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In an important new report, America Achieves tells us that middle-class students in the United States are trailing their peers abroad. U.S. students were significantly outperformed by peers in 24 countries in math, if one looks only at those who fall just above the median position on its index of social and educational “advantage.” Among those who fall just below the index median, U.S. students ranked 32nd.

Over the past two decades, gains of 1.6 percent of a standard deviation have been garnered annually by 4th- and 8th-grade students on the math, science, and reading tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card. An upward trajectory of 1.6 standard deviations cumulates over 20 years to 32 percent of a standard deviation, well over a year’s worth of learning.

We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” the president told the country in his State of the Union speech. His comment was based on a pioneering study by Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff, published in this issue (see “Great Teaching,” Research), which for the first time combines tax data that reveal earnings at age 28 with information on student learning when that
person was in elementary school.

President Obama staked out a position on education this spring, delivering a radio address that bluntly acknowledged that American high school students are trailing international averages. He sketched out details of a bill his administration would be pushing to revise the No Child Left Behind Act. He proposed to preserve testing requirements but create a better measuring stick, require that teachers be evaluated by performance (not credentials), and use carrots instead of sticks to encourage progress.