Report: American youngsters lag peers

American millennials — those born after 1980 — ranked worst among developed nations in math, tied with Italy and Spain, according to a study released Tuesday by the Educational Testing Service. The U.S. ranked 16th out of 22 countries in literacy, and in problem solving, the U.S. was last again, tied with Slovakia, Ireland and Poland.

The poor results come as the country has an increasing number of people graduating with a college degree.

Millennials were the target group because they are the most recent products of their countries’ education systems.

Nick Cabot, a UNC education professor, said he thinks more education might not be the solution to poor performance — it could be part of the problem.

He said curricula tend to focus on preparing students to pass a test rather than emphasizing retention and complete understanding of the subject.

“The United States is always worried about covering material in order to pass some kind of test since No Child Left Behind was passed in (2001),” Cabot said.

The U.S. routinely scores poorly in math skills compared to other countries — it was vastly behind others in a 2012 study from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.

Another issue Cabot believes is hurting the country’s millennials is that teachers try to cover too much material.

“There were a couple of studies done with the first series of these international tests, and what they identified is that American teachers try to cover too much stuff, while their German and Japanese counterparts spent more time looking at things in depth,” he said.

“Teachers don’t ask students about their answers, especially their wrong answers,” Cabot added. “There’s a lot you can learn from a student’s wrong answer.”

James Thompson, UNC’s associate dean for undergraduate curricula, said he thinks the main problem is the lack of government investment in the American education system.

“I think that public education has been under assault for a decade and a half in this country for reasons that are still not clear to me,” he said. “Teachers are getting the blame for poor outcomes when they get no support from the state, and they get attacked when money that would have gone to public education gets siphoned off for charter and for vouchers for private schools.”

Thompson said federal and state leaders need to prioritize support for public education if the U.S. wants to rise in the international rankings.

“You can’t take money out of public education and then say, ‘See, you’re doing worse,’” he said.

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