When the 2010 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) results were released two years go, the news media and many politicians held them up as evidence that U.S. students were falling badly behind their counterparts in nations such as Finland, South Korea, Canada and Singapore. The somewhat alarmist coverage obviously didn’t consider relevant data that could provide valuable context for these scores. For example, little consideration is ever given to the cultural and demographic factors that define school systems in top-performing nations and in the United States. Not doing so paints, at best, an incomplete and distorted picture of how U.S. students actually stack up internationally, and it obscures the real issues that need addressing in our schools.
Recently, researchers at the National Education Association reviewed data from a multitude of sources to assess how the United States compares with high-performing nations in a number of key educational areas: face-to-face instruction time, equity in teacher pay, public perception of teachers, and impact of immigration. What they found was a more complete but more complex portrait, one that goes beyond the international “test factor” to compare specific aspects of education that are shaped by the norms and values of societies and, to a large extent, form the core of education systems. Through such comparisons, a clearer picture emerges of how particular countries that score well on international assessments differ from the United States and other nations.
Below is just a summary of some of the experts’ findings. You can find the complete report with sources here.
Instructional Time with Students
It is widely believed that students in other industrialized countries outperform U.S. students because they spend more time in school.Some countries do, in fact, require students to attend school for more days per year, but the actual amount of instructional hours required by other countries and the U.S. do not differ much at all.
At the elementary school level, all but five U.S. states require more hours than the average 759 hours of actual instruction required in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Also, at the high school level the vast majority of U.S. states require more hours of instruction time than the OECD average of 902 hours.
However, for middle schools the comparisons between the U.S. and other countries are stark. The total hours for middle school instruction for OECD countries range from 777 for Finland—a top performer on international assessments—to 1,023 in Italy—an average performer but strong economic competitor. As such, three of the five largest U.S. states rank near the top of all industrialized nations in the number of instructional hours mandated for middle school students—New York requires 990 hours of actual instruction time, Texas requires 1,260 hours, and Massachusetts requires 990 hours. California and Florida require 900 hours of instructional time, which is still above the average of 866 hours for middle schools in OECD countries.
In the U.S. and other countries, the amount of instruction received varies substantially from the instruction required because of time lost for class disruptions, which teachers have little control over.
Despite perceptions of noise and disorder in our schools, the majority of U.S. students feel their classroom climate is quiet and orderly. In fact, American classrooms are more orderly than classrooms in Finland, England, and France, and the positive reports from U.S. students have been improving for the past decade.
Over the past decade, the amount of instructional time lost in U.S. schools due to discipline issues has declined, and these trends also hold for other OECD countries considered to be our academic and economic competitors. On average, the percentage of students in OECD countries reporting their teachers “never” or “hardly ever” had to wait a long time for the class to quiet down increased by six percentage points between 2000 and 2009—from 67% to 73%. The increase in the U.S. was very similar, at 6.4%, and no country reporting on this measure showed a worsening of the classroom disciplinary conditions—25 out of 38 countries showed improvements and the remaining 13 showed no change.
How the Public Views Teachers
Americans hold high opinions of teachers, but teachers’ satisfaction in their profession has been declining steadily because they feel disrespected in their jobs. While American sentiment towards teachers is very positive, public policies toward the teaching profession in the U.S. are less rewarding than in other countries. This is reflected in U.S. teachers’ limited input in school decision making.
Around the world, the status of teachers is reflected in their level of professional responsibilities and their role in decision making. Although making decisions at the school level differs substantially among countries, the U.S. reports one of the lowest levels of decision making at the school level among other reporting OECD countries. In the U.S., 67% of decisions related to the organizing of instruction are made at the school level or after consultation with schools, while in many other countries the percentage is much higher—89% in England and Italy; 78% in Finland, France, Korea, and Germany.
Some scholars believe the status of teaching as a profession is rooted in the larger social and cultural values of society and may reflect some elements of gender discrimination toward a profession dominated by women. Experts point out that Finland is found to be among the most equal countries in how men and women are empowered. They argue that, while teaching is a well-respected and coveted profession in Finland, Finnish citizens’ respect for teachers might be explained more by the gender equity that exists in their country. In contrast, teachers in the United States—traditionally and predominantly female—are treated with much less respect.
The American public mostly believes teachers are underpaid, and the proportional spending on teacher salaries in the U.S. falls short of the same spending on teacher salaries in the other developed countries—reflecting different spending priorities.
Teacher salaries in U.S. secondary schools make up 55.3% of the total education expenditures, which is notably lower than the 62.8% average of OECD countries. Countries that devote a higher percentage of their education budgets to salaries include Canada (62.4%), France (59.5%), United Kingdom (57.1%), and Korea (56%). The proportion spent on teacher salaries in Finland (51.7%) was, however, slightly lower than in the U.S. A different picture emerges when comparisons are made between the U.S. and other OECD countries on the compensation of ‘non-teacher’ staff, including school administrators. At 26.1%, the U.S. spends a higher proportion than other developed countries on non-teacher salaries. Most OECD countries range between 12-18%, with a low of 8.6% in Korea.
Immigrant Student Population
The presence of immigrants from different cultures and ethnic origins helps define the diversity of nations, communities, and schools. The distribution of immigrant students in schools by a range of ethnic, social, and economic characteristics reflects the degree of assimilation encouraged by societies and the nature of challenges posed for education systems. For those countries with large immigrant and poor populations, these challenges impact schools in particularly obvious ways.
The U.S. ranks 7th highest among OECD countries in the percentage of immigrant students enrolled. At 19.5%, the U.S. is only exceeded by Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Switzerland, which have 23-25% immigrant students, and Luxembourg which has 40%. Eleven countries had fewer than 5% immigrant students.
Notably, however, the number of immigrant students enrolled in schools is not strongly associated with student achievement scores. Countries with the highest achievement on the PISA exams vary widely in their percentage of immigrant students. High-scoring OECD countries such as Canada and New Zealand each have 24% immigrant students, but Finland has only 2.6% immigrant students.
However, the U.S. has a disproportionately high concentration of poor, immigrant students attending disadvantaged schools. At 79%, the U.S. ranks 2nd highest among OECD countries. Countries with similarly high percentages of poor immigrant students attending disadvantaged schools are the United Kingdom (79.8%) and Belgium (76.5%). Portugal and Ireland have the lowest percentage of immigrants concentrated in disadvantages schools (12.5% and 26.2%, respectively). The latest scores on the international PISA exams confirm that enrollment in a disadvantaged school is highly correlated to the lower achievement scores of poor, immigrant students, and this relationship is even greater when correlated with the language of instruction at home. Some experts argue that the disproportionate number of poor students in U.S. schools accounts for the substantially lower scores of American students on international assessments. When adjusted for socio-economic status, the rankings of U.S. students improve considerably.