U.S. President Barack Obama discusses education at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., March 14, 2011. Obama called on Congress to reform the No Child Left Behind act. UPI/Leslie E. Kossoff/POOL | License Photo
Is U.S. education like the weather? Everyone talks about it but no one can quite figure out how to improve it?
Education theory has changed over the years from the days when students were bolted to their seats and kept their mouths shut amid threats of being sent to the principal's office to today's more relaxed classrooms where students roam freely and say whatever pops into their heads.
Teachers are now taught children learn differently and the different needs of the few need to be accommodated -- no matter what that does to the rest of the class.
The result? The United States appears to be falling further and further behind other industrial countries, especially when it comes to math.
A University of Arkansas study released last week indicates more than two-thirds of school districts are mediocre at best when it comes to math achievement.
The study, published by Education Next, found students in even wealthy suburban districts do relatively poorly compared with their peers in 25 other developed countries and an earlier study found even high-achieving students can't match their foreign counterparts.
"Certainly performance in math is worse than in reading and that is probably because we do not focus our attention on math to the extent that we should," said Paul Peterson, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance. "We don't pay math teachers any more than other teachers so we're probably getting weaker teachers in math.
"We don't have comprehensive exams when you graduate from high school. Students in other countries are studying in preparation for these exams. … [Foreign] students work harder and perform better. Other countries give families a choice of school and the government pays for it. We don't."
The study, "When the Best is Mediocre," found math achievement by the average student in Beverly Hills, Calif., fell into the 53rd percentile relative to the international comparison group. White Plains, N.Y., is at the 39th percentile; Evanston, Ill., is at the 48th percentile; Montgomery County, Md., is at the 50th percentile, and Fairfax, Va., is at the 49th percentile.
The researchers compared results from the National Assessment for Educational Progress for U.S. students with results from the Program for International Student Assessment administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The study found the average student in Pelham, Mass., is in the 95th percentile and students in Spring Lake, N.J., and Waconda, Kan., are in the 91st. Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago were among the worst performing, falling into the 11th, 12th, 20th and 21st percentiles, respectively.
Of the top 20 performing U.S. districts, seven are charter schools and 13 are in rural communities.
"In four states -- Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia -- there is not a single traditional school district with average student achievement in math above the 50th percentile," the study found. "In 17 states, not a single district has average achievement in the upper third relative to the global comparison group. In over half of the states, there are no more than three districts that reach average achievement levels in the upper third."
"I really think we have to understand math is a skill that is crucial in the 21st century," Peterson said. "So many jobs are requiring that ability. We need to recruit people from other countries to fill those jobs because we're not supplying qualified people ourselves."
Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced it planned to grant waivers from No Child Left Behind standards that officials said had backfired -- actually leading to the dumbing down of standards so that districts could say they were compliant with performance standards.
"Today, our kids trail too many other countries in math, in science, in reading. Our kids only get one shot at a decent education. They cannot afford to wait any longer … ," Obama said in announcing the waivers.
"So … we'll be giving states more flexibility to meet high standards. Keep in mind, the change we're making is not lowering standards; we're saying we're going to give you more flexibility to meet high standards. We're going to let states, schools and teachers come up with innovative ways to give our children the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future."
Peterson said U.S. students showed substantial gains in math as a result of the No Child law.
"Whether or not the waiver policy of the Obama administration will affect these gains remains to be seen, as it has yet to be implemented," he said.