Educationally, Other Nations Are Gaining on U.S.

Published December 1, 2004

Almost two years ago, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao warned, “standing still means falling behind” in today’s global economy. The way for countries to avoid that fate, she argued, was by “building a knowledgeable and skilled workforce.”

A new comparison of education statistics across industrialized nations indicates other countries are beginning to catch up with the U.S. by raising their average level of educational attainment.

The United States ranks first among 30 nations in high school completion rates among 55- to 64-year-olds, but 10th among 25- to 34-year-olds, according to the 2004 edition of Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators, published in September by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). South Korea, by contrast, ranks 24th for the older group and first for the younger group.

“The rates have not declined in the United States,” the report points out. “They have simply risen faster in other countries.”

Nations benefit economically from higher educational levels. According to the OECD report, “Studies of the macro-economic returns to education estimate that increasing the average level of attainment by one year, raises the level of output per capita by between 3 percent and 6 percent.”

In general, individuals in OECD countries are more likely to be employed if they have a postsecondary qualification or degree. Earnings for degree holders are substantially higher than for high school graduates. In the U.S., for example, earnings for men with degrees are 105 percent greater than for those with high school diplomas, and earnings for women are 91 percent greater.

The OECD report tracks education “inputs” such as spending, class size, and teacher salaries and education “outputs” such as graduation rates, reading, math, and science performance, and learning attitudes. According to the annual publication, the compilation of education data “enables countries to see themselves in the light of other countries’ performance.” Not all OECD member or partner countries took part in every year’s survey.

According to the report, the U.S. has the highest per-pupil spending for elementary to tertiary education, spending an average of $10,871 per student. Per-student spending ranges from less than $3,000 in Mexico, Poland, and the Slovak Republic, to more than $8,000 in Austria, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland. Combining public and private sources of funds, Korea spends the highest percent of Gross Domestic Product, 8.2 percent, on education. The U.S. spends the second highest amount as a percentage of GDP at 7.3 percent. As a percentage of public spending relative to GDP, the U.S. ranks third.

The share of private expenditures in K-12 education was average in the U.S.–about 7 percent. At the postsecondary level, the percentage of private spending was 66 percent, ranking the U.S. second under Korea at 84 percent and three times higher than the average of 22 percent. In the U.S., private spending at the postsecondary level is split evenly between individuals and private enterprises.

Starting salaries for primary teachers in the U.S. ($29,513) are the fourth highest of the 29 counties surveyed. Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland are the top three countries on this measure. U.S. teachers work more hours than the OECD average.

The average class size in OECD countries is 22, varying from 36 students in Korea to fewer than 18 in Greece, Iceland, and Luxembourg. While Japanese and Korean schools have large class sizes, their students attain higher academic performance. Average class size in the U.S. is roughly equal to the OECD average. The performance of U.S. 15 year-olds on reading, math, and science international exams is average.

In every country, elementary school girls and 15-year-old girls outperform boys in reading. Boys outperformed girls in math in about half of the countries surveyed. In science, performance was roughly equal. In the U.S., performance of 15-year-old girls was higher than boys in reading and equal in math and science.

In most OECD countries–Japan, Switzerland, and Turkey being the exceptions–young women are more likely than young men to earn a first university degree. In addition, 15-year-old girls in 40 of the 42 countries surveyed (including the U.S.) indicated higher expectations for future occupations than their male peers. Men, however, are more likely to be employed and to earn more money than women with similar education levels. Men are also more likely to earn doctorates or other advanced degrees.

Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation.

For more information …

Ordering information and a description of the contents of Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators are available online at,2340,en_2649_34515_13634484_1_1_1_1,00.html.

The April 2003 publication of the U.S. Department of Labor, “A Chartbook of International Labor Comparisons: United States, Europe, Asia,” is available online at