures

the variability of performance with a nation. The differences among American

students are enormous compared to the variability among countries. For instance,

in IAEP-2, the top third of American schools had average scores as high as the

average scores of the top two nations, Taiwan and Korea. The lowest third of

American schools, though, did not have scores as high as the lowest nation,

Jordan. Disadvantaged urban students in American schools had even lower


These results support an alternative conception of the educational landscape:

The top third of American schools are world-class (however defined), the next

third are okay, and the bottom third are in terrible shape. This view of our

schools leads to a different approach to educational reform than has been

customary since A Nation At Risk appeared in 1983. The dominant

interpretation has assumed that the typical school—indeed the whole system—is

"broken," as Gerstner put it. The data from IAEP-2, though, argue for

a reform effort more focused on schools that generally have the least resources

and the most difficult social environments.


Overall, then, American students have not shown the miserable performance

ascribed to them by the speakers cited earlier. Does their performance still put

us at risk in the global marketplace? In a word, no.

In the 1980s, when A Nation At Risk argued that schools were

responsible for our economic maladies, the economic trends seemed to lend

credence to that position. Now the American economy has improved, while Germany,

Japan, and Korea—the countries whose schools are often held up as models for

American educators—have been mired in long recessions or plunged into serious

crises. But if, as critics continue to claim, American schools have not improved

and Asian schools are better, what is the relevance of the schools to economic


The answer, of course, is that, although their long-term contribution may be

substantial, the schools are not responsible for the fluctuating state of the

economy. As the educational historian Lawrence Cremin wrote in 1990 in his

thoughtful and highly readable book, Popular Education and Its


American economic competitiveness with Japan and other nations is

to a considerable degree a function of monetary, trade, and industrial policy,

and of decisions made by the President and Congress, the Federal Reserve Board,

and the Federal Departments of the Treasury, Commerce and Labor. Therefore, to

conclude that problems of international competitiveness can be solved by

educational reform, especially educational reform defined solely as school

reform, is not merely utopian and millennialist, it is at best a foolish and at

worst a crass effort to direct attention away from those truly responsible for

doing something about competitiveness and to lay the burden instead on the


The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, ranks nations for

international competitiveness. In 1994 and 1995, it ranked the United States

first among 25 countries; in 1996, the forum changed its formula and the United

States fell to fourth. (In the rankings produced by another Swiss organization,

the International Institute for Management, the U.S. stayed in first place.)

Eighteen of the 25 nations ranked by the forum also participated in TIMSS. The

rank-order correlation coefficient between the forum's competitiveness ranking

and the TIMSS math rank is very close to zero, meaning that there is no



None of this means that things are fine in American education. Many schools,

even the good ones, have serious problems. The current craze for charter schools

reflects a widespread sense that school systems are too bureaucratic and

unresponsive. High school standards are too low and could be raised without

burning out the kids as happens in Asian nations.

International comparisons also have much to teach us about possible lines of

improvement. A TIMSS study of curricula found, for example, that American

textbooks are three times thicker than their European and Asian counterparts,

leading teachers to confront children with three times as many topics. The math

curriculum, as the cliché has it, is a mile wide and an inch deep. TIMSS

also showed that American classrooms were interrupted about one-third of the

time, whereas Japanese classrooms never suffered interruptions. Another TIMSS

analysis showed that Japanese teachers were much more apt to give an elaborated

explanation of a mathematics concept than American teachers were. The United

States, TIMSS concluded, has one of the best-educated and most poorly trained

teaching forces in the world: Many more of our teachers have advanced degrees

than teachers elsewhere do, but other nations provide more internships and on-

the-job training to prepare future teachers and to sustain them as


This list of differences could be extended with little effort. Even without

considering the difficulties of children in poverty, there are plenty of

problems to work on. But they can be worked on without the drumbeat of attacks

on the schools that seem premised on the theory that "the beatings will

continue until morale improves." These attacks have been accompanied in

many quarters by a nostalgic effort to restore a golden age of American

education. Terrel Bell, who served as Reagan's secretary of education, asks in

his memoir, "How do we get back to being a nation of learners?"

Unfortunately, the era Bell refers to never existed. As Will Rogers put it,

"The schools are not as good as they used to be and never were." But

while the history of American education records no golden age, it reveals an

astonishing accomplishment with the people whom the inscription on the Statue of

Liberty calls the world's poor, huddled masses. Despite waves of immigrants and

the inclusion of the minority poor, the level of educational attainment in the

United States has steadily increased. Not only have secondary and higher

education expanded enormously in this century, but, save for a decade between

1965 and 1975, the expansion has been accompanied by improved outcomes. We can

continue to build on that achievement without false alarms about the Russians or

the Japanese burying us in international competition. America can do better, and

we can learn from other countries if we pay attention to what they actually do,

but junking our whole system isn't the way.

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