There’s more bad news about U.S. secondary education: This week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published the results of its triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey of 15-year-old students’ proficiency in mathematics, science, and reading. The report included 72 countries.

Once again, the United States did not perform well, ranking only 40th overall among the 72 countries. U.S. students performed only about as well as the average in reading and science, and below the average in mathematics. The PISA survey includes countries from former Eastern Bloc, large parts of Central and South America, and developing counties like Indonesia. This is hardly the Ivy League of the international community.

The United States performed particularly poorly relative to its industrialized peers, as this chart shows. Canada should be the United States’ closest peer and yet Canadian students far outperformed their U.S. counterparts: Canada ranked 4th overall, and in the top 10 in all three subject areas. The U.S. results in the new PISA survey are particularly disappointing given that U.S. students’ scores fell slightly in reading and science, and markedly in mathematics.

The latest PISA results are bound to be particularly worrisome to at least a fair number philanthropists. Primary and secondary education has been a focus of many of the largest U.S. philanthropists, including Walter Annenberg, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill & Melinda Gates. But enormous gifts by these philanthropists have not notably boosted the performance of U.S. students.

One question facing philanthropists, large and small, as they contemplate the PISA survey findings is how to weigh the competing goals of helping the weakest students and increasing opportunities for the strongest students. In mathematics, for example, merely 6% of U.S. students achieved scores in the highest range in the new PISA survey—while a staggering 29% of U.S. students did not demonstrate basic proficiency.

For the United States to remain a global economic leader, it must produce both more top-performing students and also reduce the numbers who do not have the basic skills needed in today’s economy. Programs that support the brightest students are necessarily quite different from those that raise the performance of struggling students; some philanthropists will choose to focus on the brightest students while others will focus on struggling students.

The new PISA findings demonstrate that the United States has a long way to go to reestablishing itself as a global leader in K-12 education. Philanthropy can help along the way—and we need to be open to new reform ideas and solutions that fit local communities.

Photo credit: Esparta via Visual Hunt / CC BY