Adults Who Say the Kids Are Alright Get It Wrong



Former New York City Board of Education Chancellor Joel Klein recently penned a compelling Time editorial lamenting the prevailing—and apparently growing—complacency about American students’ lackluster academic performance. He rightly points to research showing the failure to improve basic skills among students hurts their future earning potential, U.S. GDP, and even national security.

While some so-called experts struggle to justify why average performance scores are good enough, students make no excuses for why they don’t do better: they’re bored.

A new report from the Center from American Progress finds that more than one-third of fourth graders say that their math assignments are too easy. More than one-third of high school seniors report that they seldom write about what they read in class. And, close to three out of four eighth grade science students say engineering and technology aren’t being taught. (See here also.). In brief, students are not being challenged in school.

This conclusion squares with previous surveys that found almost nine out of 10 high school students said they would work harder if their schools demanded more, set higher standards, and raised expectations. Ninety percent of students want opportunities to take challenging classes, and four out of five students think passing graduation exams in English and math would improve American high schools.

Other surveys have found that the overwhelming majority of high school dropouts left school because they were failing—to be challenged. Most students said they might not have dropped out if their schools offered better instruction (81 percent) and fostered an academic climate (65 percent). Not being challenged increased student boredom and absenteeism levels. As one respondent put it, “They just let you pass, anything you got.” (See p.6 here.)

Results from international reading, math, and science assessments appear to substantiate that claim. Math and science results over the past 15 years, and reading results over the past decade, reveal that American primary school students (ages 9 and 13) and secondary school students (age 15) have consistently performed near—or slightly below—the various international averages.

  • American 9-year-olds perform above the international averages in reading, math, and science by as much as 8 percent, 6 percent, and 8 percent higher, respectively.
  • American 13-year-olds generally perform above the international averages as well, up to nearly 2 percent higher in math, and up to 5 percent higher in science. They are not assessed in reading.
  • American 15-year-olds, however, generally perform at or below the international averages. In reading, they score up to about 1 percent higher than the international average, but they perform as much as 5 percent below the international math average, and as much as 2 percent below in science

However popular it may be to accept average performance as good enough, a more sobering picture emerges when American students’ internationally average performance is considered alongside the country’s above-average per-pupil spending.

The United States spends far more per student than the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average at both the primary and secondary levels. As of 2008, the latest year available, the United States spent more than $10,000 per primary student and more than $12,000 per secondary student. In contrast, the average OECD country spent about $3,000 less, at about $7,000 per primary student and $9,000 per secondary student. In terms of real percentage differences, the United States spends over 40 percent more than the average OECD country at the primary level, and over a third more per student at the secondary level. (All figures and percentages are based on inflation-adjusted 2010 dollar amounts.)

There are a handful of countries that currently spend more than theUnited States (See table 429). Luxembourg now spends the most of any OECD country, $13,807 per primary student and $20,130 per secondary student. Compared to the U.S. expenditure of $10,099 per primary student, Norway spends $11,206; Iceland spends $10,723; and Denmark spends $10,198.

At the secondary level, the U.S.spends $12,238 per student compared to Switzerland, which spends $18,034, and Norway, which spends $13,223. None of those countries, however, has been a top performing country over the past 10 to 15 years.

Top-performers over the years include Chinese Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, Singapore, and Sweden, depending on the subject, assessment year, and student age level.

Compared to these top-performing countries the United States spends nearly a third more on average (32.2 percent) at the primary level and close to a third more on average (30.8 percent) at the secondary level.

Close to 80 developed and developing countries now regularly participate in international assessments. It is worth considering how much longer we can afford to pay more for more of the same. However change-averse some adults in the American public-schooling system may be students and taxpayers are clamoring for better.

*Note: Average international performance and spending comparisons are the author’s original analysis to be included in a forthcoming Independent Institute publication.

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