U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests

Did you just get a strong sense of déjà vu reading the above headline? Did you check the date to see if you stumbled upon an old article? Here’s a question for you: will we still be reading headlines like the one above in thirty years?

We certainly have been for the past thirty. In fact, every five years since 1983 school reformers celebrate the historic “A Nation at Risk” report issued during President Ronald Reagan’s first term. More on that in a bit. First, here’s the opening of an article by three school reform experts published at EducationNext.org, the subtitle of which reads, “It’s not just about kids in poor neighborhoods”:

“The big picture of U.S. performance on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is straightforward and stark: It is 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.”

U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan spoke these grim words on the bleak December day in late 2013 when the international tests in math, science, and literacy were released. No less disconcerting was the secretary’s warning that the nation’s educational problems are not limited to certain groups or specific places. The “educational challenge in America is not just about poor kids in poor neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s about many kids in many neighborhoods. The [test] results underscore that educational shortcomings in the United States are not just the problems of other people’s children.”

If that’s not enough for you to get a strong sense that you’ve been here before, try this opening of a summary of a second article at EducationNext.org by yet another school reform expert:

School choice in the United States has expanded greatly over the past few decades, explains Herbert Walberg, fellow at the Hoover Institution. Charter schools already number nearly 6,000 in the 40 states that permit them, and tuition tax credits, which allow parents to deduct private school tuition from state income taxes, are growing in over 13 states.

A vast body of research indicates that “choice schools” — both charter and private schools — excel across the board in achievement, parental satisfaction and student social engagement.

See what I mean?

Years ago to commemorate one of the anniversaries of “A Nation at Risk,” the Heartland Institute published an excellent summary of where we were in 1983 and the lack of progress made in the intervening years — here are just a few facts from it:

  • “The [A Nation at Risk] report included two of the most famous statements ever made about the nation’s public schools, that we were facing “a rising tide of mediocrity,” and “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.”
  • “The commissioners did not merely sit around a table and draw their own conclusions. To the contrary, they funded some 40 studies on different aspects of education, held public hearings, conducted panel discussions, and solicited opinions on reform.”
  • “But, as Education Policy Institute Chairman Myron Lieberman has pointed out, the commissioners ignored the role of teacher unions and collective bargaining, a major–and some might say fatal–omission. And, as the distinguished educator Mario Fantini wrote shortly thereafter, their recommendations largely consisted of doing “more of what we already have-more of what has already caused the problem in the first place.”

Back in 2003 George Clowes, former managing editor of School Reform News, had this to say:

“After 20 years of reforms requiring vastly increased expenditures and effort, the performance of the U.S. public education system remains virtually unchanged…The human toll of 20 wasted years is staggering…”

Of course, now you can scratch out that 20 years and write in 31 years, and it should also solve any remaining mystery about where all of those Obama supporters came from.

So, will we ever see real reform, or will we be reading similarly dreadful headlines in the year 2044? Unless conservatives — and in this case school reformers — get into the information war and begin to fight and win it, I bet we will.