More money, less education – an international comparison

Lee's Summit JournalMarch 19, 2014 

The recent numbers for the Program for International Student Assessment were released last December. Again U.S. students scored the same or worse than three years ago: our students ranked 20th in reading, 23rd in science and 30th in mathematics among the 65 countries that participated in the assessment.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appraised these results as educational “stagnation.” Others were even harsher. The nationally known educator Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle, assessed the U.S. performance as “the bad, the ugly.” By comparison, ourbrightest are not that bright.

What is PISA? PISA is an international assessment “that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy.” It also includes measures of general or cross-curricular competencies, such as problem solving. In the United States, PISA is conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics.

If the United States that spends huge sums of money on education in comparison to many of the countries (i.e. Estonia, Vietnam) that performed better in PISA, one could easily make the case that money is not the only major determining factor in educational achievement. In this country, we can easily find some of the lowest performing districts that have the highest per student expenditures.

Experience shows that blaming teachers, administrators, parents, politicians, or even students has not helped. The culture of the community views of education must play a major role in student achievement. I used to make presentations on “Comparative and International Education” where I highlighted what educators are doing in other countries that we are not doing here. We do not have the room or the time to cover a lot here, but I ask myself these whys.

1. Why is it that when walking into a high school around here, you are overwhelmed with more pictures of student athletes and trophies all over the hall, but no single artifact representing the most academically achieving students? No one knows who the genius in math in the building is, but adults in the building make sure that everyone knows who the quarterback is.

2. Why is it that the International Baccalaureate and the AP courses are not the norm in this system? Is it because standardized tests are cheap to create, require less time to grade, and are easy to administer? The IB is the only system most countries know and apply. But the test is not cheap to create, not easy to administer, and requires a lot of time and a huge personnel commitment on the part of the schools. At the conclusion of the AP and IB testing process it is far easier to accurately quantify the academic performance of the student.

3. Is it always about money in educational institutions? Why it is that high school coaches are paid higher per hour for working with student athletes than the teachers for tutoring students in math? Why is it major university coaches are paid sometimes up to ten times more than a Nobel Prize winner who teaches at the same institution? Why is it that year after year we hear of student athletes who are given fake grades so that they can compete? In educational institutions, do we place too much emphasis in sports than in academics?

In response to why students from other parts of the world score higher than their U.S. counterparts, an analysis suggests that the learning of foreign languages may enhance students’ intelligence allowing them to score higher in the same tests that monolingual U.S. students take.


Emmanuel Ngomsi, President of All World Languages and Cultures, Inc. He educates and coaches on issues of cultures and diversity. He can be reached at info@universalhighways.

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