STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Americans may take the lead in London, but in the race for education, we're losing to Latvia

graphic from "Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance
On education gains, the U.S. lags behind other nations and Michigan lags behind other states.

Tonight, millions of Americans will tune into the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics, eagerly waiting to see whether the U.S. will resume its dominance in the race for gold.

If only we did so well in the race to educate our kids. 

Unfortunately, it surprises no one to hear that our students have fallen behind those in other countries. It's been happening for decades. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a report to President Reagan on a "rising tide of mediocrity."  The report, titledA Nation at Risk, said:

"What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur - others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves."

Almost three decades later, the trend in mediocre student achievement continues.

It's not that children in the U.S. haven't improved. In fact, we've made substantial gains since the 1980s on many educational measures. But other countries have been outpacing us. 

And a new report from Harvard and Education Next quantifies the problem. 

The report is titled Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance. The authors look at the rate of growth for 4th and 8th grade test scores in the United States, and compare them to test score improvements in 48 other countries. Turns out, the U.S. is right in the middle: 

"... when compared to gains made by students in other countries, the progress gains within the United States are shown to be middling, not stellar ... While 24 countries trail the U.S. rate of improvement, another 24 countries appear to be improving at a faster rate. Nor is U.S. progress sufficiently rapid to allow it to catch up with the leaders of the industrialized world."

Among the countries that are improving more rapidly than the United States: Chile, Brazil, Liechtenstein, Colombia, Greece, Mexico and even Iran. The country with the most rapidly improving test scores in the world is Latvia. And Latvia was already ahead of the U.S. on some education measures

Don't worry. The news gets worse. 

The authors of the report also broke down test score improvements by state, so we can see which states are lagging behind, and which are pulling ahead. Michigan is firmly in the "lagging behind" category. 

Michigan ranks 35th out of the 41 states in the study. Test scores for 4th and 8th graders in Michigan have improved. But they've improved at half the rate of leading states such as Florida and Maryland.  There is one bright spot for Michigan in the report. The authors also looked at education spending in each state to see which states got the most improvement for the least amount of money. Here, Michigan ranked high: 

" ... we ranked states on a “points per added dollar” basis. Michigan, Indiana, Idaho, North Carolina, Colorado, and Florida made the most achievement gains for every incremental dollar spent over the past two decades."

Of course, from 1990 to 2009, only three states in the U.S. had smaller increases in per-pupil spending than Michigan.  So, our test scores weren't great. But at least we didn't throw away a bunch of money on not-improving. We fell behind on the cheap.

And, hey, we've still got those Olympic games to look forward to. At least in London, Michiganders have a real shot.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.