Some argue that the U.S.’s lagging behind has nothing to do with our schools: The U.S. has a much higher proportion of disadvantaged poor and minority students than higher-performing countries. But the data show that 37 countries outperform the U.S. in the degree to which socioeconomic status predicts low achievement. Both Vietnam and Latvia have far smaller percentages of low-performing students than the U.S. If it is poverty that accounts for the U.S.’s high proportion of low-performing students, it is hard to explain how these two countries are doing better than the United States. Vietnam’s average income, adjusted for purchasing power, stands at just one-tenth of the U.S. average, Latvia’s at less than one half.
The OECD also tracks the proportion of low-income and minority students who score at high levels on their assessment. This metric shows that the U.S. has a smaller proportion of low-income high achievers than all but a few of the countries studied.
It turns out that a number of East Asian countries, which account for the majority of nations with high-average performance, also have the lowest percentage of low-performing students. Indeed, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea all rank in the global top ten in terms of achievement as measured by OECD’s PISA, and each of these jurisdictions has less than 10 percent of its students scoring at the lowest levels. That makes it clear that improving the performance of the low performers does not require a country to sacrifice the performance of the average or top performers.
What are these countries doing to cope with this dynamic that we are not? The answer begins with the observation that, in the American system, as students start to fall behind, they find it harder and harder to comprehend what is going on in class and fall even farther behind as they go through the years. Their morale sinks, their embarrassment rises, they stop coming to school, and then they drop out.
The East Asian countries essentially deal with this downward spiral by stopping it before it gains momentum. They are able to do this because they start from a commitment to the idea that all students can and will meet high standards as they progress through the years. This is not a slogan. It is the basis of their policy and practice. The policy makers and educators in these countries whom the researchers in my organization have talked with seem to understand that if students are allowed to fall behind, failure will feed on itself.
In Singapore, students undergo a thorough literacy and mathematics assessment when they enter first grade. Those whose diagnosis indicates they need extra help get it. They get more teachers and teachers who specialize in students who are behind. In other countries, these students not only get more teachers, but also the best teachers. The teachers understand that they are expected to do whatever is necessary to get students who start behind back up to speed as soon as possible. If that means coming into school earlier in the day, staying longer, or coming in on Saturday, then that is what they do.