Academic journal article International Education Studies

An Assessment of Education Quality beyond Dinner Table Discussions

Academic journal article International Education Studies

An Assessment of Education Quality beyond Dinner Table Discussions

Article excerpt


News media often publish comparative studies that report U.S. student performance in a global context. The school quality concern seems so simplistic that anyone who had compulsory education can chime into the discussion. In this article, the condition of U.S. education is further disentangled across the boundary of K-12 and higher education. Core program features are examined to reveal profound factors behind student performance in mathematics and science. These findings are grounded on triangulation of the interrelated observations that are typically obscured from test score comparisons across nations.

Keywords: school quality, test score assessment

1. Introduction

Casual discussions concerning school quality happen every so often at American dinner tables (Brandburn, Hartel, Schwille, & Torney-Purta, 1991; Rotberg, 1990; 1991). This topic has drawn more public attention after President Obama's first major speech on education - In March of 2009, the President called for drastically improving K-12 student achievement to regain lost international standing (see Klein, 2009). Built on the score comparisons, this warning has reminded the public of the gloomy headline news that followed the historical report of "A Nation at Risk" in the early 1980s (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983).

Despite the mediocre labeling of public education, the Cold War did not leave the U.S. education system on shaky ground, particularly in the sector of higher education. Krist (1991) acclaimed that "the U.S. graduates the highest percentage in the world of 24-year-olds from a four-year college or university" (p. 119). As such, the United States was able to attract more foreign engineering students than any other country. Engineering as a major seems to be a good indicator because of its heavy reliance on mathematics and science training. Bracey (1991) observed, "When it comes to the world of engineering, we educate the world, and we keep the best and the brightest" (p. 114).

Although the nation's research and development (R&D) capacity is closely related to the support of higher education, no additional report has been produced by the federal government to rectify the reputation of U.S. as "a nation at no risk". Instead of giving due credit to the student pipeline prepared at the K-12 levels, the school system was constantly pressed by policy measures in the past, including the No Child LeftBehind (NCLB) act under the George W. Bush administration. In an effort to renovate the school accountability system, President Obama has indicated a desire to link teachers' pay to student performance (Klein, 2009). As the pressure escalates beyond the casual talks, more research is needed to examine the condition of U.S. education in a broad context. In this article, education outcomes are compared across the boundary between K-12 and higher education. School curriculum is examined to identify profound factors behind student performance in mathematics and science. Since those core subjects are taught around the world, the comparative lens may help enrich our understanding of U.S. education in the global context.

2. Perceptual Differences Between K-12 and Higher Education

To a great extent, attention on education quality has been guided by economic concerns for Americans' wellbeing. According to a three-stage model theorized by economists (see Ozawa, 1992; Porter, 1990), the primary stage of the economy is grounded on exploitation of natural resources. The secondary stage relies mainly upon capital investments such as manufacturing industries. At the tertiary stage of the 21st century, the U.S. economy is more dependent on human capital, i.e., the productivity of educated minds and healthy bodies of workers (Mortenson 2009; Voldere, Janssens, Onkelinx, & Sleuwaegen, 2006).

The K-12 levels have been perceived as a crucial stage of student growth in cognitive, affective, and physical domains (Torp & Sage, 1998). …

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