It's not just urban kids who are struggling. Even wealthy suburbs are lagging behind countries like Singapore and Finland.
If your kids are in a good American public school, chances are you know it. (In fact, it's probably the reason you traded in that urban loft for the property taxes of the suburbs.) But what if you woke up one morning and found that a Wizard of Oz-style tornado had dropped your entire district down in the middle of Singapore or Finland? How would your children's test scores measure up then?
That's more or less what the Bush Institute wants to you to imagine as you click through its Global Report Card, an interactive graphic that lets you rank your district against 25 other countries. "When you tell people there are problems in education, elites will usually think, 'Ah, that refers to those poor kids in big cities. It doesn't have anything to do with me,'" says Jay P. Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas and one of the lead researchers behind the Global Report Card. "The power of denial is so great that people don't think a finding really has anything to do with them unless you actually name their town."
Say you live in Santa Cruz, California. It's a relatively affluent district, and by state standards, Santa Cruz City High scores in the 62nd percentile for reading and 59th for math. But when you rank the school against the rest of the developed world, it drops into the 50th percentile for reading and the 39th for math. Up the coast a bit, Palo Alto Unified ranks nearly 30 points higher in each area. But even those numbers are discouraging -- if one of the wealthiest and most reputable districts in America, right in the cradle of Silicon Valley, can't break the 70th percentile in math, what does that say about the rest of the country?
Those lagging scores have real-world consequences, says Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist who was one of the first to rank American students against their foreign counterparts. "If you look across nations over the last 50 years, the growth rates are really very highly correlated with math performance on these basic tests," Hanushek says.
And you don't have to look overseas to realize what a difference education makes. Every year, more and more coveted slots at U.S. companies and universities are being filled by foreigners. In an article last year ominously titled "Danger: America Is Losing Its Edge in Innovation," Forbes reported that 70 percent of the engineers who graduate from U.S. universities are now foreign-born. According to a 2007 study at Duke University, more than a quarter of all U.S. tech start-ups between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant founder.
"Just visit Silicon Valley and you'll see a fairly thick stock of international grocery stores," says Hanushek. "We like to talk about American innovation, but many of the people doing the innovating here were in fact born elsewhere." He estimates that if America's high schools could match the math scores of our top competitors, our GDP could increase five- to sevenfold. "That's the value of what we're leaving on the table," he says.
The question, as always, is how to bring those scores up. The Bush Institute has its own ideas -- its programs include initiatives to replace subpar principals and improve middle schools. There's no shortage of other proposals out there -- everything from having students grade their teachers to handing out more vouchers, bringing in the private sector, or following Finland's lead and focusing on equality instead of excellence.
For now, Greene, who is a Bush Institute fellow, says he wants to avoid tying the Global Report Card too closely to any specific recommendations. "Once you propose a solution, people who don't like the solution are less likely to listen to your description of the problem," he says. "Frankly, our goal here is to show that the problem is broader than many people realize -- it also includes wealthier and whiter folks. We certainly can't make progress if we don't change the conversation."