Americans have a split vision of education. Conventional wisdom has long held that our K-12 schools are mediocre or worse, while our colleges and universities are world class. While policy wonks hotly debate K-12 reform ideas like vouchers and the Common Core state standards, higher education is largely left to its own devices. Many families are worried about how to get into and pay for increasingly expensive colleges. But the stellar quality of those institutions is assumed.
Yet a recent multinational study of adult literacy and numeracy skills suggests that this view is wrong. America’s schools and colleges are actually far more alike than people believe — and not in a good way. The nation’s deep education problems, the data suggest, don’t magically disappear once students disappear behind ivy-covered walls.
The standard negative view of American K-12 schools has been highly influenced by international comparisons. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, periodically administers an exam called PISA to 15-year-olds in 69 countries. While results vary somewhat depending on the subject and grade level, America never looks very good. The same is true of other international tests. In PISA’s math test, the United States battles it out for last place among developed countries, along with Hungary and Lithuania.
America’s perceived international dominance of higher education, by contrast, rests largely on global rankings of top universities. According to a recent ranking by the London-based Times Higher Education, 18 of the world’s top 25 universities are American. Similarly, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, published annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, gives us 19 of 25.
But there is a problem with this way of thinking. When President Obama has said, “We have the best universities,” he has not meant: “Our universities are, on average, the best” — even though that’s what many people hear. He means, “Of the best universities, most are ours.” The distinction is important.
PISA samples the whole population of students. When Mr. Obama said, “In eighth-grade math, we’ve fallen to ninth place,” he was referring to the average score of eighth graders. He didn’t say anything about how many of the world’s 13-year-old math geniuses were American.
International university rankings, moreover, have little to do with education. Instead, they focus on universities as research institutions, using metrics such as the number of Nobel Prize winners on staff and journal articles published. A university could stop enrolling undergraduates with no effect on its score.
We see K-12 schools and colleges differently because we’re looking at two different yardsticks: the academic performance of the whole population of students in one case, the research performance of a small number of institutions in the other.
The fair way to compare the two systems, to each other and to systems in other countries, would be to conduct something like a PISA for higher education. That had never been done until late 2013, when the O.E.C.D. published exactly such a study.
The project is called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (known as Piaac, sometimes called “pee-ack”). In 2011 and 2012, 166,000 adults ages 16 to 65 were tested in the O.E.C.D. countries (most of Europe along with the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea) and Cyprus and Russia.
Like PISA, Piaac tests people’s literacy and math skills. Because the test takers were adults, they were asked to use those skills in real-world contexts. They might, for example, be asked to read a news article and an email, each describing a different innovative method of improving drinking water quality in Africa, and identify the sentence in each document that describes a criticism common to both inventions. The test also included a measure of “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” reflecting the nature of modern work.
As with the measures of K-12 education, the United States battles it out for last place, this time with Italy and Spain. Countries that traditionally trounce America on the PISA test of 15-year-olds, such as Japan and Finland, also have much higher levels of proficiency and skill among adults.
Of course, all 15-year-olds are required to go to school. College is voluntary. But when the Piaac numbers are calculated for people with different levels of education, America stills falls short of most other countries.
Only 18 percent of American adults with bachelor’s degrees score at the top two levels of numeracy, compared with the international average of 24 percent. Over one-third of American bachelor’s degree holders failed to reach Level 3 on the five-level Piaac scale, which means that they cannot perform math-related tasks that “require several steps and may involve the choice of problem-solving strategies.” Americans with associate’s and graduate degrees also lag behind their international peers.
American results on the literacy and technology tests were somewhat better, in the sense that they were only mediocre. American adults were eighth from the bottom in literacy, for instance. And recent college graduates look no better than older ones. Among people ages 16 to 29 with a bachelor’s degree or better, America ranks 16th out of 24 in numeracy. There is no reason to believe that American colleges are, on average, the best in the world.
Instead, Piaac suggests that the wide disparities of knowledge and skill present among American schoolchildren are not ameliorated by higher education. If anything, they are magnified. In 2000, American 15-year-olds scored slightly above the international average. Twelve years later, Americans who were about 12 years older scored below the international average. While American college graduates are far more knowledgeable than American nongraduates, creating a substantial “wage premium” for diploma holders, they look mediocre or worse compared to their college-educated peers in other nations.
This reality should worry anyone who believes — as many economists do — that America’s long-term prosperity rests in substantial part on its store of human capital. The relatively high pay of American workers will start to erode as more jobs are exposed to harsh competition in global labor markets. It will be increasingly dangerous to believe that only our K-12 schools have serious problems.