Study Confirms U.S. Falling Behind In Education

New results from a test that compares education in developed and developing countries confirms that the U.S. is falling behind. NPR's Melissa Block talks with analyst Michael Davidson of the Program for International Student Assessment about the results of his organization's test.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

An absolute wake-up call for America. That's how Education Secretary Arne Duncan views the results of an international standardized test in which U.S. students ranked from 15th to 25th worldwide in science, reading and math.

At the top of the list are students from Shanghai, with Hong Kong and Singapore not far behind.

The test is called the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA. It's given to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And senior analyst Michael Davidson joins us to talk about it. He helped to compile and analyze the results.

Mr. Davidson, welcome.

Mr. MICHAEL DAVIDSON (Senior Analyst, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development): Good, thank you.

BLOCK: Let's look a Little more closely at the U.S. students' scores. Of these three subjects, U.S. students did best on reading, tied with Poland and Liechtenstein, if I'm reading this right.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's correct, yeah. On reading, writing - the OECD average, in fact - yes, tied to those countries you mentioned.

BLOCK: OK, not so strong though in science and in math. Below average in math, tied with Ireland.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's right. Mathematics is really of the three areas where the U.S. falls further short of the OECD average.

BLOCK: Mr. Davidson, when you look at the top performers - Shanghai, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore - what are they doing right? Are there common practices that seem to be making their students come up at the top of the pack?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, there is. This is the first time that actually we've been able to track progress over time. And what we've been able to do is look at not just what features they have in the system, but how these may have changed. So some of the common features, just to give a flavor: They all have well-established educational standards. They have goals everybody aspires to reach. And they also - a crucial thing, and this particularly true in Finland - they recruit their teachers from the top 5, 6, 10 percent of graduates from each year. So they bring their best people into the teaching profession, which isn't true in many countries - indeed, most countries.

BLOCK: And when you look at the U.S. students' scores, what would you say the lessons are for educators in this country looking at U.S. students ranking barely above average, in some categories below average - way below average in math?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think one of the striking things that comes from the U.S. set of data is the impact that social background has on your success in education within the United States. Something like 20 percent of the performance differences that we see in the United States is attributed to the social background of the students. And that's higher than across the OECD on average.

BLOCK: When you talk about social background or social divisions being an impediment here, what are you talking about?

Mr. DAVIDSON: One of the things that we find is the resources are not equitably distributed. That could be financial resources. It could be the quality of the teachers. We also have a statistic which examines the proportion of resilient students. Now, these are students who achieve higher than you would expect given their social background.

In the most successful countries like Korea, Shanghai, Singapore, those proportions are something like 70 percent. In the U.S., it's below 30 percent.

BLOCK: If you were to talk, Mr. Davidson, to top leaders, politicians in this country, is there any way, do you think, to read these results other than that the U.S. is falling way behind, and that there could have really dire consequences for competition in the global marketplace?

Mr. DAVIDSON: I think the price of this is huge. We know that underachievement cost the economy a significant amount of money. And tackling the underachievement is a priority not just for the education system but for the economy and society at large.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Davidson, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. DAVIDSON: OK, thank you.

BLOCK: Michael Davidson speaking with us from Paris. He is senior analyst with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which created the international test.

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