This article is adapted from Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (Teachers College Press).
In 1989 President George H.W. Bush and the nation’s governors convened to establish a set of six national education goals to be accomplished by the year 2000. Among these were to ensure that all students enter school healthy and ready to learn, that at least 90 percent of students graduate from high school, that all students are competent in the academic disciplines and that the United States ranks "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement."
In 2010 none of these goals have been accomplished, and we are further away from achieving most of them than we were two decades ago. More children live in poverty and lack healthcare; the high school graduation rate has slipped below 70 percent; the achievement gap between minority and white students in reading and math is larger than it was in 1988; and US performance on international tests has continued to drop.
Far from being first in the world in math and science, the United States ranked thirty-fifth out of the top forty countries in math—right between Azerbaijan and Croatia—when the most recent Programme in International Student Assessment tests were given in 2006. In science, the United States ranked twenty-ninth out of forty, sandwiched between Latvia and Lithuania. These rankings and scores had dropped from 2000, when the No Child Left Behind Act was introduced. While the United States performs closer to international averages in reading, its scores also dropped on the international reading tests during the NCLB era.
Declines on international tests and a flattening of growth on the National Assessment of Educational Progress occurred even as state test scores used for NCLB were driven upward. This is partly because the international assessments demand more advanced analysis than do most US tests. They require students to weigh and balance evidence, apply what they know to new problems and explain and defend their answers. These higher-order skills are emphasized in other nations’ curriculums and assessment systems but have been discouraged by the kind of lower-level multiple-choice testing favored by NCLB.
In addition, inequality has an enormous influence on US performance. White and Asian students score just above the average for the European OECD nations in each subject area, but African-American and Hispanic students score so much lower that the national average plummets to the bottom tier. The United States is also among the nations where socioeconomic background most affects student outcomes. This is because of greater income inequality and because the United States spends much more educating affluent children than poor children, with wealthy suburbs often spending twice what central cities do, and three times what poor rural areas can afford.
Both segregation of schools and inequality in funding have increased in many states over the past two decades, leaving a growing share of African-American and Hispanic students in highly segregated apartheid schools that lack qualified teachers; up-to-date textbooks and materials; libraries, science labs and computers; and safe, adequate facilities. Thus, the poor US standing is substantially a product of unequal access to the kind of intellectually challenging learning measured on these international assessments.