U.S. Has a Well-Educated Workforce as well as Economic Inequity and Social Stress

Comparisons of U.S. test scores to other nations have become fodder for all parties in education reform, whether they believe we should emulate other countries or ignore the results. According to School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect, a new report from the Horace Mann League (HML) and the National Superintendents Roundtable, academic results are not meaningful without looking also at the social, economic, and cultural environments of the students. The report examines six dimensions related to student performance—equity, social stress, support for families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes—in countries that are similar or often compared to the United States (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, Finland and China). The U.S. ended up in the middle of the group on final analysis with a high rate of educational attainment in the work force, but it also has the highest levels of social stress and the lowest levels of support for young families.

“We don’t oppose using international assessments as one measure of performance. But as educators and policymakers, we need to compare ourselves with similar nations and on a broader set of indicators that put school performance in context—not just a single number in an international ranking,” said James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.


  • Economic Equity: The United States and China demonstrate the greatest gaps between rich and poor. The U.S. also contends with remarkably high rates of income inequality and childhood poverty.
  • Social Stress: The U.S. reported the highest rates of violent death and teen pregnancy, and came in second for death rates from drug abuse. The U.S. is also one of the most diverse nations with many immigrant students, suggesting English may not be their first language.
  • Support for Families: The U.S. performed in the lowest third on public spending for services that benefit children and families, including preschool.
  • Support for Schools: Americans seem willing to invest in education: The U.S. leads the nine-nation group in spending per student, but the national estimates may not be truly comparable. U.S. teachers spend about 40 percent more time in the classroom than their peers in the comparison countries.
  • Student Outcomes: Performance in American elementary schools is promising, while middle school performance can be improved. U.S. students excel in 4th grade reading and high school graduation rates, but perform less well in reading at age 15. All nations demonstrate an achievement gap based on students’ family income and socio-economic status.
  • System Outcomes: The U.S. leads these nations in educational levels of its adult workforce. Measures included years of schooling completed and the proportion of adults with high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. American students also make up 25 percent of the world’s top students in science at age 15, followed by Japan at 13 percent.

Offering recommendations for educators, communities, policymakers, and international assessment organizations, the report calls for societal efforts to reduce the amount of stress and inequity faced by all students. It also calls on nations to minimize “alarmist rhetoric” when discussing education and to not worry about rank as much as the students’ well being.

Read the summary, School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect, or read the entire report, School Performance in Context: Indicators of School Inputs and Outputs in Nine Similar Nations, on the Horace Mann League website.

Education Policy