The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As U.S. test scores lag, study shows violence, poverty, teen pregnancy are high

U.S. student performance on international exams has fallen compared to other industrial nations in recent years, a fact policymakers and others often cite in arguing that U.S. public schools need rapid reform in order to maintain their global competitiveness.

But now two organizations are out with a new study that challenges that narrative by comparing the United States to eight other nations on a raft of socioeconomic measures.

The upshot of the report is that the single-minded focus on test scores has led policymakers to overlook other important trends that affect U.S. public education, including high levels of economic inequality and social stress. Schools can’t be expected to solve these larger problems on their own, argue the study’s authors, the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable.

Whether or not you agree with that thesis, the study — which examines the G-7 nations plus Finland and China — presents some fascinating data.

For example, violent death is far more common in the United States than it is in the other eight nations, as this graphic from the report shows:

Child poverty is also more prevalent in the United States than in every other comparison nation except China. The metric here is “relative poverty,” or the percent of children living in households with an income of less than 50 percent of the nation’s median income. (This is a different definition of poverty than a recent analysis that found that 51 percent of American public school students are poor. That analysis counted all students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure that is a rough proxy for poverty and is unique to the United States.)

Teen pregnancy, while on the decline in the United States, is still high compared to other nations:

The full report, “School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect,” can be found here and includes piles of data, from average per-pupil expenditure to average class size and teacher workload.