Although improving academic outcomes of American students compared to their international peers has been the focus of educational efforts of the last two presidential administrations, according to a new study released by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, the efforts haven’t yet produced encouraging results. Over the past two decades, the American education reform movement gave birth to voucher programs, school choice, charter schools and new teacher evaluation systems that link student test results to tenure and salary decisions, but the PEPG study conclusions seem to indicate that none of these measures have had an impact on student achievement.
On top of the bad news for the US, which the study ranks at about the middle of the pack out of the 49 countries covered by the researchers, the data shows that students from countries both above and below the US are improving at double — and sometimes triple — the rate of American students.
The study found students in Latvia, Chile and Brazil improving three times faster than students in the United States and those in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia and Lithuania making gains at twice the rate.
“Progress within the United States is middling, not stellar,” Paul E. Peterson, Harvard professor and PEPG director, said in a release.
“In sum, the gains posted by the United States in recent years are hardly remarkable by world standards. Although the United States is not among the nine countries that were losing ground over this period of time, 11 other countries were moving forward at better than twice the pace of the United States, and all the other participating countries were changing at a rate similar enough to the United States to be within a range too close to be identified as clearly different,” the report found.
The researchers’ conclusions are that US students will be under-prepared to compete against graduates from around the world, which will substantially harm America’s ability to compete in the future global economy. The authors didn’t mince words: they called the academic outcomes for America’s students to be “unacceptably low.”
The PEPG paper also cited another study that found that growth in academic achievement correlates strongly with the growth in the nation’s gross domestic product. Therefore, a country that neglects its schools risks causing itself serious economic harm in the future.
The authors also dismiss the argument commonly offered to explain the lag in American students’ achievement as a function of the fact that the US student body is more income and racially diverse and that the American school system educates more of its children than other countries in the ranking lists.
“That argument might have made some sense 50 or 75 years ago, but it is a seriously dated view of the world. The data included in this report come from students who are between the ages of 8 and 15, and in virtually all the 49 countries participating in this study, only tiny percentages of the population within these age cohorts are not in school.”
The study also notes the 72 percent four-year high school completion rate in the United States is comparable to graduation rates elsewhere.