Expert Commentary

Globally challenged: Are U.S. students ready to compete?

2011 Harvard study analyzing data from the Program for International Student Assessment on relative strength of U.S. students as compared to global peers.

In this era of economic globalization, the race for innovation and future growth among nations has prompted a profound debate about how the U.S. is preparing its next generation of workers and leaders. While the United States has responded vigorously to global challengers in the past — the Soviet Union in the era of Sputnik, Japan in the 1980s — the potential for a dramatic loss of competitiveness is more acute than ever.

A 2011 study by the Harvard Kennedy School, “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?” looked at data — primarily drawn from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) — from participating nations and cities in order to compare the basic proficiency levels in reading and mathematics of the graduating classes of 2011.

The study’s findings include:

  • In math, the U.S. came in 32nd, with a 32% rate of proficiency. Though other peer nations in the lower tier had similar scores, 22 nations “significantly outperform” the U.S. in math. By comparison, 58% of Korean students and 56% of Finnish students were proficient.
  • The only U.S. states that saw their collective rates above 40% in math were Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, North Dakota, New Jersey and Kansas. Those that did not see 20% proficiency among students included Louisiana, West Virginia, Alabama, New Mexico, Mississippi, and Washington, D.C; this puts these states on a par with lower-performing nations such as Bulgaria.
  • When the U.S. results were broken down by race, the study found that 11 % of African-American students, 15% of Hispanic students, and 16% of Native Americans were proficient in math.
  • In reading, the U.S. performs comparatively better, coming in 17th. Only 10 nations had statistically significant rates above that of the U.S. At a rate of 31% proficiency, this means that the U.S. “compares reasonably well to those of most European countries other than Finland.” However, only 13% of African-American and 5% of Hispanic children were proficient.
  • The top performing place in both math and reading was the city of Shanghai, China.

The study concludes that the “United States could enjoy a remarkable increment in its annual GDP growth per capita by enhancing the math proficiency of U.S. students. Increasing the percentage of proficient students to the levels attained in Canada and Korea would increase the annual U.S. growth rate by 0.9 percentage points and 1.3 percentage points, respectively.”

The researchers go on to state, “If one calculates these percentage increases as national income projections over an 80-year period (providing for a 20-year delay before any school reform is completed and the newly proficient students begin their working careers), a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests gains of nothing less than $75 trillion over the period.”

Tags: children, China, Hispanic, Latino, African-American, science, youth