Are American High School Students Doing Poorly Academically, Based on International Comparative Studies?

Well, Yes and No: What International education comparative studies tell us, and don’t tell us about the state of American High School Education.

Mike, First of all thanks for this very thought provoking article; it warms this old educators heart to see a former student tackling a serious intellectual problems. This is a major topic of debate in the education world, with many different thoughts; and so this is my (maybe not so easy for some to) take…..

      As a society we are perhaps overly fixated on either the “silver-bullet”, or the “super-hero” model to solve very difficult and complex problems. The author is correct in that there is much that is in need of “fixing”; in schools of education; in both teacher and school administrator’s education; and in all certification programs.  But his assertion that if we could just  get rid of “teacher education”, and attract teachers with higher SAT scores, all would be well; if only it was that easy! We now know that the “reform movement” brought us a wave of so called “higher ranking” teachers  working on a drive by commitment to help the poor; this has been a disaster. With all of the things that need “fixing” in schools of education; majoring in education is still tremendously valuable in understanding: developmental psychology, curriculum, lesson planning, classroom management, developing and analyzing assessments, how to “break down” and “distribute” content to different students in the class, etc. Majoring in education can’t guarantee that you will be a great teacher; but if there is a great teacher in you, this specialized knowledge and training will go a long way in bringing it out of you. Further, the children who are in the greatest need of expertise in our public schools, should  be exposed to those teachers who are the best experienced practitioners, with the best expertise in content and method. Expertise in any profession is a combination of : A set of professional standards and ethics, knowledge of content, methods, practical experience, good coaching and continuous professional development. He mentions “successful” teachers in other countries; but fails to mention the amount of coaching and professional development they enjoy( i.e. he mentions Japanese teachers without mentioning their extensive and focused prep periods); those nations commitment to recruit and invest in teachers; the fact that these teachers make a lifelong commitment to teaching, and to the study of teaching. And finally, the tremendous “collective” pressure to encourage those ‘not suited” for the profession to exit (and I am not talking about bouncing around a “rubber room” for years eating up much need financial resources).  Now this article  attempts to address several very serious and complex topics, in too short an article; and for sure many of our American high school students are graduating with a diploma, the worth of which is  somewhere either north, or south of the 8th grade standards (I will come back to that thought). The reasons for the “sad state of US education”, are complex; but a simple and quick preliminary answer that might be a little too hard for some, shall I say, with politically sensitive ears to take…. They should probably stop reading now:

