China Debuts at Top of International Education Rankings

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"Relative to other countries, the United States is decidedly weaker in mathematics than in reading or even science, although there is evidence that the U.S. is making progress relative to similarly performing countries," NCES Deputy Commissioner Stuart Kerachsky said in a statement.

In reading, the U.S. average score was 500, not measurably different from previous PISA assessments, or the OECD average score of 493. South Korea also came in first in reading, followed again closely by Finland.

Also of note is the gender gap – in the U.S., girls beat out boys in reading while boys scored higher in science and math. American girls scored 25 points higher than boys in reading, one of the lowest gender differences across all PISA participants. In science, U.S. boys scored higher on average (509) than girls (495). The same was true in math, where boys scored 20 points higher than girls -- 497 compared to 477 points.

"PISA 2009 was administered between September and November 2009 in the United States. The U.S. sample included both public and private schools, randomly selected and weighted to be representative of the nation... In the United States, a total of 165 schools and 5,233 students participated in PISA 2009 in the United States," Kerachsky said.

Duncan said that much of the conventional wisdom about why the U.S. is falling behind is mistaken. "The chief reason that U.S. students lag behind their peers in high-performing countries is not their diversity or the fact that a significant number of public school students come from disadvantaged backgrounds," he said. "The problem, OECD concludes, is that socio-economic disadvantage leads more directly to poor educational performance here in the United States than is the case in many other countries… Our schools, in other words, are not doing nearly as much as they could to close achievement gaps."

The secretary said more money is not necessarily the answer for America's educational shortcomings, urging instead that the U.S. direct more resources to the greatest challenges. "High performing countries tend to invest strategically very differently than us," Duncan said. "Unlike high-performing systems, we achieve less per dollar invested."

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, Duncan said the U.S. should focus on recruiting and supporting talented teachers in order to catch up to the rest of the world.

"In the United States, our system far too often fails to provide meaningful evaluation and incentives for the most effective teachers to teach the most challenged students. Too often we treat teachers as if they were interchangeable widgets in a school assembly line," Duncan said.

The teachers unions agree. "What the PISA results tell us is that if you don't make smart investments in teachers, respect them or involve them in decision-making, as the top-performing countries do, students pay a price," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

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