When the Best Is Mediocre

October 18, 2011

While the American public education system garners more and more negative criticism, the wealthy and politically influential elite seem relatively complacent with the situation.  This is probably because the school districts of their comfortable suburban neighborhoods, when compared with their high-population urban counterparts, appear exceptional.  However, because America's students are increasingly competing with students outside the United States for economic opportunities, this comparison is no longer valuable, and may even prove dangerous.  By providing comfort to movers and shakers around the nation about the state of the public education system, this false comparison discourages the drastic reforms that are necessary to allow American students to catch up with their peers internationally, say Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and economist Josh B. McGee.

A recent Global Report Card, produced by researchers studying math and reading performance amongst developed nations between 2004 and 2007, returned the following results:

  • Ninety-four percent of all U.S. school districts have average math achievement below the 67th percentile for developed nations.
  • Similarly, 68 percent have average student math achievement that is below the 50th percentile compared with that of the average student in other developed countries.
  • Not one of the largest 20 school districts (which collectively contain 5.2 million students or 10 percent of the nation's total) is above the 50th percentile in math relative to other developed countries.

The researchers focused on math results first because they are the easiest to quantify and compare, and second because they serve as a more reliable indicator of future economic performance.  While there are undoubtedly some small pockets of success that did extremely well relative to international competitors, these success stories are rare.  Rather, the message that ought to be taken away from the results of this report card are that American students are falling behind and that there are a decreasing number of places that even the country's elites can flee to in order to guarantee their children an internationally competitive education.

Source: Jay P. Greene and Josh B. McGee, "When the Best Is Mediocre," Education Next, Winter 2012.

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