Q: My brother-in-law, an engineer from Poland, argues that good American schools aren't as good as we think. I believe that the United States does poorly in international rankings because urban districts drag down the scores. He says I'm naive. My kids are in a highly rated school. Should I worry?
A: Don't worry, but don't be complacent either. Your children may be achieving at high levels, and if they are, kudos to them and their teachers. However, international comparisons from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that it's not just disadvantaged students who rank poorly. American students from educated families lag in international rankings too.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in discussing the PISA results, calls them a "picture of educational stagnation. ... Fifteen-year-olds in the U.S. today are average in science and reading literacy, and below average in mathematics, compared to their counterparts in (other industrialized) countries."
The PISA results show that educational shortcomings in the United States are everyone's problem, says Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Hanushek, along with Paul Peterson, the director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, and Ludger Woessmann, a professor of economics at the University of Munich, dug deep into data from PISA and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). They looked at math and science test scores as well as the performance of students from families of low, moderate and high education levels.
Their May 2014 report, "Not Just the Problems of Other People's Children," is a wake-up call.
The report focuses on math because, they say, "the U.S. economic strength has been built in large part through its record of invention and innovation, things that themselves depend upon the U.S. historic strength in science, technical, engineering and math fields (STEM)."
These fields depend on "students who have developed advanced skill in math and science in school."
In an abridged version of the study found online, they write: "When viewed from a global perspective, U.S. schools seem to do as badly teaching those from better-educated families as they do teaching those from less well-educated families.
"Overall, the U.S. proficiency rate in math (35 percent) places the country at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th)."
There are multiple countries with higher math proficiency rates among students from better-educated families. They include Korea (73 percent), Poland (71 percent), Japan (68 percent), Switzerland (65 percent), Germany (64 percent) and Canada (57 percent), compared to 43 percent for U.S. students.
"Many people assume that students coming from families with high education levels are keeping up with their peers abroad," and there are some bright spots, note the authors. Such students from Massachusetts, Vermont, Minnesota, Colorado, New Jersey and Montana have a proficiency rate of 58 percent or higher.
"But students from these states are a small portion of the U.S. student population, and other states rank much lower down the international list. In many places, students from highly educated families are performing well below the OECD average for similarly advantaged students."
Find the abridged version of the report at educationnext.org/us-students-educated-families-lag-international-tests, or the full version at hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/Papers/PEPG14_01_NotJust.pdf.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)