NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Middle Class American Students Fall Behind Most Rich Countries

May 9, 2013

The discussion about the lackluster performance of the U.S. education system typically focuses on the poor educational outcomes of low-income children. A new report that looks at Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) data reveals that middle class America, usually thought to be on par with a world-class education, falls short in providing the educational quality that other developed countries provide, says American Achieves, a non-profit devoted to educational progress.

  • After analyzing 2009 PISA results and a new internationally benchmarked pilot test involving 105 American high schools, the report found that U.S. students in the middle quarters of economic and social advantage lag behind 24 countries in math and 15 countries in science.
  • U.S. students in the top 50th to 75th percentile of income are outperformed by their peers in 31 countries in math and 25 in science.
  • Despite Americans students being more advantaged than many of their counterparts in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, they are outperformed by a majority of countries.
  • The results can be depressing. Shanghai-China is the world's number one performing region and their most disadvantaged students almost perform at the same level as America's most advantaged students.

It is not poverty that is dragging down overall U.S. scores, but the education system.

  • Indeed, many of the schools that participated in the pilot test of 105 American high schools were being outperformed by most of the developed world.
  • However, several solidly middle-class schools in Virginia and a middle-class charter school in Tucson, Arizona, are performing better than almost every country.
  • One charter school, in Newark, New Jersey, serves predominantly disadvantaged children and proves that a school can overcome poverty and perform at world-class standards.

Source: "Middle Class or Middle of the Pack?" America Achieves, April 2013.


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