Closer look at our schools provides hope, path for action

Test scores are important to students and parents worried about graduation, college and employment. And policymakers have long relied on large, international tests to judge how American schools are performing compared to other nations. But a single number from an international test can be very misleading.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education sounded the alarm that our schools are in trouble after U.S. test results were reported on PISA (Program on International Student Assessment), a large standardized test administered in more than 60 cities and nations. Shanghai scored the highest followed by six other Asian nations. Much hand-wringing ensued.

But the PISA results ignored something important: Shanghai screens its poor and disabled students out of high school (where most of the testing takes place) while advanced nations do not. The results compare apples with oranges.

In response, the Horace Mann League and National Superintendents Roundtable set out to more fully report how the United States performs alongside similar nations. The goal was to look at the whole iceberg, not just the tip — and provide a clearer picture of each country’s record, including its wealth, diversity, community safety and support for families and schools.

We examined six dimensions that influence student performance — equity, social stress, support for families, support for schools, student outcomes and system outcomes — in the G-7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the U.S) plus Finland and China.

What we found is surprising. Of the nine nations, the U.S. led the pack as the wealthiest country with the most highly educated workforce. Our citizens complete more years of school compared to the others and we report the highest proportion of adults with high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. That’s very good for our democracy. It’s a tribute to the nation’s schools and the citizens who support them. Americans should be proud. We serve all children, not just the healthy and wealthy.

We also lead the world with one quarter of the top-scoring 15-year-olds in science. Japan comes in second with 13 percent.

Yet, the U.S. reports the highest levels of income inequality, child poverty and social stress in the developed world. American children attend school amidst:

The highest rates of violent death and teenage pregnancy.

Astronomical rates of drug-related death and infant mortality.

One of the highest percentages of foreign-born residents, suggesting English is a second language for many learners.

How can the United States, the richest nation in the world, tolerate the highest levels of child poverty and violent death? The research is clear: These factors profoundly affect a child’s ability to concentrate and learn. A Roundtable member from Newtown, Connecticut, experienced this firsthand. She had to hold her school community together two years ago after 20 first-graders and six staff members were slaughtered in a matter of minutes by a gunman, while more than 400 terrified 5- to 10-year olds tried to hide.

To improve our schools as a nation, the first step is having an accurate picture of the problem. We encourage all communities to:

Know your data. Identify your district and school data so you can address the needs of the whole child, from early childhood through high school. A smart analyst can compile the information from many sources into a dashboard.

Team up to improve the societal factors that harm student achievement. Once you have a clear snapshot, community leaders, educators, funders and other units of local government can work together to tackle in- and out-of-school issues, especially student homelessness, hunger, poverty and community violence.

Celebrate success. Everett has a great story. The community is highly diverse and 40 percent of district students are from low-income families. Despite the challenges, district leaders and staff have boosted on-time graduation rates from an embarrassing 53 percent in 2003 to 90 percent today. That’s outstanding.

Sure, we still have a lot of work to do. And the next steps are even more difficult. But we have a world-class system that opens its doors to all. Let’s acknowledge what we’ve accomplished while rolling up our sleeves to get on with the job.

James Harvey is executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable. Read “School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect” at

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