The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, September 26, 2005

Compared to the rest of the world...

On September 13, the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (click here for the OECD site) released their latest analysis of education indicators among its 30 member countries. The executive summary, and briefing for the American press, can be found here.

The compiled data show a frustrating picture for the United States, with sub-par results despite a tremendous investment being made in public education. A few stats to whet your appetite for the full executive summary:

  • America is first in terms of number of years spent in education. The US is closing in on an average 14 years in education, with many other countries close behind.
  • We are the second highest spenders on education; Switzerland edged us out, but we’re still spending more than $11,000 USD per student per year. These numbers may be skewed as they do account for postsecondary education expenses.
  • We’re also #2 in terms of educational expenditures relative to Gross Domestic Product, coming in at over 7% of GDP.
  • America is in the middle of the pack in terms of the ratio of students to teaching staff. We’re #10 of 23 surveyed countries, with 23 students per teacher on average. Switzerland is first, with 18 students per teacher; Korea is last, with 35 students per teacher.
  • We rank #6 of 30 on teacher salaries, with an average of approximately $43,000 per year.
  • We are first in terms of teaching time and teachers’ working time. US teachers spend more than 1,100 hours year working and teaching according to statute; this undoubtedly does not reflect the entire teacher workload.

  • In terms of current upper secondary (ie, high school) graduation rates, the US ranks 16 of 21 surveyed countries, with approximately 73% of its students graduating high school. (This number may be generous, since most estimates put the dropout rate at 1 in 3.)
  • We are 12th of 21 in tertiary (ie postsecondary) graduation rates. The US hit 33%; the mean among the 21 countries is 35%.
  • Our 15-year olds came in 24th of 29 countries in terms of mathematical performance. For comparison, Finland and Korea scored around 540 on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) math scale; we scored around 480.
  • Same story regarding cross-curricular problem solving capabilities. We came in 24th of 29 countries again, scoring another 480 while Korea, Finland, and Japan all came in higher than 550.
  • One piece of good news: we did make statistically significant increases in our math and science scores from 1995 to 2003. In fact, we achieved the greatest gains in these two areas among all countries.
I’m not well versed in the details of educational systems around the world, so I can’t offer any detailed comparisons or authoritative analysis. Nor do I think this data paints a complete picture: hours worked, worker productivity levels, and legislative environment all have a major impact on the ultimate competitiveness of the US in a world economy, and those are not reflected in this slice of data.

I do think, however, that common sense dictates that we be concerned about what this data is telling us. We’re close to the top in terms of investment in education, and near the bottom in terms of outcomes. We’re in an information age, where critical thinking is a prerequisite for a major portion of new jobs, and we can’t do better than 24 of 29 countries in problem-solving abilities?

This data was recently referenced in a chilling USA Today editorial (2/23/05) by Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel:

My company, Intel, invests more than $100 million a year to improve the quality
of U.S. education. But if the world's best engineers are produced in India or
Singapore, that is where our companies will go. This is not a threat, but a
reality in the modern world. We locate facilities where we can find or import
talent to produce our products. "The harsh fact is that the U.S. need for the
highest quality human capital in science, mathematics and engineering is not
being met," says the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century.
Nor is it likely to be met soon, judging by U.S. student performance on
international math and science tests. In a recent study, 15-year-olds in the USA
ranked 24th out of 29 industrialized nations on practical math applications.

Does anyone else feel compelled to do something about this?


  • I can't speak for the education community, but my background is in medicine, and we find the same trends in healthcare. More than twice as much money spent per capita as the second-highest in the world, and yet we have results that are in fact almost third-world. In healthcare, most of the money is going to pharmaceutical and insurance companies - certainly the number of primary care physicians being forced to go out of business shows that they're not benefiting at all from the money. Today, the average doctor has three employees working in billing, and those people spend most of their time arguing with insurance companies trying to extract payment; likewise the majority of cases in health law aren't malpractice suits, but breach of contract suits between insurers and healthcare providers. The ridiculous prices we pay for prescription drugs tend to feed not research but marketing campaigns. In other words, what we're really paying for in healthcare is a lot of people pushing paper around and generating absolutely nothing. Not all of it is ill-intentioned; a lot of that money is spent in self-defense. For example, healthcare providers may be charging high fees and employing large numbers of purely administrative personnel, but the alternative is to not hire the billing staff and lawyers, and not be paid at all. It's an arms race, plain and simple. The problem with an arms race, of course, is that once in it, it's very difficult to stop.

    I mention this because I think it might be analogous to what we are seeing in education. How much of the money going into education is really going into education? I'd guess some portion is going into lobbying government, but no one can unilaterally reduce efforts, since most of what lobbyists for various education interests do is oppose one another. Likewise, I have to wonder how much education money is being spent to avoid legal liability in an increasingly litigious society. Again, not something that I like seeing, but those who don't do it get hammered.

    I don't think there's a simple solution. What needs to happen is a cultural shift... but where to start that is an especially tough question.

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