Debate is raging in Chicago on extending the school day to 7 hours for elementary school students and 7 1/2 hours, four days a week, for high school students in a system that had no funds even to give teachers the raises promised in the last contract negotiation. Classroom sizes are swelling throughout the country with districts laying off personnel because of dwindling property tax collections, the result of lowered real estate valuations from the housing industry implosion and subsequent recession.
The state of U.S. public education has been a whipping boy for decades with various schemes -- charter schools, vouchers, incentives for both students and teachers -- having little effect on overall performance. No Child Left Behind, which requires a specific percentage of students to meet proficiency goals by 2014, resulted in numerous states setting standards so low they defeated the purpose of the legislation. So far, the Obama administration has granted waivers from the law's requirements to 32 states, in the absence of action by Congress to amend the law, and five more waivers are under review.
The PEPG study found little correlation between increased per pupil spending and improvements in test scores so just throwing money at the problem is not the answer. To make matters worse, though significant gains were found at the fourth grade level, those gains fall off by eighth grade and virtually disappear by the junior year of high school.
The PEPG study pegs U.S. students in the middle of the 49 countries studied -- students in 24 countries doing better and students in 24 others doing worse.
The study found students in Latvia, Chile and Brazil improving three times faster than students in the United States and those in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia and Lithuania making gains at twice the rate.
"Progress within the United States is middling, not stellar," Paul E. Peterson, Harvard professor and PEPG director, said in a release.
"In sum, the gains posted by the United States in recent years are hardly remarkable by world standards. Although the United States is not among the nine countries that were losing ground over this period of time, 11 other countries were moving forward at better than twice the pace of the United States, and all the other participating countries were changing at a rate similar enough to the United States to be within a range too close to be identified as clearly different," the report found.
"The United States' failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country's ability to thrive in a global economy," a report by the Council on Foreign Relations concluded earlier this year.
"Overall, U.S. educational outcomes are unacceptably low."
The PEPG report cites another study that found a strong correlation between math scores and a country's gross domestic product.
"Because rates of economic growth have a huge impact of the future well-being of the nation, there is a simple message: A country ignores the quality of its schools at its economic peril.
"Some would excuse the mediocre U.S. performance by claiming that it provides a more equal education to a much more diverse population than other countries do. It is claimed that test scores in the United States are lower than those in many other countries because they are not providing an education to all their students," the study said.
"That argument might have made some sense 50 or 75 years ago, but it is a seriously dated view of the world. The data included in this report come from students who are between the ages of 8 and 15, and in virtually all the 49 countries participating in this study, only tiny percentages of the population within these age cohorts are not in school."
The study also notes the 72 percent four-year high school completion rate in the United States is comparable to graduation rates elsewhere.
Within the United States, schools in Maryland showed the most progress, followed by Florida, Delaware and Massachusetts, the PEPG study found. But in most states, improvement rates were half those in the top tier and the smallest gains were made in Iowa, Maine, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Alaska, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington weren't included in the assessment because students in those states did not take the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in the early years of the study, which covered testing from 1992 to 2011.
"Had all students throughout the country made the same average gains as those in the four leading states, the United States would have been making progress roughly comparable to the rate of improvement in Germany and the United Kingdom, bringing the United States reasonably close to the top-performing countries in the world," the report said.
Part of the problem, said Eric Hanushek, another of the study's authors, are unrealistic, ill-defined goals with no clear path to getting there. He cited, as an example, a 1990 pronouncement by President George H.W. Bush and the nation's governors setting a goal of making U.S. students "first in the world in math and science by 2000." Clearly, that didn't happen.
More realistic, Hanushek said, would be setting a series of milestones along a 20-year timeline.
Five of the top 10 performing states were part of the Confederacy -- Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia -- while Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana were in the bottom tier. Rounding out the top 10 were Massachusetts, Louisiana, New Jersey and Arkansas.
"Unlike in the South, the reform movement has made little headway within midwestern states, at least until very recently. Many of the midwestern states had proud education histories. ... Satisfaction with past accomplishments may have dampened interest in the school reform agenda sweeping through southern, border and some western states," the report said.
The PEPG study can be found at http://www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/Papers/PEPG12-03_CatchingUp.pdf.