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Worried that American students have fallen behind their overseas peers, U.S. policymakers are looking at education systems abroad for ideas on how to boost achievement here by making lessons more rigorous.

The latest international comparisons, released in December 2008, found American fourth- and eighth-graders performing above average, but far behind their counterparts in several European and Asian countries.

The concerns are so deep that 48 states and Washington, D.C. have teamed up with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to draft college- and career-ready standards. A chief goal of the “Common Core State Standards Initiative” is to align states’ academic standards with what’s being taught in the highest-ranking nations around the world.

This push for “world-class” standards entails looking at what students in other countries know, how they come to know it, and how that compares with what goes on in American classrooms. As business leaders and governors use international data to tout their latest reform plans, knowing the context of such arguments is vital.


William Schmidt, University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University, says the high-performing nations in science and math, such as Singapore and Japan, teach these subjects with greater focus, rigor and coherence than the U.S. does.

While American public education is known for the breadth of its curriculum, other nations focus on fewer topics, allowing students time to delve more deeply and get a better grasp of concepts. By eighth grade, when many U.S. students are still grappling with fractions and arithmetic, overseas students are studying algebra, geometry and trigonometry. And while American students are learning the nomenclature of human anatomy, students elsewhere are learning how body parts work. “They learn how you see, while we learn what the parts of the eye are,” Schmidt says.

The most recent results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study– known as TIMSS – provide a starting point for judging U.S. students’ relative performance academically. The study, conducted every four years since 1995, ranks the United States ninth in fourth-grade math, sixth in eighth-grade math, fifth in eighth-grade science, and 10th in eighth-grade science.

A look at specific test questions reveals where U.S. students fall short. Eighth-graders were asked to place coordinates on a graph to create an isosceles triangle. Internationally, 57 percent performed the task properly. Only 45 percent of American students were successful, which placed the U.S. 39th of out 48 countries. By contrast, more than three-quarters of all students tested in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong – as well as Slovenia, Lithuania and Russia – answered this question correctly.

Concern over U.S. competitiveness erupts with each release of international test results. In 2007, alarm at the slippage of the U.S. educational system was heightened by the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. The assessment, conducted in 58 countries among more than 400,000 15-year-olds, tests skills in reading, math and science, looking at how students apply what they know in novel settings.

It found that the United States ranked 21st of 30 developed countries in science, well below the OECD average. It ranked 25th in math and 15th in reading. The United
States was far outpaced by students in countries such as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore.


Andreas Schleicher, who heads OECD’s indicators and analysis division, says the highest-performing countries apply rigorous academic standards, recruit and train topnotch teachers, dig deeply into the subject matter, and allow little variance in performance by the highest- and lowest-performing schools.

U.S. schools, by contrast, are known to have curricula that some critics call “a mile wide and an inch deep.” That means they try to cover a lot of material but are unable to do so with any depth or rigor. The Common Core State Standards Initiative seeks to address this shortcoming by promoting “fewer, clearer, and higher” standards.

All of the better-performing countries have national education systems, which simplifies curriculum development and provides textbook publishers with clear standards for their textbooks. Publishers can then create textbooks that are more focused and thinner, often printed with soft covers at a low price. In order to sell their books nationally, U.S. publishers typically have to cover the wide range of topics that state standards emphasize.

Some observers in the U.S. find fault with the decentralized nature of American education, saying it no longer makes sense for each state to do its own thing. In a March 2010 op-ed in The New York Times, Susan Jacoby wrote, “No one in either party today has the courage to say it, but what made sense for a sparsely settled continent at the dawn of the Republic is ill suited to the needs of a 21st-century nation competing in a global economy. Our lack of a national curriculum, national teacher training standards and federal financial support to attract smart young people to the teaching profession all contribute mightily to the mediocre-to-poor performance of American students, year in and year out, on international education assessments. So does a financing system that relies heavily on local property taxes…”

In many Asian countries, “the idea of failure is not tolerated,” says Vivien Stewart, the Asia Society’s vice president of education, who has studied the OECD data. “It’s assumed that everyone will master the material, not just half of the students.”

In Singapore, the island country of 5 million off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, the nation invests in the development of the teaching profession, Stewart says. Each year, the Ministry of Education targets the top 30 percent of high school students and offers financial incentives for them to enter the teaching profession, choosing one of three career paths: master teacher, content specialist or principal. Once they enter the classroom, teachers in Singapore have a lighter workload their first year so that they have time to work with a mentor. Each teacher in Singapore receives about 100 hours of professional development per year, paid for by the government. American teachers typically receive about 15 hours, at district expense.

In China, where the national education system serves 20 percent of the world’s students, there’s a strong emphasis on the mastery of core concepts. Biology, chemistry,
and physics, as well as algebra and geometry, are required for high school graduation. In the United States, studies show about 40 percent of American students stop their science education at general biology.

College entrance exams in China dwell heavily on math and science, so secondary schools focus on these subjects to help their students succeed. Chinese students spend more time in academic pursuits. Their school year is 11 months, and Chinese students typically spend twice as much time on homework than their U.S. peers, according to a 2006 Asia Society report, “Math and Science Education in a Global Age: What the U.S. Can Learn from China.”


U.S. educators are already trying to replicate Singapore’s success in math instruction – it was ranked first in 1995, 1999, and 2003 on TIMSS. It was ranked second in fourth-grade math and third in eighth-grade math in 2007. “Singapore math” focuses on mastery; students are taught a topic and expected to learn it before moving on.

That’s different from the United States, which uses a “spiral” method of teaching, meaning that students revisit many of the same math topics each year.

Singapore math is now taught in many public schools in California. Scarsdale, the suburban New York school district that is considered among the nation’s most successful, has adopted Singapore math for its elementary schools.

Still, international comparisons can be misleading. Iris Rotberg, co-director of the Center for Curriculum, Standards, and Technology at George Washington University, warns that student samples from the United States and foreign countries are not always comparable. The U.S. students taking the tests may include more poor and special-education students, as well as students not fluent in English. While Rotberg says there’s plenty to learn from pedagogy overseas, the differences in the students who take the tests in each country can make the test scores “meaningless as an indicator of the quality of education.”

The Unites States may have a much more diverse population than most countries surveyed. But Schleicher notes that nine OECD countries have higher percentages of immigrants than the United States does – and those countries outperformed the United States on the most recent exams.

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