Every three years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducts its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a set of tests that measure 15-year-olds' performance in mathematics, science and reading.
The National Center for Education Statistics summarized the findings in "Highlights From PISA 2006." (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2008/2008016.pdf) American students ranked 33rd among industrialized countries in math literacy, and in science literacy, they ranked 27th. Reading literacy was not reported for the U.S. because of an error in the test instruction booklets.
How do we get out of this mess of abysmal student performance? Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has proposed an $18 billion increase in federal education programs. That's the typical knee-jerk response -- more money. Let's delve a bit, asking whether higher educational expenditures explain why secondary school students in 32 industrialized countries are better at math and science than ours. In 2004, the U.S. spent about $9,938 per secondary school student. More money might explain why Swiss and Norwegian students do better than ours because they, respectively, spent $12,176 and $11,109 per student. But what about Finland ($7,441) and South Korea ($6,761), which scored first and second in math literacy? What about the Slovak Republic ($2,744) and Hungary ($3,692), as well as other nations whose education expenditures are a fraction of ours and whose students have greater math and science literacy than ours?
American education will never be improved until we address one of the problems seen as too delicate to discuss. That problem is the overall quality of people teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have graduated with an education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school admissions tests such as the GRE, MCAT or LSAT. Schools of education, either graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university. As such, they are home to the least able students and professors with the lowest academic respect. Were we serious about efforts to improve public education, one of the first things we would do is eliminate schools of education.