International Scorecard for U.S. Education: Big Spending, So-So Results

Published November 1, 2003

The latest international scorecard for education looks to be little changed in one respect: The United States continues to be at or very near the top in level of spending on education.

At the same time, the U.S. is falling in the international standings of student performance.

An annual review of education in the world’s industrialized nations is conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The latest update, published in September, found the United States was virtually tied with South Korea for first place in the level of education spending. South Korea spent 7.1 percent of its gross domestic product on education; the U.S., 7.0 percent. The OECD average was 5.9 percent.

But while student achievement has been surging in South Korea, it has been sagging in the U.S. Ranked by the proportion of its population completing high school, South Korea has gone from 24th among OECD nations a generation ago to first place now. Meanwhile, the United States has dropped from first to ninth place.

Ranked by how well 15-year-olds do on reading, mathematics, and science tests, OECD pegged the U.S. almost exactly in the middle of the pack among 30 member-nations.

In addition, according to OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States has one of the widest literacy disparities between privileged and underprivileged children. PISA revealed the performance gap in reading between students from affluent and low-income families was widest in Argentina, the United States, Chile, Israel, Portugal, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. (See “U.S. Scores Still Mediocre on New International Test,” School Reform News, March 2002.)

“The countries that spend more tend to be the countries that do better,” Barry McGaw, OECD’s education director, told the Associated Press. “But … it’s not a perfect relationship. There are countries which don’t get the bang for the bucks. And the U.S. is one of them.”

Robert Holland is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].