By Marianne Zape
Senior Editor

In response to increasing global competition, American education advocates and policymakers from both the left and the right have paid particular attention to international education rankings and comparisons. Unfortunately, the nation’s educational mediocrity—especially in comparison to other countries—is at this point so common and expected that most people don’t even flinch when they hear of the latest educational “failure”.

According to various international surveys, America is currently 21st in terms of secondary school completion, 7th in global economic competitiveness, 32nd in math and 17th in reading. For a nation that, only a few decades ago, was consistently at the top of these tables and viewed as a successful model of public education, these findings are grim and almost panic-inducing.

But what exactly drives this global achievement gap?

It’s not that students from other countries are inherently smarter than American students, it’s that America’s education system is far more unequal than those of other nations.

A study from the National Center of Education Statistics, based on the most recent math and science scores from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the National Assessment of Educational Process (NAEP), indicates that some American students perform well within the range of high-performing countries. Massachusetts, when disaggregated from the rest of the United States, outperformed 42 other education systems in math and 43 in science. Unfortunately, while states like Massachusetts and Vermont finish on top, places like Alabama and Washington, D.C. place at the bottom (outperforming just 19 other systems in math and 14 in science, respectively).

What’s more interesting is that the places the study found to perform more poorly are…well, poor.

It’s long been understood that a student’s socioeconomic status is an important determinant of his or her school success. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students tend to not do as well on exams like TIMSS and PISA (and academically, in general) in every country. It just so happens that in the United States, the number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students is greater (and still growing) than those of the countries we can reasonably compare our students to. To put it in perspective, today almost 50 percent of all American public school students come from homes with incomes low enough to qualify for free and reduced lunch; 17 of the 50 states can now say that at least half of their students live at or below the poverty line.

Michael Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity may say it best:

“When you break down the various test scores, you find the high-income kids, high-achievers are holding their own and more. It’s when you start getting down to schools with a majority of low-income kids that you get astoundingly low scores. Our real problem regarding educational outcomes is not the U.S. overall, it’s the growing low-income population.”

Many “reformers” have taken America’s fall from grace (okay, not grace, just international rankings) as an indicator of the failure of the U.S. public school system. As such, they have advocated for radical change—for an overhaul of a system they view to be beyond repair. They urge for the closure of underperforming schools, but fail to recognize the root cause of these schools’ failure. Before any sweeping reforms are enacted, it is important to understand that American education isn’t necessarily bad on all fronts, it’s just terribly unequal. If changes are to be made, it should be to the existing structure through which children who need the most resources are given the fewest. It should be focused on making sure that students aren’t getting the short end of the education stick simply because they weren’t born into the most opportune circumstances.

The Southern Education Foundation has predicted that within the next few years, low income children will make up the bulk of public school students. If the issues of poverty and inequality in America continue to be swept under the rug, our international standing will certainly continue to decline, but we’ll have bigger things to worry about than if Slovenia’s doing better than us.

Photo by Alec Couros


  1. I’m curious about the reasons why ” the children who need the most resources are given the fewest.” Is it because of they simply couldn’t afford the education? What are the problems within the existing structure that make it unequal?


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