Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools

Critics of the American education system have long looked to international test data as proof-positive that the academic progress of U.S. school children leaves much to be desired. “Look at the scoreboard,” these critics say, though this admonition invariably reduces complex issues to a single number, and provides comparisons that are not always appropriate. The truth is, test scores are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to comparing education systems in different countries, as a recently published study argues.

“School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect” examines school achievement through the lens of often overlooked economic and social factors in nine prominent nations:  Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The study grew from a collaboration among several major groups, including the Horace Mann League of the U.S.A., which is devoted to the principles of public education founder Horace Mann, and the National Superintendents Roundtable, a professional learning community of school superintendents from 30 states.

“It is a mistake to believe that one number can tell us all we need to know,” the authors write in their introduction. “Both the public and policymakers must understand what it going on beneath the waterline. Only after looking at the entire picture, can they then draw their own conclusions and take appropriate action within the sphere of their influence.”

To determine what underlying factors have the biggest impact on student success, the study focused on six major dimensions: economic equity, social stress, support for young families, support for schools, student outcomes, and, perhaps most importantly, system outcomes.

The United States, which has the highest GDP and the highest GDP per capita of all the nations in this group, scored very low on economic equity, social stress — as indicated by violence- and drug-related deaths, immigration, and teenage pregnancy rates — and support for families.

In terms of support for schools, the U.S. scored the poorest on the component of teacher workload, though the U.S. did comparatively well on the other indicators of school support. Teachers in the U.S. spend an average of 1,085 hours in the classroom, compared to an average of 664 for all those other countries.

As for student outcomes, the U.S. has for decades posted good results in fourth grade reading, according to the report, and solid school completion rates, but does not do as well on assessments of 15-year-old reading. Overall, the report shows the U.S. in the middle of the pack in terms of student outcomes.

“System outcomes” is where things get interesting. In this area, the U.S. outpaced every other country in the study on all the dimensions: years of education completed, possession of secondary and bachelor’s degrees, and the global share of high-achieving science students.

“The U.S. appears to have the most highly educated workforce,” the authors write, “in terms of years of schooling completed, the proportion of adults with a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree, and the proportion of the world-s high-performing 15-year-old science students…. The historic performance of American schools in producing adults prepared to take their place in the world,” the authors boldly assert, “is unmatched by any of the eight nations.”

Part of that success story is the fact that the U.S. remains “the land of the second chances,” enabling students over the age of 25 to enroll in higher education at great rates.

While that is an encouraging observation, it is not a cause for complacency. As the authors of the study note, “This could all change quickly if educational, community, and political leaders do not effectively address emerging challenges and the new demographics entering American schools.” They advise that the nation and its schools work hard to maintain this level of achievement.

It is stating the obvious to observe that adaptability is necessary in a fast-changing world.  School leaders can improve the quality of instruction, and we all have a role to play in bridging the achievement gap that is quite clear in our classrooms. But as this study demonstrates, many of our students show up to the classroom dealing with major stresses and traumas in their young lives. The overall success of our schools will require finding ways to ease those traumas for the young people and their families. Educators can help, but they cannot solve these problems alone. Parents, administrators, teachers, and the communities they serve must all work together to navigate around the obstacles to a student’s success that are ever present just beneath the surface.