Seeing the United States Education System through the Prism of International Comparisons

Article excerpt

The world is rapidly changing, and the challenges to individuals and societies imposed by globalization and modernization are widely acknowledged. Increasingly diverse and interconnected populations, rapid technological change in the workplace and in everyday life, and the instantaneous availability of vast amounts of information represent but a few of these new demands. In this globalized world, individuals and countries that invest heavily in education increasingly benefit socially and economically from that choice. Among the 30 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries with the largest expansion of college education over the last decades, most still see rising earnings differentials for college graduates, suggesting that an increase in knowledge workers does not necessarily lead to a decrease in their pay, as is the case for low-skilled workers. In addition to education, another factor in the globalization process is technological development, but this, too, depends on education, not just because tomorrow's knowledge workers and innovators require high levels of education, but also because a highly educated workforce is a pre- requisite for adopting and absorbing new technologies and increasing productivity. Together, learned skills and technology have flattened the world such that all work that can be digitized, automated, and outsourced can now be done by the most effective and competitive individuals, enterprises, or countries, wherever they are. The current economic downturn is likely to reinforce the impact skills will have on the economic and social outcomes of education for individuals.

The United States is losing its educational advantage

To date, no country has been able to capitalize on the opportunities this "flat world" provides more than the United States, which can draw on the most highly educated labor force among the principal industrialized nations, at least when measured in terms of formal qualifications. However, this advantage is largely a result of the "first-mover advantage," which the United States gained after Word War II by massively increasing school enrollments. That advantage is now eroding quickly as more and more countries reach and surpass U.S. qualification levels. In fact, many countries are now close to ensuring that nearly all young adults complete at least a high school education, which the OECD indicators highlight as the baseline qualification for reasonable earnings and employment prospects. Over time, this will translate into better workforce qualifications in these countries.

In contrast, the United States stood still on this measure, and among OECD countries, only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey, and Mexico now have lower high school completion rates than the United States. Even when including qualifications such as the GED (variously refers to "Graduate Equivalent Degree," "General Equivalency Diploma" or "General Education (al) Diploma,") that people can acquire later in life to make up for unsuccessful school completion, the United States has slipped from rank 1 among OECD countries for adults born in the 1940s to rank 12 for those born in the 1970s. Again, that is not because completion rates in the United States declined, but because they have risen so much faster in many other countries.

Two generations ago, South Korea had the economic output of Afghanistan today and was at rank 24 in terms of educational output among today's OECD countries. Today it is the top performer in terms of the proportion of school graduates, with 96% of an age cohort obtaining a high school diploma, compared with 75% in the United States. Similar trends are visible in college education, in which the United States slipped between 1995 and 2005 from rank 2 to rank 14 - again, not because United States college graduation rates declined, but because they rose so much faster in many other OECD countries. U.S. graduate output is particularly low in science. …


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