New Study Finds Middling Education Growth in America vs. the World, Disappointing Results in Wisconsin

By Christian D’Andrea

MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The United States is smack dab in the middle of developed countries across the globe when it comes to educational growth, and Wisconsin’s poor performance is doing very little to help things. That’s the theme of a new study released by Harvard University researchers. Doctors Paul Peterson, Eric Hanushek, and Ludger Woessmann – all renowned education policy experts – studied annual educational growth between 1995 and 2009 to better understand where America stands as a country and how individual states rate out when it comes to improvement in their schools.

Peterson, Hanushek, and Woessmann started their process by collecting testing data from the United States’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test uniformly given to gauge how states are performing across the country. These results were then compared across the PISA test, a metric that measures educational progress in countries across the globe. The two sets of student data, statistically normed in order to create a valid comparison point, were the basis for the group’s educational growth rankings.

The subjects used to compare country growth with math and reading at both fourth and eighth grade intervals.

The United States performed at the global average for the 49 developed countries observed in the study. America finished 25th out of this group, trailing behind a pair of surprising leaders in Latvia and Chile. Other notable countries that finished in the top 20 include Brazil, Portugal, Poland, Mexico, Israel, and South Korea.

There were 24 countries that showcased less educational growth than America over the past two decades. This included Canada, Australia, Russia, and Japan. Nine countries actually exhibited negative growth, according to the study’s global standards. This included Norway, Sweden, France, and Thailand.

The impact of America’s growth in the classroom was predicated on the performance within its individual states. These results varied wildly across the country. Maryland took top honors for having the steepest rate of growth with their students. Florida ranked second, while Delaware, Massachusetts, and Louisiana rounded out the top five states in terms of educational growth.

Wisconsin placed in the bottom five, ranking 38th out of 41 observed states. While Maryland led the way with growth of 3.3 percent of a standard deviation, Wisconsin improved by only .9 percent of a deviation in that span. Twenty-six states posted improvement rates that were at least double Wisconsin’s between 1990 and 2009. The Badger State outperformed only Oklahoma, Iowa, and Maine in the Harvard data.

Many of Wisconsin’s problems came from students that traditionally tested in the lowest-performing groups. While many states were able to post significant turnarounds when it came to students that graded out in the lowest scoring categories for reading and math, Wisconsin struggled to match these improvements.

For example, Wisconsin was able to reduce the percentage of eighth-grade students that scored below “Basic” when it came to reading and math concepts by 27 percent. While that was a significant improvement, only four other states posted lower turnaround numbers than that for their students. In fact, Massachusetts and Texas were able to produce 61 percent reductions amongst students that fell short of that “Basic” grade. Lapses like this dropped Wisconsin to the back of the pack in the national rankings.

However, it is also important to know that nine states were not able to participate in the study due to data-collection limitations. States like Oregon, Vermont, Alaska, and Illinois had chosen not to participate in early NAEP assessments, which disqualified them from the field of observable entries.

The study also looked at what inputs could be shaping these gains over time. Peterson’s group showed that substantial spending gains over time had no direct impact on educational improvement. While states like Maryland and Massachusetts rose to the top at a time when educational spending increased, other states with similar spending patterns like New York, Rhode Island, and West Virginia saw few gains and performed below the national average.

In fact, a regression analysis of incremental spending over the past two decades showed a scattered relationship between cost increases and educational gains. A stronger relationship with educational growth may come from a state’s willingness to embrace educational reform rather than just spending. The emergence of states like Florida, Maryland, and Louisiana amongst the top performers seems to back this up. There is no empirical evidence to tie these reforms to a state’s performance in the Harvard study.

This study does not paint a rosy picture for the future of American education. When it comes to growth and improvement, the country is lagging behind traditional leaders like Finland and Germany while also watching less renowned countries like Latvia and Chile improve at statistically greater rates. This low rate of growth threatens to harm the country’s status as a global leader in education well into the future.

However, the state level data is more optimistic – but not if you live in Wisconsin. Over the past two decades, only three of the 41 observed states had lower rates of educational growth than the Badger State. While states like Maryland, Florida, and Louisiana have improved greatly, Wisconsin seems to have rested on its laurels – supporting the theme of stagnant growth that has become a hot topic in the Badger State in recent years.

Wisconsin’s lack of growth in the classroom ranked it amongst the lowest performing states in the union over the past two decades. Peterson’s study suggests that just spending more won’t be able to fix that problem. Instead a combination of smarter spending and effective reform can create the growth needed to be a national leader when it comes to improving education for students.

While there are many lines of thought as to how those reforms should be brought about, this study should provide a further wakeup call to educational leaders. Changes need to be made or else Wisconsin risks ceding its place at the top of the educational rankings to hungrier states below it.

About the Authors – Eric A. Hanushek is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard and director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. Ludger Woessmann is head of the Department of Human Capital and Innovation at the Ifo Institute at the University of Munich. The authors are available for interviews.

About Education Next –  Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

For more information on the Program on Education Policy and Governance contact Antonio Wendland at 617-495-7976,, or visit