When the best and brightest aren’t really the best (or brightest)

It’s no secret that students in the U.S. stack up poorly against their international peers on math assessments. But even our best and brightest don’t match up with the highest achievers internationally, according to a new comparison.

In the Winter 2011 volume of Education Next, “Teaching Math to the Talented” — by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann — details how a considerably lower percentage of American students in the high school Class of 2009 were deemed “highly accomplished” in math than were students from other countries. In fact, 30 out of the 56 countries in the analysis had a larger percentage of students scoring at the advanced level than the United States.

Although much of the discourse around achievement centers on those who are currently underachieving, the report’s authors argue that this focus isn’t enough if we want to be a competitive nation. “Both federal funding and the accountability elements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have stressed the importance of bringing every student up to a minimum level of proficiency,” the authors say. “As great as this need may be, there is no less need to lift more students, no matter their socioeconomic background, to high levels of educational accomplishment.”

Even Massachusetts, the state with the greatest percentage of high-achieving math students, was still outperformed by students in 14 different countries. And in Mississippi, the lowest-ranked state, only 1.3 percent of students were highly accomplished in math — a result that 42 other countries surpassed.

So why are we falling so far behind even at the high end of the spectrum? It’s not that NCLB takes the focus off high-achieving students — an explanation the study’s authors consider but then dismiss. They don’t offer a different explanation.

The Hechinger Report’s Go Deep section on Math does look at an alternative explanation for the nation’s lower math achievement levels across the board: They might be the result of how we teach math.

In U.S. classrooms, teachers tend to cover lots of material superficially at the expense of having students master fewer skills that they can then build on, as teachers in other countries do. Or, as William Schmidt, an expert on math education at Michigan State University, put it: U.S. math curricula are typically “a mile wide and an inch deep.”