        First, the good news. For a large number of  American students who are receiving an education in a US high school, public or private; they are receiving the best, or better educational experience then could ever be hoped for, or even imagined by most of the world’s students. Many of the  things we take for granted in most US schools, don’t exist in many places in the world. Don’t know if you are aware of this but a delegation of school district leaders (regional education commissioners) from The Peaple’s Republic of China (PRC) visited the Science Skills Center High School (SSCHS). When they saw things like your science labs, robotics-engineering lab, Library, computer rooms and distance learning lab, etc.; their comment was that their best schools, concentrated in large cities in the PRC were not so well  equipped; and that the majority of their schools in rural areas were far less resourced then those in the larger cities. One thing that really got their attention, and fueled a lot of questions was our Chinese Foreign Language Classes; as this was the rare, in of all places a “majority-minority” school that matched their own strategic attention to the teaching  of English to their students. The assumption was that everything at SSCHS was part of the schools “official” budget. Translating “grant-writing” and “fund-raising” was a challenge for me.  “Why”, they inquired; “would the State Department fund this Chinese language program in only a few schools; why isn’t it a national policy?” It was very hard for me to explain the additional millions of dollars we raised for: in and out of school projects and activities from private sources and cooperate partners; their schools had no cooperate partners; and as a practice their principals didn’t raise extra, beyond budgeted money. In short I tried to explain that there are, many financial inequities (some vary large) when going from school to school in the US; and even inside of school districts. Now, I have no idea what the State Department officials accompanying the group said to them prior to their arrival at our school; and clearly they could see that the student population at SSCHS was majority students of color. But I had a clue, when I  explained to them (because  they asked), the “political reality” of US high schools. I went on to say, as the State department person winced; that SSCHS was not a typical US high school; and it surely was not the average high school that served children of color in this, any other major US city. I had to be honest since one of the concerns they raised was the challenge they faced in raising the quality of schools that served their “ethnic minorities”. And so here it is, and one of the many problems with the article. What in fact are you comparing when comparing two groups of students, who may have experienced two very different  levels of material and human resource quality in their respective schools? And if it is difficult, without I believe, employing a complex algorithm, to compare two high schools in the same city, or district; having very different admission policies; that is: admitting students at very different levels of readiness to do high school work; offering very different academic programs, and  who are resourced in very different ways. How complex then when comparing the educational systems of two nations? What is the objective “tool” of measure, when most countries, including the US, in reality have 2 or more schools systems? The other side of the “good” SSCHS education story is: The dramatically bad high school “underperformance and dropout” rate numbers story, that exist in too many school buildings in our nation; that to be honest, only masquerade as high schools. And, even more deceptive and misleading are the large number of underperforming and failing, poor and students of color, who may “physically” be in a school considered “good” or  “average”, and yet are very often assigned to low expectations ,less rigorous academic track classes (In Albany N.Y., I saw a “good” example of Black and Latino students: “going into the same school building as their White peers, but  then once inside receiving  an inferior, 2nd class education”) The underperforming low scores on standardized exams; and proportionally high drop-out rates of these students are “hidden” when they are statistically averaged in with the high academically tracked students, who are most likely in more academically rigorous and challenging classes. And so, our author would need to work a little harder to get a true picture of how US students are truly performing. But why the two tracks, two tier educational systems that you see worldwide, that prevents a proper comparative analysis? Going from nation to nation the reasons for “2 school systems”, can vary greatly. For many developing countries it really boils down to money. They believe (incorrectly I think) that: “We can only buy microscopes for a small fraction of our student population; and so we need a system that chooses who gets a microscope and who does not.” Now that decision could be simply based on wealth; ethnic group; political connections; government, party rank or affiliation: ”The children of_______________ get the well-equipped schools”; or as in places like Brazil it can be multiple and perhaps overlapping factors, i.e. race and class that determine a child’s educational destiny. Also, in many of these same nations, designating  a child’s educational future is done by utilizing  an already determined, by virtue of the child’s pre-exam limited learning track, a series of “gate-blocking or opening”, meritocracy- mediocrity determining standardized elimination exams. Although the questions on these exams (like the NYS Regents, SAT, GRE, SAT, LSAT, MCAT, etc.) are standardized, the learning path that has led the different students to those exams is very much not standardized; thus the inventive birth of the “achievement gap.”  For many of these nations, this “elimination exam system” is left over from their former colonial status. The “decision” as to who advances educationally, is done by “sifting” students in a most inefficient, educationally unsound and unethical way. I really think, in doing this, they are doing great harm to their national development efforts; for building an educational system to essentially feed a colonial bureaucracy is very different from building an educational system for independence, self-reliance and national development; but that is a topic for another day. The question that the multi-tiered educational system raises, but is absent from this article is this: Should nations “lose points” for leaving large numbers of their student population essentially behind? Should this ‘’competition” be a race to see how many students can a country get to the top? And in present studies are we comparing high or low achievers with their academic counterparts in other nations?

     In the case of the US, because I want to be fair here; we are also guilty of having a multi-tiered school system, and like other nations in the world the reasons have  “rationales” based on our history, economic system and culture. The reasons for a US multi-tiered school system exist, and how and why it is maintained:

  (1) The educational problem for our present national economic structure is: What  would you do with  a large successfully educated population, who would be competitive, and place a tremendous amount of pressure on the labor market? A large surplus of skilled labor is a condition our present economic system is not prepared to absorb.  In short we need a permanent  “failing” underclass whose condition and plight will  produce jobs for the successfully educated. We have very large national industries and employers, most of them in city, state and federal civil service; that are dependent on the simple act of a young man reaching (or not reaching) high school, and being unable to read a 9th grade textbook (actually there are factors that can identify these students as early as elementary school) and/or a young lady in the same educational condition; only in her case having given birth to that young man’s child; both are more than likely poor, and unprepared for parenthood, thus replenishing the vicious cycle. This uneducated “raw material”  will be consumed by the: service, punishment and/or  rehabilitation industries;  with a single person often “feeding” all three. But the other good news for the present economic structure is that despite their educationally and financially impoverished state; this group will also be consumers of commercial products and services; people who ”disappear” from our schools don’t disappear from the consumer market.

