Thursday, August 9, 2012

U.S. Education: "Unthinking, Unilateral Educational Disarmament"

Everyone knows that the future of the U.S. economy and standard of living is tied up with how well Americans are educated. Everyone is right! But the U.S. education system has been stuck in neutral for decades, while other countries have been moving ahead. Martin West summarizes some of the evidence in "Global Lessons for Improving U.S. Education", which appears in the Spring 2012 edition of Issues in Science and Technology.The questions that follow are mine: the answers are excerpted from the article. I add a few remarks at the end.

What is the OECD test called the PISA, or "Program for International Student Assessment"?

"The PISA is administered every three years to nationally representative samples of students in each OECD country and in a growing number of partner countries and subnational units such as Shanghai. The 74 education systems that participated in the latest PISA study, conducted during 2009, represented more than 85% of the global economy and included virtually all of the United States’ major trading partners, making it a particularly useful source of information on U.S. students’ relative standing."

What does the PISA show about U.S. educational performance?

"Among the 34 developed democracies that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 15-year-olds in the United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and no better than 25th in mathematics. ... U.S. students performed well below the OECD average in math and essentially matched the average in science. In math, the United States trailed 17 OECD countries by a statistically significant margin, its performance was indistinguishable from that of 11 countries, and it significantly outperformed only five countries. In science, the United States significantly trailed 12 countries and outperformed nine. Countries scoring at similar levels to the United States in both subjects include Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, and Sweden. .... The gap in average math and science achievement between the United States and the top-performing national school systems is dramatic. In math, the average U.S. student by age 15 was at least a full year behind the average student in six countries, including Canada, Japan, and the Netherlands. Students in six additional countries, including Australia, Belgium, Estonia, and Germany, outperformed U.S. students by more than half a year."

Is the poor U.S. performance a recent development?

"U.S. students, however, have never fared well in various international comparisons of student achievement. The United States ranked 11th out of 12 countries participating in the first major international study of student achievement, conducted in 1964, and its math and science scores on the 2009 PISA actually reflected modest improvements from the previous test. ...

"The United States’ traditional reputation as the world’s educational leader stems instead from the fact that it experienced a far earlier spread of mass secondary education than did most other nations. .... The United States’ historical advantage in terms of educational attainment has long since eroded, however. U.S. high-school graduation rates peaked in 1970 at roughly 80% and have declined slightly since, a trend often masked in official statistics by the growing number of students receiving alternative credentials, such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. ... The U.S. high-school graduation rate now trails the average for European Union countries and ranks no better than 18th among the 26 OECD countries for which comparable data are available."

Can the U.S. make up for poor performance at the K-12 level by better performance in higher education? 

"Although the share of [U.S.] students enrolling in college has continued to climb, the share completing a college degree has hardly budged. ... Meanwhile, other developed countries have continued to see steady increases in educational attainment and, in many cases, now have postsecondary completion rates that exceed those in the United States. ...  On average across the OECD, postsecondary completion rates have increased steadily from one age cohort to the next. Although only 20% of those aged 55 to 64 have a postsecondary degree, the share among those aged 25 to 34 is up to 35%. The postsecondary completion rate of U.S. residents aged 25 to 34 remains above the OECD average at 42%, but this reflects a decline of one percentage point relative to those aged 35 to 44 and is only marginally higher than the rate registered by older cohorts.

How large might the economic gains be from improving U.S. education performance? 

"Consider the results of a simulation in which it is assumed that the math achievement of U.S. students improves by 0.25 standard deviation gradually over 20 years. This increase would raise U.S. performance to roughly that of some mid-level OECD countries, such as New Zealand and the Netherlands, but not to that of the highest-performing OECD countries. Assuming that the past relationship between test scores and economic growth holds true in the future, the net present value of the resulting increment to GDP over an 80-year horizon would amount to almost $44 trillion. A parallel simulation of the consequences of bringing U.S. students up to the level of the top-performing countries suggests that doing so would yield benefits with a net present value approaching $112 trillion."

What are some common factors across the other countries where the education systems seem to be outperforming the U.S. education system? 
"[T]here are three broad areas in which the consistency of findings across studies using different international tests and country samples bears attention.

"Exit exams. Perhaps the best-documented factor is that students perform at higher levels in countries (and in regions within countries) with externally administered, curriculum-based exams at the completion of secondary schooling that carry significant consequences for students of all ability levels. Although many states in the United States now require students to pass an exam in order to receive a high-school diploma, these tests are typically designed to assess minimum competency in math and reading and are all but irrelevant to students elsewhere in the performance distribution. In contrast, exit exams in many European and Asian countries cover a broader swath of the curriculum, play a central role in determining students’ postsecondary options, and carry significant weight in the labor market. ... The most rigorous available evidence indicates that math and science achievement is a full grade-level equivalent higher in countries with such an exam system in the relevant subject.

"Private-school competition. Countries vary widely in the extent to which they make use of the private sector to provide public education. ...  Rigorous studies confirm that students in countries that for historical reasons have a larger share of students in private schools perform at higher levels on international assessments while spending less on primary and secondary education. Such evidence suggests that competition can spur school productivity. In addition, the achievement gap between socioeconomically disadvantaged and advantaged students is reduced in countries in which private schools receive more government funds.
"High-ability teachers. Much attention has recently been devoted to the fact that several of the highest-performing countries internationally draw their teachers disproportionately from the top third of all students completing college degrees. This contrasts sharply with recruitment patterns in the United States."

Brief reflections

I remember back in 1983 when something called the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a report called "A Nation At Risk: Imperative For Educational Reform." It's available several places on the web, like here and here. Here are the introductory paragraphs, much quoted at the time:

"Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a
Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur-- others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments."

"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. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education followed up with a report called "A Nation Accountable: Twenty-five Years After A Nation at Risk." It said: "If we were “at risk” in 1983, we are at even greater risk now. The rising demands of our global economy, together with demographic shifts, require that we educate more students to higher levels than ever before. Yet, our education system is not keeping pace with these growing demands."

Adam Smith, patron saint of all economists, is said to have responded to overwrought predictions that Britain was about to be ruined by some setbacks during the Revolutionary War by remarking: "There is a lot of ruin in a nation." I do not wish to sound overwrought. But a nation that does not steadily improve the education level of its population is not preparing itself sufficiently for a future of growing and shared prosperity.