Ask Dr. Blank: Why do you think American students are falling behind other countries in education?

Although we might like to ignore them or rationalize them away, the results of our students in international comparisons are dismal. For example, last year, a lead story in the Washington Post began as follows:

When it comes to math, U.S. high school students are falling further behind their international counterparts, according to results released Tuesday of an ongoing study that compares academic achievement in 73 countries. In the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measuring math literacy in 2015, U.S. students ranked 40th in the world. And the news is not much better in reading and science literacy, where U.S. high schoolers have not gained any ground and continue to trail students in a slew of developed countries around the globe.”

The situation is deeply troubling and it carries major implications for our future. While many factors play a role, if we had to identify one key factor, my answer would be poverty. Research over decades has shown that being poor is the greatest single factor in school failure. The reasons are many, but a chief one is the way education is funded largely through property taxes which result in wealthy communities having the funds for good schools while poor communities do not.

In 2016, Alana Semuels, writing in the Atlantic, offered an extensive analysis of the issues concerning poverty and school failure. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/08/property-taxes-and-unequal-schools/497333/

The article concludes with the statement,

Opponents of school-finance reform often argue that money isn’t problem, and that increased spending won’t lead to better outcomes at schools in poor districts. But studies show that after courts order public schools to spend more on low-income students, students begin to do better and better in school. There may be challenges that go beyond what more equitable funding alone can solve, but it’s the best place to start.”

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