Here’s one widely held belief: “Public schools are in sad shape, but my kid’s school is doing fine.” But is that so?

It’s easy to say that you’ve got a great school if you compare it with, say, the Minneapolis Public Schools. But how does your school’s performance compare with that of the world? The rest of the world, which is where employers of tomorrow–and today–will find skilled employees?

The Global Report Card compares the United States against 25 other wealthy countries* on reading and math tests. It also compares each of the 50 states against those countries, and then drills down to the level of the school district. So you can stack up, say, White Bear Lake against a collection of leading countries in the world.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to focus on the latest math scores available. The U.S. ranks in the 41st percentile in the world. That is, the average American student scores better than 41 percent of the students in the international group. Conversely, he is outperformed by 59 percent of that group.

How about Minnesota, where all the children are, in the folklore, above average? The average student here scores in the 49th percentile.

Oops! He is, sorry to say this, slightly below average.

But surely there are some pockets of global excellence in Minnesota, aren’t there?

Of the 424 districts or charter schools for which we have data,** only 16 were in the top-third of the world (that is, 66th percentile or higher). Only 161 were in the top half.

The top-three districts were actually charter schools:

  • St. Croix Prep (77th percentile),
  • Eagle Ridge Academy (77th percentile)
  • Nova Classical (75th percentile).

Can we find a way to replicate their success elsewhere? That, I think, is one of the most important challenges facing Minnesota on the education front.

The top-ten performers in the state were rounded out by traditional school districts: Edina; Lancaster; Westonka; Randolph; Wayzata; Kittson; and Delano. Delano, by way of reference, was in the 70th percentile of the wealthy world.

Another way of looking at the data is to divide the wealthy world into quartiles, and see how many Minnesota districts or charters fell into each quartile. It’s not a terribly pleasing sight:

  • 1st quartile: 2 (best)
  • 2nd quartile: 150
  • 3rd quartile: 227
  • 4th quartile: 45 (worst)

Here’s the performance in percentiles of the 10 largest districts in the state, as of the 2007 math test:

  1. Anoka Hennepin: 53
  2. St. Paul: 31
  3. Minneapolis: 29
  4. Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan: 58
  5. Osseo: 46
  6. South Washington County: 58
  7. Rochester: 55
  8. Elk River: 47
  9. Robbinsdale: 46
  10. Lakeville: 64

Not one of the ten largest districts in the state cracked the upper third of the world.

Charter schools, by the way, are all over the map in their performance. They’re the only ones in the top quartile. On the other hand, they also dominate the cellar: 36 of the 45th worst performers are charters. Now, I know you can talk about how charters are the refuge of children most dissatisfied with the district method, and that’s all true. But I’d prefer to look at the good news about the bad news: We have legal mechanisms for killing charter schools that have abysmal performance, something that is not true of school districts.

To be sure, the Global Report Card isn’t the final word. But it is a good reminder that we should be far from satisfied with the way we’ve been spending our money on education.

* (The countries range from “A,” as in Australia, to “Z,” as in, well, New Zealand, exclude tiny countries as well as OPEC countries, which don’t have diversified economies. Here’s the full methodology).

** In Minnesota law, charter schools are treated in many respects like school districts.