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LOSING OUR EDGE: American Teenagers Continue to Be Surpassed by International Peers in Math and Science

"The message from this international report for the U.S. Congress and every state official is that much of the world is improving education much faster than we are," said Bob Wise

American fifteen-year-olds fell two places in mathematics and two places in science in international rankings, according to the results of the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA), which were recently released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The continued slippage prompted speakers at a December 4 briefing to call on policymakers to examine what the United States could learn from other education systems around the world to better prepare American students for the global economy.

“The message from this international report for the U.S. Congress and every state official is that much of the world is improving education much faster than we are,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Being internationally mediocre in the Olympics means only a loss of national pride; [but being] mediocre in PISA forecasts a loss of skilled jobs for U.S. citizens. These results should rouse the public and all elected leaders to learn PISA’s lessons-all students must be given a true world-class education where they graduate from high school truly prepared for college or the modern workplace. The current Congressional deliberations about renewing No Child Left Behind must be the first-but not last-step to improve these international rankings.”

The event, titled “Losing Our Edge: Are American Students Unprepared for the Global Economy?,” was held in Washington, DC and hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, Asia Society, Business Roundtable, Council of Chief State School Officers, ED in ’08, and the National Governors Association. It featured a presentation by Andreas Schleicher, head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at OECD’s Directorate for Education and PISA’s chief architect and director, who presented the PISA results and provided analysis of the common elements of high performing education systems.

According to the results, the United States placed twenty-fifth among the thirty OECD member countries in math. In science, the U.S. ranked twenty-first of thirty. These results place American fifteen-year-olds below the OECD member country average in both subjects. Reading scores for U.S. students, which typically accompany the math and science results, had to be invalidated because of an error in the printing of the test. (More information on the printing error is available here.)

In his presentation, Schleicher noted that the United States had been the gold standard for providing people with a high school or equivalent qualification during the 1960s but pointed out that it now ranks twenty-first out of the twenty-seven OECD countries with available data. Meanwhile, Korea, which ranked twenty-seventh in the 1960s, today leads the world in graduation rates. A similar slide has occurred in the percentage of citizens with a college degree, as the United States has slipped from second in 1995 to fourteenth in 2005. Schleicher emphasized that the United States has fallen, not because it is doing worse, but because other countries are doing better. “The world is changing,” he said. “What was the gold standard is now closer to the OECD average.”

That was the message that the other speakers at the event also tried to send to policymakers in the United States. “As these latest OECD indicators show, the global talent pool is increasing,” said Vivien Stewart, vice president for education at the Asia Society. “We urgently need to develop a globally oriented world-class educational system to prepare students in the U.S. with the knowledge and skills to succeed.”

Roy Romer, former governor of Colorado and superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, now chairman of ED in ’08, agreed and challenged the 2008 presidential candidates to “show bold leadership, free from ideological constraints and the influence of special interests, to bring America out of this crisis back to a level competitive with top-performing countries.”

Other speakers at the event included Raymond C. Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors AssociationSusan Traiman, director of public policy of the Business Roundtable; and Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Video of the event, Mr. Schleicher’s PowerPoint presentation, and supplemental materials are available at

The OECD briefing note for the United States, which includes the complete PISA rankings, is available at

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