(2)There is also the problem that “student academic failure” and “underachievement”, is a tremendous money making, growth and investment industry, both in, and outside of schools see: .  Large numbers of poor children, performing poorly on standardized exams, is the modern American “California Gold-Rush”.  Further, “Closing The Achievement Gap”; despite it being a misleading and disingenuous concept (the “ability” to learn is “naturally” and equally distributed across the population); produces millions of research papers, articles, books, seminars, conferences, speakers and large consultant “specialist” fees. (Even Marx didn’t envision this unbelievably large group of workers, working in industries solely dependent on the children of their fellow workers failing in, and out of school!)

(3) And as a result of points 1 & 2; putting it simply, it is because the effective education of large segments of our student population, just does not matter.

Conclusion:  So when we are comparing the educational systems of two nations; which of the multiple educational systems in each of those nations are we really, if at all, comparing?

      The  author of this article may in a way be asking a good question; if only “the question”  could be asked in a better way. He is unfortunately about 20-30 paragraphs short of a good analysis; and so here are some additional problems with this type of International education comparative analysis: First of all I am not convinced of the operational usefulness of these comparisons to the frontline educational practitioners; those professionals who actually educate children; as opposed to those who just talk about the education of children. I guess there is some esoteric, and even possibly practical value to these studies; but I am really more interested in studies that explain: how Japanese Mathematics teachers approach the teaching of their subject area; or the structure and methodologies of the British Career Technical Education (CTE) secondary schools; or the workings of the Chinese Sports Schools. There is a great deal of value in identifying a “Best educational practices” wherever they exist in the world; but I am not sure about the value of this focus on “whose educational system is better”; particularly when “better” is determined absent of so many important variables.  As an Engineer you probably know that you, and the rest of the Science, Technology, Mathematics and Medical Science world are more properly focused on inventions, innovations and improved techniques across international lines; as opposed to spending a lot  of time on which nation is better at producing STEM graduates! We need to spend less time on gushing about South Korea’s outstandingly high reading and mathematics scores; and more time on the role of high expectations on the part of Korean: School building administrators, teachers, the “informal” out of school education system, the collective culture, and the role of parents in driving those high sores; but that would  mean looking at what is really a critical factor in American education. This would mean having an honest conversation about American education and the role of race. A study or article about US education and academic achievement, that omits the topic of Race, is intellectually dishonest; and I am not sure how helpful it would be to “front-line” educators; who don’t have a lot of time to waste reading studies not useful and disconnected from their day to day practice.

        Further, there are many culturally unique variables that make the arithmetic of these international comparative studies suspect; or at least open to the need for a deeper analysis. For example: One nation’s schools I visited and studied was In Barbados; I was interested in their amazingly high literacy rate (close to 100%!). When I visited classrooms in Barbados I could not ascertain where the teachers were employing some “secret magic literacy strategy”; in fact the schools, modeled after the British  system of education, looked very much like the schools I visited (with some few exceptions)in other parts of the English speaking Caribbean. I visited libraries in Barbados, and again did not notice anything radically different from Libraries in other countries in the Caribbean; they all  seem to be filled with people, young and old, actively utilizing the libraries services, particularly the internet.  And so what was the difference with literacy education in Barbados? After several, “no light bulb coming on” trips, I just settled on the hypothesis of the factor being a combination of size, and culture. Like the “small schools theory” in the US; students tend to not get lost when there are fewer of them to monitor. In Barbados teachers and school administrators lived, worshiped, shopped and socialized very close to/with each other; less of an opportunity for students to “slide”. Children, dressed in and color/grade designated uniforms helped here, are under very tight scrutiny. It reminded me in a way of my visit to schools in Charlottesville in Tobago, where  a child not moving quickly to school; or who was in the wrong place at the wrong time was easily, and immediately identified and challenged by any “‘deputized” adult. But the most important factor in Barbados was what I called the “cultural belief in literacy”. This belief exist in the “collective consciousness” of the nation, and drives; rather then is driven by a national education policy. It appeared to me that there was a great deal of pressure in the culture for Individuals to obtain literacy skills; whether you are talking about a laborer in Bridgetown, a grounds keeper at Farley Hill Park, or a fisherman in Oistins; being illiterate in Barbados amounted to something like a sin. In fact, illiteracy is considered to be a categorical step below poverty; or as one Barbadian local said to me: “being poor is one thing; but there is no reason to not be able to read and write”  Also, the Barbadian nationals are very aware of their international literacy status, and so that awareness, and desire to maintain that status also becomes part of the national cultural psyche: “We are one of the most literate nations in the world, therefore every citizen has a “patriotic duty” to maintain that status. This constant affirmation-reaffirmation was an example of the cultural cause and effect acting on, and pushing each other. And so all of this to say that there are many; historical, cultural, economics and unique national factors that shape education policy and schools in different parts of the world; and the more reason to be careful when making system to system, school to school or student to student comparisons. We can perhaps import some of a nation’s pedagogical techniques; it is quite another to import its values. 

