In the fall of 2009, thousands of 15-year-olds across the United States sat down to take a test. It had no bearing on their report cards or whether or not they made it to the next grade. But for everyone else, their scores were a startling look at the nation’s future.
The test was the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA,) which is given every three years to teenagers worldwide. The 2009 test results, which were released last December, show that American students are achieving about as well as kids in Hungary and Poland. But they are getting clobbered by kids from China, Korea and Finland.
Experts disagree about the relevancy of PISA results, but they represent a reality check to the education system -- one that has been described by some as a "Sputnik moment." How well American kids do in school impacts how much money we make today and how the country stacks up globally tomorrow. As the national debt climbs past $14 trillion and politicians scramble to get budgets in order, an improvement in our educational achievement is crucial.
"Education goes beyond fairness," Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council, said recently at the National Urban League. "It is an economic necessity."
From Straight A’s to Social Security
The story begins with a correlation that economists have long known to be true: people who learn more, earn more. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has calculated that above-average high school students can expect to take home $110,000 to $230,000 more in their lifetime than their average counterparts.
The more of those above-average students our schools produce, the better off we all are. When they eventually get jobs, they will be more productive and more innovative, and that will help the economy grow.
"The reason why the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world today is that the U.S. has had 100 years of economic growth," Hanushek said. "It’s economic growth that leads to improvements in welfare."
This growth translates to a larger gross domestic product (GDP) -- the quick and dirty measure used to size up a country’s economy. The bigger our GDP, the higher our average wages are, and the better-equipped we are to pay for nice things like social security, the police and health care.
But the kids who took the PISA will soon be footing the bill.
"If we don’t have good schools and kids with good educations, it’s going to affect social security, because the kids today are the ones who are going to be paying for it later on," said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at NYU.
The Price of Average
American students scored about average on the 2009 PISA reading and science tests. Fourteen countries or economic zones (as Shanghai and Hong Kong are considered) beat us at reading and 27 beat us at science. Americans scored below average in math, tying for 30th place with Ireland and Portugal, countries in the midst of their own debt crises. Students in Shanghai did better than everyone on all three tests.
The gap between American students and those at the top of the PISA represents lost opportunity. A study conducted by McKinsey and Company found that if the United States did as well academically as the top-performing nations, the GDP could be $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher.
How much is that? The economic loss from the most recent recession is estimated to be less than $3 trillion, according to Hanushek. So, every year, the result of the country’s lackluster educational performance is causing the equivalent of another recession. (Hanushek did a similar calculation, the results of which can be found here.)
Our education system is not running at full speed. Like an unclaimed lotto jackpot, there’s trillions of dollars in economic value that we could potentially cash in on. But we can’t find our winning ticket.
"What we are on is a lower growth pattern with no improvements in our schools," Hanushek explained. "It makes a very, very different future if we have growth or not."
Flash Forward to 2018
In the future, employers will demand more skilled workers to fill better-paying jobs that require higher educations.
"We used to have, in the fifties and sixties, relatively well-paid unskilled jobs like working in an auto factory," said Thomas Bailey, an economics and education professor at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University. But today, those jobs can be done abroad on the cheap.
What remains here are skilled jobs, but fewer people who can actually do them. In 2018, (when our PISA-takers will be 24-years-old,) employers in the U.S. will need 22 million workers with college educations, according to a Georgetown University report. But the country will only have 19 million people who fit the bill.
"If other countries continue to improve their education and we don’t, it will be harder and harder to keep - not just the jobs here - but the industries will continue to leave," Bailey said.
The hard-hitting truth the PISA drove home is that education is no longer just a local issue.
"We need to make sure American workers can go head-to-head with workers in any other country," Barnes said at the National Urban League. "We’ve got to be more productive, more capable, and more skilled than any workers on Earth."
That challenge begins with education.
Dana Chivvis is the digital journalist for Education Nation's The Learning Curve blog.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.