By Arthur LevineParents nationwide are familiar with the wide academic achievement gaps separating American students of different races, family incomes and ZIP Codes. But a second crucial achievement gap receives far less attention. It is the disparity between children in America's top suburban schools and their peers in the highest-performing school systems elsewhere in the world.
Of the 70 countries tested by the widely used Program for International Student Assessment, the United States falls in the middle of the pack. This is the case even for relatively well-off American students: Of American 15-year-olds with at least one college-educated parent, only 42% are proficient in math, according to a Harvard University study of the PISA results. That is compared with 75% proficiency for all 15-year-olds in Shanghai and 50% for those in Canada. [The operative word here is "all." If true, the US is in deep trouble.]
Compared with big urban centers, America's affluent suburbs have roughly four times as many students performing at the academic level of their international peers in math. But when American suburbs are compared with two of the top school systems in the world—in Finland and Singapore—very few, such as Evanston, Ill., and Scarsdale, N.Y., outperform the international competition. Most of the other major suburban areas underperform the international competition. That includes the likes of Grosse Point, Mich., Montgomery County, Md., and Greenwich, Conn. And most underperform substantially, according to the Global Report Card database of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
The problem America faces, then, is that its urban school districts perform inadequately compared with their suburban counterparts, and its suburban districts generally perform inadequately compared with their international counterparts. The domestic achievement gap means that the floor for student performance in America is too low, and the international achievement gap signals that the same is true of the ceiling. America's weakest school districts are failing their students and the nation, and so are many of America's strongest.
The domestic gap means that too many poor, urban and rural youngsters of color lack the education necessary to obtain jobs that can support a family in an information economy in which low-end jobs are disappearing. This hurts the U.S. economically, exacerbates social divisions, and endangers our democratic society by leaving citizens without the requisite knowledge to participate effectively.
The international gap, meanwhile, hurts the ability of American children to obtain the best jobs in a global economy requiring higher levels of skills and knowledge. This economy prizes expertise in math, science, engineering, technology, language and critical thinking.
The children in America's suburban schools are competing for these jobs not only against each other and their inner-city and rural neighbors, but against peers in Finland and Singapore, where students are better-prepared. The international achievement gap makes the U.S. less competitive and constitutes a threat to national strength and security. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has estimated that America would add $1 trillion annually to its economy if it performed at Canada's level in math.
So what do Americans do? We talk a great deal about the achievement gap. We write books and reports about it. We wring our hands at its existence. We adopt a revolving door of short-term reforms in response. But nearly 30 years after the alarming federal report "A Nation at Risk," not one major urban district has been turned around. Many of our suburban school districts are losing ground. We have settled on a path of global mediocrity for students attending our most affluent schools and national marginality for those attending failing inner-city schools.
A Hollywood drama released in September, "Won't Back Down," offered an alternative. It told the story of two parents (one a teacher) determined to transform their children's failing school in the face of opposition from administrators, teachers and unions. The protagonists faced apathy and intransigence at every turn.
Hollywood caricatures aside, the movie correctly conveyed that parents are the key. [Then forget it. Parents are already far too busy, and overwhelmed. They elect their politicians to make their children's schools competitive with those of Canada and wherever. Now, Levine, you go and mess things up by saying there's a problem. Damb you, sir!] Parents need to say that they won't stand for these intolerable achievement gaps. The first step is for parents to learn what quality education is and how it is achieved.
This isn't a game for amateurs. Parents need to use every resource at their disposal—demanding changes in schools and in district offices; using existing tools such as "parent-trigger" laws and charter schools; organizing their communities; cultivating the media and staging newsworthy events; telling politicians and officeholders that their votes will go to candidates who support improvement; even going to the courts. If parents want change, they have the capacity to make it happen, but it isn't easy.
At the same time, it is critical to recognize that school districts can't perform miracles. They can't overcome the tolls of poverty and poor housing, but they can close gaps. They can raise the floor and the ceiling of student academic achievement. Some schools in high-need districts and suburbs are already doing this. There is no excuse not to—and, if we hope to compete globally, there is no time to lose.
Mr. Levine, a former president of Columbia University's Teachers College, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation