On Dec. 7, the results of the Program for International Student Assessment were released, ranking America 24th out of 29 industrialized nations on a test of 15-year-old students’ "mathematics literacy" and "problem solving."

Reading these baleful results brought to mind a personal experience I hadn’t thought of for years. My daughter, then in the 6th grade, came to me with her math textbook, asking for help with a type of homework problem that called for the use of a standard formula. I was thus astonished to open her textbook and read the instructions, "Solve the problem any way you can."

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With textbooks like that, I can’t help thinking, it’s no wonder our kids don’t understand math. Like warning alarms on a diving airplane, the PISA results are one more indication that we need fundamental education reform — because the ground is coming up fast.

The PISA is part of a battery of tests administered every three years that participating countries can use to see how they compare with each other and how they compare with their own internal forms of assessment. Participating countries are mainly the industrialized nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. This particular round of testing also included 11 countries that are not OECD members, so that 41 countries participated in all. Data are available for 39 of the countries, including 29 OECD nations.

A statistically representative sample of 15-year-olds from each country participated in PISA. Fifteen-year-olds were tested specifically to ensure that different nations would have comparable student populations, since schooling is compulsory for all 15-year-olds in each of the countries tested.

PISA questions students’ ability to (in the words of the examiners) "apply mathematical knowledge and skills to a range of different situations they may encounter in their lives."

For example, using a formula provided by the examiners, students are asked to compare and evaluate "the best car" in a table that lists five cars with four features each. On this question, American kids scored better on average than the OECD countries, but on the overall math literacy test, American students — which as a group didn’t even attain the average OECD score — were "less mathematically literate than their peers in 20 of the other 28 OECD countries." Three non-OECD countries, including Liechtenstein, topped America, while Latvia tied. Even the top 10 percent of U.S. students were, on average, "outperformed by their OECD counterparts." Performance on the problem-solving segment of the test was equally dismal.

The evidence that the American system of government schools isn’t getting the job done is not limited to the PISA results. The data demonstrating this are now practically endless, including findings on student performance on national tests, student performance on state tests, student performance on other international tests, graduation rates, the black-white achievement gap, teacher preparation, textbook selection, or the cost of remedial education to universities, colleges and employers. In the face of such overwhelming evidence, only those in serious denial would continue to maintain that America’s education crisis has been "manufactured"[1] by the political right.

Those who defend the monopoly school system that produces these results sing a single-stanza refrain that is easy to learn: We need more money. The refrain remains unchanged despite annual U.S. expenditures in excess of a half-trillion dollars on K-12 education and little improvement after three decades of ever-increasing largesse.

At this juncture, the government school system lacks neither the reasons nor the money to improve. What the system lacks is the capacity to change.

And why should it change?

Its gargantuan size has effectively eliminated the voice of parents, yet it is practically guaranteed an endless river of taxpayer dollars, no matter how it performs. Not even the full weight of the federal government and the ponderous 1000-page No Child Left Behind Act are enough to create and sustain systemic excellence.

Sadly, America hasn’t been desperate enough to roll up her sleeves and do more than spend money to solve this problem. But that may be changing. The economic consequences of our intransigence are becoming clear. For instance, on Oct. 1, the first day of a government immigration program that allows foreign guest workers to enter our country, companies like Microsoft filled a total of 65,000 technical jobs — the maximum allowed by the law. The correlation between our failed education policies and our increasing dependence on foreign talent is obvious.

PISA, other international exams (such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study[2]), and the economic fallout from ineffective schools are revealing that it’s time to get serious about solving the problem "any way we can." Defenders of the status quo have used the idea of trying "anything that works" to suggest a broad series of trendy, but ultimately feckless reforms involving spending, teachers salaries, state curricula, standardized testing, smaller class sizes, "child-centered" learning, Goals 2000, outcomes-based education, and a laundry list of other ideas.

Having seen these go down in flames, it is time to try the one thing that we haven’t tried but that works in every other segment of the American economy: marketplace competition on a massive scale, preferably through such school-choice solutions as universal education tax credits. To those who say such proposals are too extreme, I would respond that in this case, the math book would be right: It’s time to solve the problem any way we can. In fact, these instructions suggest the kind of bold, uninhibited and immediate approach that needs to be taken if America’s education problem is to be solved at all.


Brian L. Carpenter is director of the leadership development initiative for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

[1] Longstreet, W.S. (2000). Afterword: the age of pluralism. In Marshall, J. D., Sears, J. T., & Schubert, W. H. (2000). Turning points in curriculum: a contemporary American memoir. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill.

[2] Up-to-date TIMSS results for fourth- and eighth-graders will be released Monday, Dec. 13.