United States Lags Behind Global Rivals in Education

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As public-school teachers picket outside classrooms in Chicago for the first time in 25 years, a new report confirms that the United States continues to fall behind other developed countries in terms of graduation rates, access to higher education and work conditions for teachers, even losing some of its advantage as a higher-education destination for international students.

“Every country is moving forward but some countries are moving a lot faster than others,” said Andreas Schleicher, the deputy director for education for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a Paris-based independent forum of 34 countries that conducts research and works with governments around the world. 

In 1995, the United States boasted the highest spending per student on its public school system and achieved the highest graduation rates in the industrialized world, Schleicher said. By 2001, graduation rates in other countries like the United Kingdom and Australia had begun to catch up. By 2009, Australia and Poland had left the United States far behind in graduating high school students.

Although the United States continues to spend more per public-school student than any other country -- in terms of a share of gross domestic product -- its rate of academic achievement has simply failed to keep pace, according to findings in Education at a Glance 2012, an OECD report that compares education sectors across dozens of developed countries that are members of the OECD and of the G20 forum. 

The disappointing findings start at the earliest stage of the current U.S. education system. Just 69 percent of 4-year-olds in the United States are enrolled in public or private early-childhood education programs, compared to an average of 84 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in member countries of the OECD. That puts the United States at 26th place.

That trend continues into high school. Although the United States improved its high school graduation rate from 70 percent in 2000 to 77 percent in 2010, it still ranks 22nd of 27 countries studied by the OECD in terms of graduation rates. 

“Because of the strong link between education, employment and wealth, we find education is a very powerful lever to combat inequality,” Schleicher said. The disparity in higher education achievement for disadvantaged and immigrant students in the United States is particularly stark compared to other countries, the report finds.

“The educational level of your parents really seems to matter, especially in immigrant families,” Schleicher said. Immigrant children in the United States were more likely to wind up in disadvantaged schools, he said. In fact, only 29 percent of young people in the nation whose parents did not have a high school degree went on to take classes beyond high school themselves, one of the lowest rates of the countries studied in the report.

That lack of upward mobility in education does not necessarily exist because college tuition is too high, but may exist because college financing is too expensive, Schleicher suggested. In fact, OECD research has found that countries with the highest tuition rates also claimed the highest levels of post-secondary education: the difference, he said, was that those countries, like the United Kingdom, Australia or the Netherlands, offered a solid financing system that allowed students pay back loans in accordance with their income after graduation. 

By contrast, in the United States, “The loan issue is potentially a very difficult one to bear, particularly for disadvantaged students,” he said.

The report’s findings on teacher compensation also suggest that teachers on strike in Chicago may have a point: public school teachers in the United States spend far more hours teaching -- between 1,050 and 1,100 hours a year -- for much lower pay than in other industrialized nations.

On a positive note, the United States remains the leader in attracting international students for higher education, claiming a 16.6 percent share of all students seeking higher education outside their home countries. But even that winning share has declined in recent years. In 2000, the United States attracted 23 percent of all international students. 

By contrast, foreign student enrollment has risen dramatically over the last decade in the United Kingdom, which now accounts for 13 percent of all international enrollment, and in Australia, which accounts for more than 6 percent.