In recent weeks, two separate reports on international student performance were released. The performance of students in the United States has remained consistent over the past three decades—dismal. On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) mathematics tests, U.S. fifteen-year-olds tied for twenty-seventh out of thirty-nine, outscoring students of such systems as Turkey, Mexico, and Tunisia. In 1995, on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. students ranked in the top half of the distribution, which included more developing countries, but showed mixed performance gains compared to other nations taking the tests.
The usual response in the United States to announcements of such international results is to ignore them. After that, it is convenient just to explain them away: other countries test a more selective group of students, or the tests do not match our normal curriculum. Neither story is convincing, but with the general indifference to the results they do not have to be.
These results, however, should be taken very seriously. Research demonstrates that the skills measured on these tests are important in the labor market and have a substantial effect on national growth rates. Existing evidence indicates that the scores' importance to national growth is hard to overstate.
If the performance of U.S. students were to reach the middle of that of European students (still noticeably below the top), according to historical data, the U.S. economy could realize a half of 1 percent boost in its annual growth rate. Half of 1 percent sounds like a small difference, but it is in fact a very large number. The United States currently has a GDP per capita of $38,000. A half percent of additional annual growth would lift this by $2,000 per person after just ten years. In fact, the United States has achieved its economic position by outstripping the rest of the world in growth over the twentieth century.
Of course, improving our schools takes time, as does observing the impact on the economy. If we improved our student performance over the next few years, it would have no immediately discernible affect. Students are not yet in the labor force, and it takes some time before the new, higher-skilled students become a substantial part of the nation's workers. But if the improvements sketched above could be achieved within twenty years, the growth dividend could cover all of our national K–12 expenditures by 2040.
Other nations, taking the results of international assessments seriously, have used their poor performance as a lever to bring about changes in their schools. It is time for us to take our poor performance seriously. Lots of things have been done to change schools over the past two decades, but they have not led to much overall improvement, which reinforces the idea that maintaining the current structure and simply doing more of it is unlikely to yield results. Instead, "radical" ideas such as results-driven accountability, expanded school choice, and stronger rewards for schools that improve on their performance are obvious ways to turn.