Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School

“No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.” This is carved into a massive stone wall on the FDR memorial in Washington, but it could have been the preface to this slender, timely, punchy book by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann. These authors make a persuasive case for improving the academic achievement of U.S. students—and thus America’s human resources—so that the nation thrives well into the future. Schools are where human capital gets built, they argue, and the acquisition of essential skills is better measured by standardized tests than by years spent in class. Equating 2009 NAEP data with 2011 PISA scores, the authors found that just 32 percent of U.S. students were proficient in math, earning a ranking of thirty-second in the world. More than half of Korean and Finnish students were proficient, while Shanghai topped the list with 75 percent. U.S. schools aren’t even educating their top students well: Just 7 percent scored at the advanced level in math. But they also highlight a few bright spots in this dark cloud. In Massachusetts, with its strong standards and commensurate accountability measures, 51 percent of students were proficient and 15 percent advanced in math. And in the South, where governors have pushed for school accountability for almost two decades, five states made the list of ten highest growth states. It is possible for the U.S. to improve the trajectory of its long-term economic growth, write the authors, “if we could replicate the performance of top-performing states across the nation.” While they point to educators’ intransigence as the biggest obstacle to reform, it might be more constructive to identify the conditions that led to successful reform-driven coalitions in those top-performing states. The country’s future wealth could depend on it.

Source: Eric A. Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, July 2013).

Julie Spencer-Robinson is a Research Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute