America’s students just notched their worst-ever math scores on the
Program for International Student Assessment, the largest international study of teenagers’ academic abilities. The continued downward slide in test scores, even after roughly $200 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds was pumped into education, tells us the system is broken.

If the system was underfunded, the largest infusion of education funding in our nation’s history would have made a dent in the problem. But test scores still fell 13 points in math and dropped slightly in reading and science after Congress approved it.

The PISA test was administered in fall 2022, roughly half a year after America’s similar National Assessment of Educational Progress. Both programs test a representative sample of students’ math abilities, the former for eighth graders, and the latter for students at age 15.

If our students were bouncing back from learning loss, scores on the PISA, which was administered later, would have been at least better than the NAEP scores. Instead, the drop on PISA was steeper. Eighth-grade math scores on the NAEP in 2022 were eight points lower on a 500-point scale than they were pre-pandemic, a 1.6% total scale drop. Our PISA math scores, on a 520-point scale, are 13 points lower than they were pre-pandemic, a 2.5% total scale drop.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spun the news positively, saying in a statement, “At an extremely tough time in education, the United States moved up in the world rankings … Today’s results are further proof that President [Joe] Biden’s bold investments … kept the United States in the game.”

If Biden’s aggressive spending and tireless federal bureaucrats had any impact, it’s hard to tell. Our PISA rankings only improved because other countries had even steeper declines in raw scores than we did. The Biden administration is pretending that other countries’ academic losses are our gain.

Moreover, students in Singapore, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Estonia, Macao, and Canada are out-competing American students in all three core subjects. We rank ninth in reading, 34th in math, and 16th in science. Anyone who wants America to lead in the 21st century should not be satisfied with these results.

Only 7% of our students reached the top tier of math achievement. Compare this with the results in Singapore, where 41% of students earned top marks. Sixteen of the 81 PISA participant countries or economies had more than 10% of their students score in the top tier of the math test. America’s students are not well-positioned to thrive in the emerging global economy.

The cost of educational mismanagement is even steeper: Stanford economist Eric Hanushek estimates that school closures and the resulting learning loss will cost our future economy $28 trillion in lower productivity.

“We can’t be satisfied with the status quo in education,” Cardona admitted. But his political allies stand in the way of necessary policy changes. Teacher union boss Randi Weingarten, for example, took the PISA news as an opportunity to pretend she and her union wanted to reopen schools, despite previously calling the push to reopen reckless and cruel. Now that she can’t change the awful results, she’s trying to change history.

Likewise, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher union, told the New York Post that more money is the answer to our declining scores. Apparently, $200 billion was inadequate.

Even before the pandemic, the U.S. was already spending more per student per year than nearly anywhere else. If education spending was the key, our schools would already have been the envy of the world.

Money cannot buy a school system that puts students first. It cannot buy schools that stay open, demand high standards, and help students reach them. These test results demonstrate that American education does not have a funding problem — it has a policy problem, a teacher union problem, a bureaucracy problem, and an academic standards problem, among others.

The numbers don’t lie: Learning loss can not and will not be fixed by throwing more federal money at a broken system. If we want America’s students to be the best educated on the planet, the only way forward is to transform how students are educated.