Earlier this year the Council on Foreign Relations warned that the failure of our schooling system threatens our global competitiveness, economic prosperity, and even our national security. The results of a new analysis by Stanford University’s Eric A. Hanushek, Harvard University’s Paul Peterson, and the University of Munich’s Ludger Woessmann examines whether we’re catching up. As they report in Education Next:

…we can say that the rate of gain over the 14 years [for American students] has been just short of the equivalent of one additional year’s worth of learning among students in their middle years of schooling.

Yet when compared to gains made by students in other countries, progress within the United States is 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. …

In sum, the gains posted by the United States in recent years are hardly remarkable by world standards. …

Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann also noted that American student achievement gains vary widely:

Average student gains over the 19-year period in Maryland, Florida, Delaware, and Massachusetts… [amounted to] better than two years of learning. Meanwhile, annual gains in the states with the weakest growth rates—Iowa, Maine, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—…translate over the 19-year period into learning gains of one-half to three-quarters of a year. In other words, the states making the largest gains are improving at a rate two to three times the rate in states with the smallest gains.

Had all students throughout the United States made the same average gains as did those in the four leading states, the U.S. would have been making progress roughly comparable to the rate of improvement in Germany and the United Kingdom, bringing the United States reasonably close to the top-performing countries in the world.

The researchers recommend abandoning the utopian education policies pursued over the past 20 years, including setting 100 percent graduation, proficiency, and college-going rates. Instead, set realistic performance improvement goals to match the highest performing states. Over time, achievement will steadily rise.

While the researchers could not establish a causal link between overall performance gains and parental choice policies, it is worth noting parents and their children can’t afford to wait decades at a time for political reforms to kick in. If schools are working for them, they need quality options now…not years from now.