Race to the Middle: U.S. 'C' Students When Compared to Rest of World


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A  hotly contested debate about the role of teachers in learning has been going on for the past few years in the U.S.

According to  Paul E. Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, who worked on the recently released report “Is the United States Catching Up? International and State Trends in Student Achievement, ” U.S student performance “is middling, not stellar.”  

The study of international and U.S. state trends in student achievement growth shows that the United States is squarely in the middle of a group of 49 nations in fourth- and eighth-grade test-score gains in math, reading, and science over the period 1995-2009.

“Students in Latvia, Chile, and Brazil are improving at a rate of 4 percent of a standard deviation annually, roughly two years’ worth of learning or nearly three times that of the United States. Students in another eight countries  Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Lichtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia, and Lithuania are making gains at twice the rate of U.S. students.

The report, “Is the United States Catching Up? International and State Trends in Student Achievement,” is being released by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG). Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann conducted the study, which is available online. An article based on the report will appear in the fall issue of Education Next.

Twenty-four countries trailing the U.S. rate of improvement and another 24  appear to be improving at a faster rate. While U.S. students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests improved in absolute terms between 1995 and 2011, U.S. progress was not sufficiently rapid to allow it to catch up with the leaders of the industrialized world.

State performance varies. Maryland had the steepest achievement growth trend, followed by Florida, Delaware and Massachusetts. Between 1992 and 2011, these states posted growth rates of 3.1 to 3.3 percent of a standard deviation annually, well over a full year’s worth of learning during the time period. The U.S. average of 1.6 standard deviations was about half that of the top states.

The other six states among the top 10 states that have improved were Louisiana, South Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Virginia. States with the largest gains are improving at two to three times the rate of states with the smallest gains. The lowest performers were Iowa, Maine, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

The study recommends that instead of trying to be the first in the world, a realistic goal is for states to aspire  to move closer to annual growth rates of the most-improving states. These gains would, over a 15- to 20-year period, “bring the United States within the range of the world’s leaders.”

States in which students improved the most overall were also the states that had the largest percentage reduction in students with very low achievement.

“Southern states, which began to adopt education reform measures in the 1990s, outpaced Midwestern states, where school reform made little headway until very recently. Five of the top 10 states were in the South, and no Southern states were in the bottom 18.

“No significant correlation was found between increased spending on education and test score gains. For example, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey posted large gains in student performance after boosting spending, but New York, Wyoming, and West Virginia had only marginal test-score gains to show from increased expenditures.”

For more information on the study and its methodology, please see an unabridged version of the report, which is available at the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) website and at Educationnext.org.

John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew professor of education at New York University recently wrote a Washington Post article about the issue.  

Two 10th grade students hard at work in World History class at Friendship Public Charter School “If it takes a village to raise a child, the same village must share accountability when many children are educationally abandoned. In New York City, the nation’s largest school system, on average student outcomes and their opportunity to learn are more determined by the neighborhood where a child lives, than his or her abilities.

“A new Schott Foundation for Public Education report, “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City,” reveals that the communities where most of the city’s poor, black and Hispanic students live suffer from New York policies and practices that give their schools the fewest resources and their students the least-experienced teachers. In contrast, the best-funded schools with the highest percentage of experienced teachers are most often located in the most economically advantaged neighborhoods.

“Schott’s new report documents gaps that have not only long been accepted in New York City but are also institutionalized by city and state policies.”

According to the authors, the report says that Hispanic and black youngsters are four times more likely to be enrolled in one of the city’s poorest performing high schools than an Asian or white, non-Hispanic student. “According to review of 2009-10 data, none of the city’s strongest schools are located in the poorest neighborhoods of Harlem, the South Bronx, and central Brooklyn. Schools with the highest scores are found in northeastern Queens, and the Upper East Side. As a result of New York City policies, black, Latino and low-income students have very limited access to those schools.”

The districts with higher poverty rate are serviced by the least-experienced of teachers, which affects student performance.

The authors write if there is not a commitment to address the social context of schooling, by that the conditions in the school, it will not be possible to make significant improvement.

“In poor urban communities, there is no viable threat that parents will leave and take their children elsewhere because they have no other options. Therefore, there is no real incentive for the schools to change.

In an article for CNN.com Noguera discussed the recent Chicago Public School strike.

“Clearly something is still not right in Chicago given that only 44.6 percent of Chicago Public School students meet or exceed the Illinois Learning Standards; and in 2011-12 of the 598 schools in the system, 443 did not achieve "adequate yearly progress" for two consecutive years; and 523 schools had an overall rating in 2011 of "no," indicating that they did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

“They also found that in the schools where poverty was most heavily concentrated, the reforms failed to generate sustainable improvements because the schools were overwhelmed by poverty's effect on the lives of children.

“It is important to note that the researchers did not conclude that poverty itself was a learning disability. Rather, the study found that if the effects of poverty -- poor nutrition and health, housing instability, violence, neglect, etc. -- were not addressed, student achievement and school performance suffered.”


Visit your public library to obtain resources on this topic.

City Schools and the American Dream: Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education
Pedro Noguera, (2003).






Gateway to College students at Lake Washington Technical College take their math final exam by Gates Foundation.

Two 10th grade students hard at work in World History class at Friendship Public Charter School (FCPS) by Gates Foundation.

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