The Myth of America's Failing Schools
By Tamim Ansary


Every two decades or so, here in the United States, we panic about our schools. Like a fox crossing a barnyard, this panic sets education critics to squawking and sends educators searching for ways to overhaul the system.

What sparks such panic every time, it seems, is the perception that America is losing ground to another country in a competition.

In the late 1950s, the other country was the Soviet Union, and the competition was the "space race." The Soviets shocked the United States in 1957 by launching Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. Four years later, they scored again by putting manned flight into space before we could.

Getting to space had, of course, no great practical significance in itself, but for the public, it had come to symbolize a bigger contest, between "the Free World," and "the Communist Bloc." Two systems were on trial here, and the United States was losing! How could this be?

The finger of blame quickly came to point at the schools.

The Soviets, we learned, plunged their children into a rigorous study of math and science from grade one. Television documentaries showed earnest Soviet students bent over books, then cut to American youngsters throwing spitballs and "cracking wise" in chaotic classrooms. The country quickly got behind a massive effort to beef up science and math instruction in American public schools.

New competitors
Twenty years later, it all happened again. This time, the other countries were Japan and Germany. The U.S. economy had been staggering and slid into recession shortly after Ronald Reagan took office. Meanwhile, the Japanese and German economies were skyrocketing. Their cars were flooding American markets. Their industries were dealing body blows to American manufacturing. Some writers began to speak of "the Japanese Century" ahead, a deliberate counter to earlier talk of an expected "American Century."

A government commission on excellence in education met to consider whether schools were to blame. They said yes. In 1983, they issued a landmark report, A Nation at Risk, which warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" and charged U.S. students with losing ground in every academic category. That document triggered a powerful school reform movement that is still with us.

A new threat
Now, 23 years after A Nation at Risk, we're panicking again, this time about India and China. The two Asian giants have captured hundreds of thousands of technology jobs once staffed by Americans.

Another government commission has responded to the crisis by producing a new alarming report. As is traditional, it sports an apocalyptic title: Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Issued in January 2006, it warns that India and China are producing better and more engineers than the United States. It recommends a crash program to retrain our teaching corps, hire at least 10,000 new science and math teachers every year from now on indefinitely, and redirect higher education toward these crucial subjects.

All this assumes, of course (as did the previous two waves of reform), that America's schools are failing dismally.

But are they really? Perhaps the answer just depends on how we perceive the data and the state of education around the world. The situation may not be as dismal as it seems.

Measuring our schools
Comparing education in the United States to the rest of the world seems to make sense. Our math and science scores are lower than South Korea's, for example. Our test scores are lower, so our education system must be failing, right? That must mean we should dive headfirst into radically overhauling our education system--right? Or does it?

After all, how can we know if our schools are really failing?

Many people seem to think it's easy to determine. One woman I know cited an episode of The Tonight Show as evidence. She saw Jay Leno wandering the streets, she said, asking random pedestrians who the first president of the United States was and getting answers like "JFK" and "Colonel Sanders."

That's just one study, of course, but Leno's results have been duplicated in similar research conducted by David Letterman and Howard Stern.

I'll have to be honest: I just don't trust the scholarship of comedians.

Beyond entertainment
I decided to look for a different kind of evidence, more boring, more statistical. Fortunately, there is an agency charged with compiling such data. It's the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which publishes a yearly National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), popularly known as The Nation's Report Card.

The Report Card is all about numbers: rows and columns of them, scores for every grade, subject, and state, scientifically adjusted to correct for distortions generated by such factors as changing demographics--all to ensure that comparisons of today's students with yesterday's will be comparisons of apples with apples.

This is social science.

Oddly enough, these numbers don't really support what "everyone knows." In the very year that A Nation at Risk was bemoaning a "rising tide of mediocrity," the NAEP seemed to show American students doing about the same as their counterparts had done 20 years earlier, even though the educational system had expanded tremendously and was serving, at that point, a far more diverse population of students, including many more with a limited command of English.

As for international comparisons, every four years, over the last decade, the NCES has participated in an international assessment called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). This report compares test results from 25 to 50 countries in various categories. It focuses only on mathematics and hard science because those subjects are culturally and linguistically neutral, so the same test questions can be given to kids of different countries. Data was collected in 1995, 1999, and 2003, and will be collected again in 2007.

What the numbers show
According to the TIMSS, the United States is not "dead last" (as journalist Charles Krauthammer so colorfully put it) but "dead-middle," or a smidgen above. In 2003, overall, it scored higher than 13 countries and lower than 11 others. The countries beating us included Latvia, Hungary, and the Netherlands. The ones we beat included Norway, Iran, and Slovenia. It's hard to see a pattern that correlates definitively to economic competitiveness here.

Besides, statistics are more ambiguous than they seem, because there's always a social context to numbers. Consider one troubling pattern that does emerge consistently in the TIMSS reports. American students rank above average in the fourth grade but drop below average in 12th grade.

What's going on here?
There may be several factors, but here's one that education writer Gerald Bracey points out. In many countries, toward the end of high school, students take a single high-stakes test that determines whether they will go to college and thereby determines what social class they'll be in for life.

Kids cram for that test as if their lives depended on it because their lives do. In South Korea, there's a saying that students who sleep four hours a night will go to college, but those who sleep five hours a night will not.

Japan has a whole second school system of jukus or "cram schools" that many students attend every day after regular school. Cram schools!

I find it interesting that in India, about 7 percent of the college-age population is in college. I'm thinking Indian students must work desperately in that last year of high school to squeeze into the 7 percent. American students are more lackadaisical because here about 63 percent of high school graduates go to college the next year and the others can go later--this is a country of second chances.

If you test two groups of students, one of which has been cramming for months and one of which hasn't, the former will score higher. But are they better educated? Will they know more in a year? Four years? Ten? It's not a given. A test score is a snapshot of a moment.

So you're left with a circular proposition, it seems. "Failing schools" is the explanation of a national problem. The national problem is finally the proof that the schools are failing. If that correlation is valid, we should see the perceived problems disappearing after school reforms.

Has this historically been the case? That depends on how you look at it. The former Soviet Union directed national resources into producing scientists and engineers during the space race era, but that doesn't necessarily mean Russia is better off today. Maybe "failing schools" is not the only explanation of the poor test scores problem.