Once upon a time, enthusiasts designed a formal education system to meet the economic demands of the industrial revolution. Fast forward to today and, with the current global economic climate, it seems apparent that the now established education system is unable to meet the needs of our hyper-connected society – a society that is in a constant state of evolution. Why do I say that?
One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science (Figure)
In our last post, we talked about the fact that US funding for its education is on the upper half of the OECD countries. If you look at the US funding for education per pupil (Figure,) it is robust but it could be even more and that would probably help with the results above. But, many people are asking: where does the money go? why would we pump even more money into a failing educational system? I think this is a legitimate question given that the current level of performance by US students shows that the money is not well-invested.
There are many explanations for why US educational system is not performing better in spite of its robust funding. These include high income inequality in US, which results in a system where some perform extremely well and others who do not have nearly the same opportunities; lack of involvement by the parents; overcrowded schools; antiquated teacher training methods and lack of innovation in teacher education; school to prison pipeline; gender gap in education; a teacher tenure system that protects underperforming teachers; school closures; and stagnant spending over the last 5-6 years.
My own explanations on this are based on my research and as you might imagine, in the related research there is significant disagreement about this issue. To a large degree, the educational performance gap in US mirrors our healthcare outcomes gap. They are those that have very positive education and health outcomes, some of the best in the world; most that have very good outcomes, in line with the outcomes you would expect in a first world country; and those that are at the bottom and do much worse that you would expect for a country like US. This group most likely does not exist in most of the other OECD countries, or if they do, in much lower percentages. These people are the bottom of the economic ladder and our winner-take-all system does not provide enough social programs to ensure that their outcomes are not as bad as they currently are. Most western European countries have very robust programs to help those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
Also, it definitely appears that the money we invest in education does not go as far as it should. Since most of the money spent on education comes from local sources and educational policies are created at the local level, there are significant disparities between states. Massachusetts’ educational system is very different than Mississippi’s and it’s hard to see how that gap can be closed since in order to make wholesale changes to improve the educational system in Mississippi, you would need a complete change in their state government and school boards. That’s hard to imagine!!
What is critical to note is that a country’s educational system and its output is one of the key pillars of its success and if US wants to remain the dominant superpower of the 21st century, this issue needs to be addressed!