From the 1960s through 1988, six international studies -- three in math and three in science -- compared students from the United States to those in other countries. The American students always achieved badly relative to their peers.
But there are many problems in making such comparisons -- does Israel teach algebra in the seventh grade? -- and critics of the studies said maybe U.S. students weren't as bad as they seemed to be. So the U.S. government commissioned another study, designed to solve the methodological problems of the earlier ones. The scores came out earlier this month. And U.S. students still did badly.
There's more here than just reconfirmation of what everyone always knew. The new achievement comparisons, and a federal report on the six previous ones also released last week, do have some lessons which can be applied to educational policy.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that there are no simple answers. Such factors as class size, spending, length of school day, teacher background, types of materials used and amount of homework seem to have little or no correlation with the relative effectiveness of education systems. Korea -- tops in all the comparisons this time -- has an average class size of 49, compared to 23 in the United States for the population sampled. Korea also has a short school day.
This is not proof that say, better teacher preparation, wouldn't improve achievement in the United States. But it is an indication that education is a complex matter, that different methods may work with different kids and that proposed quick-fix solutions should be treated with extreme skepticism.
The studies also show that the top 10 percent of U.S. students compete well with the top 10 percent of students from other countries, but that others lag behind. When consideration is given to how to improve U.S. education, one of the top priorities must be equalizing educational opportunity.
One of President Bush's national education goals is, "By the year 2000, U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement." That goal is clearly unrealistic. But the international comparisons provide a strong signal that better math and science achievement is possible. Let's at least catch up to Hungary and Slovenia.