         I think that if we absolutely had to do one of  these international comparative studies,     I would have more confidence if the study  was a serious analysis that monitored all of the variables:  national “personality”, race, class, economics, history, etc.; rather than the shallow ramblings (as in this article) of a political ideologue who was just looking for a cheap and easy way to put US students, and American education down. An authentic comparative study would mean that we were at least “roughly” comparing two groups of very similar students, the same ages, similar learning environments, and who are exposed to the same amount of content, in essentially the same time-frame. A further and serious omission by the author is the reality that in many US high schools are sitting a large number of students who in most countries in the world would never see the inside of a high school. In most other countries they cannot and/or will not make the level of educational expenditures we are making in the US (I  can hear some of my education folks protesting that we are not spending enough on education; that may be true; But first, we need to restructure our education allocation in a more strategically smart and thoughtful way; we can’t escape from the fact that many of the school districts in our nation with the highest per pupil expenditures, have some of the worst academic performance and highest drop-out rates; clearly money alone is not the solution!) These nations have decided, incorrectly in my view, to employ the before mentioned, and less then thoughtful sorting process. In most nations in the world students take some type of a “qualifying” or “entrance exam” somewhere in elementary- middle grades; and the small number that pass go on to secondary education; the rest of the folks who don’t pass must “grab a rake or a shovel” and get to work.  Comparing the “high school” or secondary students  of those nations, with US high school students is guaranteed to generate inaccurate data. Can a “poor” kid breakthrough in those “exam sifting nations”; yes, but it is by the process of “Luck and Pluck”; The “pluck” favors good test takers, good teachers, the quality of “parent-push”, and good study habits. The “luck” is having the right before mentioned “motivators” to match the student’s skill and willingness to work hard. This arbitrary process, in my view, is not the best way to identify and develop the intellectual and creative talents of a nation’s children; or to put it another way; to invest in a  nation’s future. But at least everyone knows the “rules”: Pass those “gate-keeper” exams or else. But before we pat ourselves on the back, let me be clear: we also have a negative sifting process; and to be honest most US citizens don’t know the rules. And perhaps our system is in many ways a more vicious educational sifting process when compared to the process utilized by other nations; and this is the reason. We proudly pretend that we are educating all folks in high school; when in fact we are really keeping large numbers of those children off the streets, and out of the low-skill job market during their “turbulent” teen years.  Just imagine what a large number of aimless and unemployed young adults in the 14-18 age range would do to the daytime downtown shopping environment in any of our even medium size cities?  Further, in other countries that have an “official exam cut system”; the education of large numbers of students will terminate somewhere in the middle grades. These nations compensate for this by “ramping-up” the rigor in the elementary and middle grades, knowing that many of those students won’t be going  on to secondary school, or to a highly rated and rigorous secondary school; and therefore they will need a strong functional literacy program for participation in adult-society life. On the other hand many US schools are pretending that they are providing a secondary education to large numbers of high school students; when in fact, that is untrue. The students are eventually and permanently harmed as they “graduate” with  skills/content weakened diplomas, that won’t allow them to function effectively in the  competitive workforce environment. This is the cause of the constant complaint of  employers who must then pay (cash=time=cash) for the cost of teaching high school skills to employees; and the reason for explosion of college courses that essentially provided a 13th year of “corrective” non-credited high school courses on a college campus. As a Russian born teacher of H.S. physics once told me: “In Russia there is no ‘remedial’ courses; if you are in high school, it is because you belong there; and if you are sitting in a physics class, it is because you belong there.” Thus, just more “facts on the ground”, that can produce incorrect results in these types of studies when comparing students from different countries.

