The world’s workforce pipeline pulses with top talent, yet American education remains mired in mediocrity. New test results of 15-year-olds worldwide reveal American performance is near average in science, math, and reading, flatlining for almost two decades. Yet the U.S. spends more, per-pupil, than nearly every competitor country and has implemented years of sweeping reforms. And still, America lags behind. 

Perplexing? Yes. Challenging? Sure. But, tick-tock: These are teens we’re talking about, and they’re entering the workforce soon. At stake: American competitiveness, and queueing up homegrown talent for STEM science, technology, engineering, and math jobs, which have grown 79% since 1990, according to Pew Research. Estimates indicate some 2.4 million STEM jobs are vacant.  

First, though, specifics about that test: Called PISA, the Programme for International Assessment, it’s administered triennially by the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development. New results are from 2018’s exam, taken by 600,000 teens in 79 countries and economies.  

A global performance yardstick, PISA is useful in a global economy. It’s predictive: Longitudinal research shows strong PISA performance is linked with higher educational attainment and lower unemployment by age 25.  

PISA is also useful in what it measures. The test assesses whether kids can apply what they know to solve real-world problems. Sounds like the work world, right? 

Here’s a performance review of American education. The U.S. ranked 13th in reading, 18th in science, and 37th in math slightly above OECD average in reading and science; below average in math. Ironically, given rankings, American students “reported significantly more competition than cooperation amongst their schoolmates to a greater degree” than any country, noted OECD. On the “needs improvement” list, then: cooperation and collaboration.    

Reading, PISA’s primary 2018 focus, yielded one triumph: 13.5% of American students, an increase from 2015, hit upper performance levels. Unfortunately, nearly one in five didn’t attain baseline proficiency. 

Science performance was stable if unremarkable. U.S. math performance was dismal, with American scores 11 points below average. Asian students, the world’s superstars, outstripped everyone. Teens in four Chinese provinces Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang beat American students by 113 points; 44% of Chinese students were top performers. In Singapore, 37% of students were top performers, along with 29% in Hong Kong, 21% in Korea and 8% in the U.S.   

American education needs a performance improvement plan. One strategy to demote: Relying reflexively on higher spending. U.S. per-pupil expenditures are 35% higher than OECD average, federal data show. One strategy to fire: relying reflexively on top-down reform. Myriad federal mandates, along with far-reaching Common Core Standards, have truncated local control and constrained curriculum. Common Core, allegedly “informed” by high-performing countries, promised to “prepare all students for success in our global economy and society.” How in the world is that proving out? 

The U.S. should learn, really learn, from top-performing countries. OECD will release policies and practices for success in June 2020. Still, earlier OECD evaluation provides valuable insights. There’s no singular template for success; countries vary widely. But here’s one epiphany: local control is critical. Giving principals and schools more authority over resources, curriculum, and school policies (especially assessment policies) is linked with higher student performance worldwide, when balanced with accountability. Also tied to better performance: competition among schools. Numerous other factors, from teachers’ subject matter knowledge and curricular control, to positive learning environments, to disadvantaged student support, matter too.

This isn’t news, really. But often in the U.S., a money-cures-all mindset and top-down reform have subverted such strategies. Continuing that approach is an expensive, bad bet. In the long run, it’s robbing the (job) bank.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.