Best-Performing US School Districts Lag International Peers

Achievement gaps have plagued educators for decades, and while gaps between genders, races, and ethnicities get a lot of attention, the one that sees little airtime is the gap between the academic achievement of America’s top suburban school systems and their peers in the best-performing school systems around the world. It is hardly news that American students underperform their international peers on many international ranking tables, but what is surprising is that even some of the most academically high-achieving districts in the country don’t do better than middling compared to the top achievers elsewhere.

Affluent suburbanites outperform their urban counterparts by a margin of nearly four to one, yet they still lag when compared to the achievement levels of their international peers. As a whole, suburban school districts stack up poorly compared to students from the best-ranked education systems around the world like Singapore and Canada. While a few – such as students from Evanston, Illinois and Scarsdale, New York – can stand toe to toe with the international competition, most, including schools in high-income zip codes like Grosse Point, Michigan and Greenwich, Connecticut, fall well short.

Of the 70 countries tested by the widely used Program for International Student Assessment, the United States falls in the middle of the pack. This is the case even for relatively well-off American students: Of American 15-year-olds with at least one college-educated parent, only 42% are proficient in math, according to a Harvard University study of the PISA results. That is compared with 75% proficiency for all 15-year-olds in Shanghai and 50% for those in Canada.

Arthur Levine, writing in The Wall Street Journal, says that with the data in hand, we can no longer fall back on the excuse that our country’s education system is lagging because of a larger income disparity than is present in other countries that typically rank above the US. It appears as if the best American school schools are failing their students just as the schools in the urban lower-performing school systems are failing theirs.

While a poor overall level of urban education means that those raised in cities are already hampered when attempting to compete against better-educated peers within the country, the fact that even the best of our schools lag behind those in other countries puts America on very unsure footing when competing in the global marketplace.

So what do Americans do? We talk a great deal about the achievement gap. We write books and reports about it. We wring our hands at its existence. We adopt a revolving door of short-term reforms in response. But nearly 30 years after the alarming federal report “A Nation at Risk,” not one major urban district has been turned around. Many of our suburban school districts are losing ground. We have settled on a path of global mediocrity for students attending our most affluent schools and national marginality for those attending failing inner-city schools.