Trying to Understand the Educational Gap Between the USA and Other Countries

Vicki Parker, Ph.D. CCC-SLP – The Brain Trainer

In 2016, I read an article on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)   It was a summary of the results of the testing of academic skills for teenagers around the world; 70 countries took part in the testing.  The report (  has been turned over in my head many times since I initially read it and recently, it popped up on one of my newsfeeds.  So, I didn’t want to let it go this time without starting a discussion about the academic standing of the USA and why I think it is important.  The test is given every three (3) years, to 15-year-old students, and it focuses on science, math and reading abilities.  It also has questionnaires that ask questions about the students themselves, their homes, schools and learning experiences.  Measures of knowledge, economic equity and gender correlations were made.

Many people assume that lack of funding is one of the primary problems in the educational disparity between the nations. However, the report revealed that spending, or lack-there-of, is not why we have such a large gap between the USA and the top performing countries.  For reference: The Washington Post reports that in the USA, a range of $6,555 to $19,818, or an average of $10,700, was spent by municipalities and local governments on education per student ( .  CBS news reported that the USA spends 7.3% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per student, on education; world-wide the percentage was 6.3% of the GDP ( .  I have been unable to find a specific amount or percentage for the top 10 academically achieving nations.  Since our Governmental spending does not appear to be the source of the problem, it seems possible that the cause may be our curriculum, how we teach, our personal priorities and investments in education, or our children are simply not as smart.

As I read this report these questions came to mind:

  1. 1. Our reality is that this is a global information-based job market, so why aren’t American’s concerned that we are not in the top 25 performing countries in science (25), math (35) or reading (tied 23)?

If our children will be competing for those jobs, then our academic benchmark truly becomes the global rankings.  We want our kids to be competitive so that they will be able to get into colleges, globally and nationally, and become graduates of these institutions. Who doesn’t want their child to win that big job in a competitive global market?  It is hard to come up with secure, high paying jobs that are only competitive locally. Try to come up with 10 jobs that are only competitive locally. That is nearly impossible to do in today’s world.

  1. 2. Can cognitive and academic skills change or are they what they are?

The answer is yes.  Cognitive skills can change when exercised in an appropriate hierarchy and correctly. Research at the cellular level shows that reorganization and neuro-response is possible (Seil, 2014). Tracy Alloway, Milton Dehn and many others have documented that cognitive skills can improve; there are multiple research studies on the neuroplasticity of working memory.  Besides memory, the cognitive areas that can be improved are attention abilities, auditory and visual processing, and logic and reasoning (Jaeggi, 2011). Thankfully, Countries and economies used grade repetition less frequently in 2015 than in 2009.”  Interesting to note that globally, we seem to realize repetition without any intervention is not advantageous, so we are not typically holding children back a grade to repeat the same information.  The questions that come to mind with regard to this information are: how are we providing interventions?  And, which interventions change a child’s skills, especially their cognitive skills? Why haven’t we focused on improvement of cognitive skills in grades K-3 instead of information-based curriculum?

  1. 3. We are similar to Canada in so many ways. What are they doing differently that they consistently rank in the top 10 for science (07), math (10) and reading (03)?

The small amount of research I completed on this topic showed that curriculum is consistent across providences in Canada and education is not decided on the local level.  Singapore, who is at the top of the list for all subjects, (Science, Math and Reading), also has a centralized curriculum.

The USA is a leader in neuroscience, yet our curriculums at critical developmental periods are not cognitively based.  We hold on to a traditional calculus curriculum over the more relevant problem-solving and comparison math of statistics.  The trends reported on: “How much time students spend learning?" and "How science is taught" are even more strongly associated with science performance and the expectations of pursuing a science-related career than how well-equipped and –staffed the science department is, which extracurricular science activities are offered at school and science teacher’ qualifications, OECD 2016).”  What I pull from this paragraph is that how we teach matters.  So, the questions we need to pose to those training teachers and shaping curriculum are: "How are we training teachers?" and "Do we spend enough time on science in our schools to give students exposure?"

Research around the world supports “early intervention and education” yet, in America, we don’t have initiatives that support this.  Currently we are backing away from early start programs such as Head Start.

