Other Countries Overtake U.S. in Education

Published February 1, 1999

If it is true, as public educators insist, that today’s high school graduates face competition in a world-wide marketplace, then 1998 was the year when–from start to finish–U.S. education was shown to be not a winner in that competition but an also-ran.

The year started with the release in February of results from the Third International Math and Science Study, which placed U.S. twelfth graders close to last in international academic performance. In advanced physics, U.S. high school seniors finished dead last, behind 20 other countries, including Latvia and the Czech Republic. The U.S. performance was so bad that even President Clinton–an ardent defender of public schools–was forced to admit that “there is something wrong with the public education system.”

On November 13 came even more bad news from the annual report of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): The U.S. high school graduation rate, which for generations had been the highest in the world, now ranks 28th of 29 industrialized nations, above only Mexico. For Americans who graduated during the 1950s, the U.S. high school graduation rate was 77 percent, the highest in the OECD. By the 1980s, the U.S. had slipped to eighth place, and today the graduation rate is 72 percent.

An American 5-year-old in 1990 was expected to attend high school and college for 16.3 years, longer than any other student in the world. Now that estimate has risen to 16.8 years for an American 5-year-old–but 11 other nations have even higher figures.

Although the U.S. still has the highest percentage of students entering college, other nations are catching up fast . . . and the U.S. has one of the highest university dropout rates among industrialized countries.