       Another “comparative study” problem: The US spends in some cases: $20,000, $30,000 to +$50,000 per/student/year on children with disabilities; in many countries, that type of expenditure is just not possible, even if it was desired by those nations. And then there  is the racial homogeneity factor. The author mentions Japan. But teachers and school administrators in Japan are Japanese, and therefore look very much like the students they serve; there is a collective cultural understanding as to “everyone”: schools, community, parents, and government; acting and being “responsible” for the academic success of students; national pride; as we saw in Barbados can be an important factor in achieving learning objectives. If the society sees all of the school children, as “their children”;  there is then an emergence of  a sense of urgency and commitment on the part of all of the adults (professional educators or not) to create educated citizens to build the nation. In the US our societal character says that we would rather “import” STEM professionals from outside the US, rather than commit to “growing” them from student-citizens born in the US. Further, our unique “racial history”; which still remains very much unresolved, has also produced a parallel problematic history in education. And that is why when these “researchers”, who  love to look at Scandinavian nations as the model for “good education”; and yet they conveniently side step the uncomfortable, but critical issue of racial homogeneity.

 This  racial homogeneity, found in many nations’ school leadership and teaching ranks, also produces an environment of high expectations; just like in Barbados where adults may: believe, say or think when encouraging a child: “Well Barbadians before you, who live like you, who look like you, achieved this high literacy rate; and therefore there is no reason why you can’t also”. This factor of “expected success” based on a collective cultural history, has I believe, a tremendous influence on student performance. But here in the US our nation’s racial history is very complex  such that even the presence of a mayor, school board, chancellor, superintendent, school building administrator or teacher, who shares a cultural or racial identity link with the students they serve, does not necessarily mean that those individuals will have high expectations for those students; or that they will work hard to bring the gifts and talents of those students into realization. See Carter G. Woodson’s: The Mis-Education of the Negro.

        But despite the “ educational success” of nations that operate  with a racial homogeneity factor. There may in fact be some downsides, as the future points to a greater, and not lesser need for cultural literacy competency. The lack of diversity in their schools may in fact hurt those students in the long run; but that again is a topic for another posting.  Meanwhile in the US, a place that is blessed with diversity, makes every effort to waste that gift. What If the US ever got serious about effectively educating: a  diverse racially, linguistically, culturally, economically and both men and women society? This action would in fact be powerful investment strength for the US, and would propel us into world leadership in STEM, economic, education, creative arts, environmental solutions, innovative and genius solutions to problems far into the future. “Developing” nations will at some point in their development have the capacity to “grow” and absorb their college, graduate school, post-grad and professional school, STEM graduates; we on the other hand will be left with a huge population of under/poorly educated class of citizens who will not be able to participate in the productive economic life of the nation; except as a “client” and consumer class. No disrespect to your hard work and intellectual skills; but US schools could, and should produce twice the number of Mike Williams.  I dare anyone to take robotic or science kits (I’ve done it) into the poorest school, in the poorest neighborhood in the poorest part of  the nation, and watch kids get excited and want to learn; and so what happens to those young people that they don’t pursue a STEM career? Clearly it is not about a lack of interest in STEM. 

        Finally, before we romanticize about the great education occurring in places like Finland, Denmark and Norway. We may want to compare other factors that greatly influence the quality of the education in those nations; things like access to quality healthcare (their version of the ACA!). Many Republican controlled US statehouses go to every extreme length to restrict women from receiving even the smallest amount of pre-natal education and reproductive healthcare information. They seem to be fixated on “managing” the reproductive systems of women, and yet by resisting, and undermining the Affordable Care Act(ACA); they demonstrate that they have no real interest in the wellbeing of the rest of a woman’s anatomy. And for sure they are hostile to a good healthy quality of life start for the children these women may have, and who eventually will go to school. Meanwhile,  their conservative  ideological cousins in in Washington; who claim to love the sound of “birthin’ babies”; do everything possible to make sure that those babies, once born, are ill prepared to do well in school, by limiting (cynically termed: “entitlement reform”) their access to brain-nourishing food, decent housing, early comprehensive healthcare, and a quality preschool education. If we are going to compare internationally, then let’s make a thorough, fair, honest, from the cradle comparison.


Article: A Key Reason Why American Students Do Poorly; George Leef;;Forbes: