Why U.S. Ed Reform Falls Short: An International Comparison

By Sam Finn

The education reform movement in the United States is internationally unusual. Comprised of zealous educators, wealthy individuals, and politicians from both parties, American reformers have not worked to emulate the general conditions associated with achievement in high-achieving countries. Instead, they have largely chosen to focus their efforts on teacher evaluation, charter schools, high stakes testing, and accountability. Unfortunately, the U.S. reform effort has little to show for it in the new millenium.

With the passage of the No Child Left Behind act in 2001, the accountability component of the education reform movement became law. The policy punished poorly performing schools with closures and firings and pushed educators to focus on test scores like never before. Obama followed suit with Race to the Top in 2009. This competitive grant program incentivized states to focus energy on performance-based teacher evaluation, create supportive environments for charters, and raise test scores. In 2015, general dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind led lawmakers to replace it with the Every Student Succeeds, retaining the hallmark standardized test requirements while shifting accountability measures to the states.

During these past two decades, philanthropic dollars have poured into quickly proliferating charter schools with looser regulations and self-selected student bodies. Advocates of charters argue that they will help boost achievement through a focus on achievement data, accountability for teachers and students, administrative efficiency, and competition.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that the reform strategy of high-stakes competition has improved the nation’s educational outcomes. The PISA (Program for International Assessment) test is an academic achievement test administered to 15 year-olds every three years in countries around the world. Based on PISA results from 2000-2015, the U.S. has made no progress relative to its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In fact, U.S. scores have fallen even further behind the pack in math.


Reading Math


OECD Average


OECD Average






2015 497 493 470


In many ways, this comes as no surprise. Our country’s internationally unique reform flavor focuses more on measuring and incentivizing performance than it does on improving performance through changing underlying conditions. The United States cannot create a world-class educational system without making more serious changes to teaching and society. The top-performing nations tend to best us in three areas: child poverty, teacher pay, and teacher training. Each factor is examined below.

Child Poverty

The argument that education will help end poverty sidesteps the fact that poverty is known to dramatically hinder educational achievement. Children born in poverty are more likely to experience lower birth weights, inadequate medical care, food insecurity, environmental pollutants, stress in the family, and negative neighborhood characteristics. They are less likely to attend high quality preschool and are generally behind their affluent peers in vocabulary development before the start of kindergarten.

To what should be its great shame, the U.S. has long been a leader in childhood poverty amongst developed nations. A simple analysis of OECD data shows a strong relationship between child poverty rates and PISA scores in OECD countries.

If the U.S. wants to improve educational outcomes, its best bet may be to combat poverty.

Teacher Pay

Another common-sense and evidence-based approach to boosting achievement is investing money in recruiting a high-quality teacher force. A McKinsey report found that exemplar education nations — Singapore, Finland, and South Korea — recruited 100% of their teachers from the top third of their academic cohort. Meanwhile, the United States gets 47% of its teachers from the bottom third.

These top education systems can attract such quality talent in because they pay teachers a higher wage relative to GDP-per-capita. When comparing the salaries of teachers to earnings for other workers with college degrees, the United States ranks twenty-third out of twenty-four OECD countries with data. The average U.S. teacher salary as a percent of GDP-per-capita has decreased at a rate of roughly 2% per year since 1970. For our best and brightest to choose teaching as a profession, they must receive a salary that’s far more competitive than what’s currently offered.

Teacher Training

Finally, we do a terrible job training our teachers. There is no strong relationship in the U.S. between having a masters degree and being effective in the classroom, and it’s not hard to see why. In 2013, the National Council on Teacher Quality released a comprehensive report on teacher preparation universities and found “an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms with ever-increasing ethnic and socioeconomic student diversity.” As a Masters of Education holder myself, I couldn’t agree more.

Education darlings Singapore and Finland, by contrast, boast excellent teacher preparation systems. Both countries pay for their teachers’ education and provide them with stipends. South Korea’s top teacher programs are so competitive that applicants need standardized test scores within the top 5% to get in. Although it is not paid for by the government, South Korean teachers can easily pay off their high quality training with their future teaching salaries – highest in the world relative to GDP-per-capita.

How Did This Happen and How Can We Change?

Many people support the current ideas in the education reform movement because they promise a cheap and easy solution to deep-seated problems in education. Relative to serious structural reform, it costs little to authorize charters, to hold teachers accountable, or to make students take high-stakes tests. Reform-minded educators feel good believing that they can succeed with the tools at hand, philanthropists feel good believing they can solve a problem so easily, and politicians feel good believing they can impress voters without raising taxes.

While many of the current ed reform ideas have merit, it is time to recognize the implausibility that they are the solution to our educational problems. The logic of high-stakes testing itself demands that we change course if our data are not improving. Support for the ed reform agenda is distracting the public from the larger systemic issues that drag down our students and teaching force.

To make meaningful changes in the areas discussed above, our country must invest money where it matters most. Poverty cannot be solved cheaply, and it will take a serious restructuring of the taxation system and federal budget to fund effective anti-poverty programs.

Teacher pay and teacher training aren’t cheap either, but they may be easier to change in the short term. We should begin looking at options to reallocate existing funds in the system directly toward teacher salaries, as many successful charters do. There is a lot of room to trim bureaucratic and administrative personnel, and using free, public domain curriculum as New York state has done could save schools hundreds of millions each year.

For our subpar teacher colleges, we can start by investing federal funds in designing best practice programs to be replicated across the country. If we can spend billions designing more effective weapons, we can spend billions designing more effective teachers.

We know what it takes for our students to excel. We just need the will to take those steps.

Sam Finn is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.