Editorial: America's C-

15 December 2004

The future of the world economy may lie in Finland. Or Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. As a new study on education standards world-wide shows, unlike in the U.S. and much of Europe, high school students in these countries actually learn something.

In this country, the study's findings grabbed headlines for how poorly American students score. The report, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, tested the math, science, problem-solving and reading skills of 15-year-olds in 41 countries. Only a generation ago, U.S. high school students ranked No. 1. Today their performance has fallen below the OECD average -- except in reading, where Americans manage to eke out an "average." In a Boston College study released yesterday, American fourth- and eighth-graders performed better -- and eighth-graders showed gains -- but still nowhere near East Asian levels in math and science.

Less publicized has been why U.S. scores are so low. The OECD researchers identified several key characteristics that most successful school systems share -- namely, decentralization, competition and flexibility. These aren't exactly the hallmarks of your typical American school system, where choice and accountability aren't usually on the curriculum.

-The recipe for success, as project director Andreas Schleicher explained at a recent briefing in Brussels, is a decentralized system where schools are given a large degree of autonomy over curriculum and budget decisions. Whether schools are public or private is not as important as whether they "operate like a private one," Mr. Schleicher said.

-- Another important element is an open, flexible education system. In Germany, where the abysmal results of the 2000 study caused much public debate, the system is very rigid and often predetermines a child's future at an early age. As early as the age of 10, teachers decide whether a student will attend a school that ends with a university qualification or one where the diploma only opens the opportunity to learn a trade or to enter a low-level university.

-- Last but not least, successful schools have teachers who have a large degree of autonomy and responsibility, which leads in turn to a high degree of professionalism. It is not simply a matter of remuneration. Teachers in Finland get paid relatively little, but according to Mr. Schleicher there is a strong professional ethos and teachers routinely exchange experience to improve their skills.

U.S. dominance in technology, science and business has largely been carried on the shoulders of the generation of workers who went to high school when the Beatles were still together. With an ever-higher percentage of the work force expected to be employed in knowledge-based industries, school reform is a question of U.S. economic survival. This is also a reason to keep welcoming immigrants and foreign students. America's elite universities and research labs remain the destination of choice for many of the brightest and most talented minds in the world -- many of whom join the U.S. work force after graduation.

The OECD results are also ammunition for President Bush's proposal to expand the accountability standards of the No Child Left Behind Act to high schools. The 50% drop-out rate of our inner-city public schools continues to be a national scandal, but even our suburban high schools don't perform as well as they once did. If we want to maintain our standard of living, we'd better change that.