Study: U.S. education just so-so

Without perspective, statistics have little value. This is especially true in education. Minds are complex; learning even more so, as effective methods vary by individual, age, subject, and even culture.

Culture? Why not. Consider that to be effective, an education must not only stimulate and nurture intellectual development, but by adulthood also result in contribution to one's society. So as societies vary, so might education. It stands to reason then that statistics comparing nations, while certainly of value and better than domestic alone, may not paint a complete picture. Perhaps there is no such thing.

Nevertheless, the data at the Global Report Card website launched last fall are illuminating, especially on this global playing field the job market and economy have become. More useful is the fact that the study compared only developed nations against each other, so the culture factor would have less impact.

The mission of the study conducted by the George W. Bush Institute (including a disclaimer characterizing the rankings as the Center's "opinion") is to compare U.S. students to their counterparts in other nations. The stated goal is education reform, to generate "a new generation of principals" to increase the number of American students who graduate ready for a good career. Bias or not, users can easily compare their own school districts against the state, nation, and world.

The center's conclusion: The majority of American students are falling behind their international counterparts, as ranked against another 24 developed countries. According to the site, despite Coeur d'Alene's higher rankings in K-12 education by comparison to the rest of Idaho, it only ranks at 50 and 59 percent in math and reading as compared to the world average.

Compared with Canada, those numbers fall to 43 and 49; with Finland 33 and 41; and Singapore 31 and 49.

A ranking of 43, for example, means that 43 percent of American students scored higher in math than the other students at the same grade level. Overall, American students ranked very low in math - 25th out of 34 industrialized nations. Only 6 percent of students in America's 14,000 school districts scored in the top third internationally math. Yet we spend far more money than just about everyone else; even in the 50 richest U.S. districts, the scores were mediocre at best.

If we're getting less by spending more, then we must be spending it in the wrong way. By this and other studies we know that at least half (60 percent according to this one) of a student's success is tied to individual teachers. Removing ineffective teachers and keeping good ones, while giving them the freedom to teach effectively (not just to standardized tests), is cited as key. Another emphasis is on reforming middle school, what researchers called "the critical intervention point" to prevent future dropouts.

Regardless of the relative value of comparing ourselves to other nations, it's hardly disputed within our borders that education needs reform, not just funding. We have been too resistant to creative change, especially creative change developed by creative teachers, rather than politicians. Some experimental schools are working wonders in other states, not just other nations. If their numbers show such positive results - happier and more successful students - what's stopping the rest of us from imitating their "radical" but effective methods?

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Sholeh Patrick, J.D., is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at

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