Another area to explore would be the emphasis and heavy pressure to participate at high levels that we (Americans) put on our students to play after school/school sanctioned sports and weekend travel sports.  In my own experience working with students in elementary school through college, this passion is often prioritized over academics and with some parents is a goal to progress their child on a sports long-term career path.  Parents often get caught up in the dream instead of working the problem backwards in reality: where will their child end up spending their most time? The simple answer: in the work force. In September 2017, USA Today Sports reporter, Adam Shell, found that “20% of families spent $12,000 a year or $1000 a month on youth sports per child.”  TD Ameritrade also found that “most American families (63%) spend anywhere from $100 to $499, per child, each month on youth sports.  Another 18% fork over $500 to $999 monthly.  Roughly one in 10 (11%) spends $1000 to $1999.  On the high end, 8% spend $2000 per month or more, or $24,000 – plus per year.” This may actually be a contributing reason for the academic gap between the children in the USA and other countries. Parents choose to spend their money on athletic endeavors, hoping their child will be the next LeBron James, Tom Brady or A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez) rather than giving their children a great education that will last a lifetime and help them in the way that the majority of people spend their adult lives… in the work force.

What are your thoughts on USA’s ranking on the PISA test and why we can’t move the education needle forward as a country for the majority of our students?

In two weeks, cross country and track running coach, Jennifer Duft, will share her insights about sports and education.


The Organisation for Economic Co-operational and Development (OCED) 2015 report.

Alloway, R. and Alloway T.P. (2013) The New IQ: Use Your Working Memory to Think Stronger, Smarter, Faster. Fourth Estate Ltd

Alloway, T.P.  (2010) Improving Working Memory: Supporting Students' Learning.  SAGE Publications

Dehn, M.J.  (2011) Helping Students Remember: Exercises and Strategies to Strengthen Memory.  Wiley.

Doidge, N. (2007) The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.  Penguin Group. NY, NY

Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Shah, P. (2011). Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(25), 10081-10086.

Seil, FJ. (2014) The changeable nervous system: studies on neuroplasticity in cerebellar cultures. j.neuobiorev. Pg. 212 – 32

Valeo, T., (2008) Dyslexia Studies Catch Neuroplasticity at Work.

Dana Organization.

Coughlan, S. (2016) Pisa tests: Singapore top in global education rankings.

Gurria, A. (2015) PISA 2015: PISA Results in Focus.

The Associated Press (2013) U.S. education spending tops global list, study shows.

Conversations: The Missing Skill – Active Listening


Think about a time when you felt heard and when you were fully engaged in a conversation?  It’s not when someone is giving a great monologue (story) or when you’re busy thinking of the next witty thing to say.  It is when there is back and forth dialogue between the participants and both individuals are good listeners. The participants can tag the next person that it is their turn to talk by asking a question, making a comment or providing a compliment.  The tagger is interested in what the other person has to say, so they help the conversation along by giving signals that they would like the other person to comment on the topic.  This is when conversation is fun and interesting.


How can you show active listening?  Give the other person many different signals that you are interested in the conversation.  Use non-verbal responses such as; leaning in, changing one’s facial expression and head nodding along with body posture.  Use vocal and verbal skills such as saying; “yes, yes”, “mmmm”, “I agree”, “Tell me more” and other comments, questions and compliments.  Respond to the idea or fact that has been presented by the other person rather than just stating your own thoughts and opinions.  This is summarizing what the other person said and adding on new information.


How do you tag another person during conversation?  Provide a break in your verbalizations, look at the other person with expectancy (eye contact) and simply, wait a minute.  Silence does not necessarily kill conversation.  At other times, ask the other person a follow-up, open ended question, comment on what the other person just said or compliment them on their thoughts or other qualities.  Then wait again, to allow time for the other person to respond.


When do people seek help from a Speech Pathologist about conversational skills?  This is often related to the individual having difficulty with social interaction in high school, college and/or at work.  Sometimes we need to learn active listening skills to better our response from others such as when doing a formal presentation at work.  Sometimes people may merely need to practice, and/or learn, active listening skills to improve the delivery of a formal presentation at work.  You need to understand cues from the audience that provides the feedback and watch and actively listen to how others are responding.   Good conversations and presentations don’t start with talking; they start with listening.


What are some things that kill conversations?  We’d love to hear about your experiences! Please respond in the comment section below.