The Scoop on International Comparisons

Every day, I read a column or a news story, usually from an American with lofty intentions, bemoaning the sad state of American education.  The authors have earnest suggestions for reform and are dead sure that our schools are in an atrocious state.

How about you?  Have you heard that enough that it must be true?  Consider a few questions:
  1. Do US students attend school more, equal or fewer hours than students elsewhere?
  2. Do US students score better, average or worse on international tests of reading, math and science?
  3. There is much furor over America's low graduation rate.  How do we compare?
  4. What about college?  Does the US send more, equal or fewer students on to college?
  5. And how are our college students doing?  How many Americans (compared with other nations) finish and graduate with bachelor's degrees?
The following will include data and limited analysis, but hang in there, I've kept it to a minimum.  And it is important -- too important to allow misunderstandings about our education system to stand.  All of the data comparing the US with the 34 OECD nations can be found at the National Center for Education Statistics.  It doesn't matter what you compare, there is little there to support the oft-repeated, generally-assumed-to-be-true assertion that our schools are woefully behind those of our peers around the world.

Time in School

Let's begin with time in school.  It is true that children around the world spend more days in school than American students do.  It's not true though that they spend more time.  In fact, American children spend considerably more time in classrooms than children elsewhere.

Days and Hours of Instruction per year (average K-12)
OECD Average              185 days         701 hours
United States                  180 days       1068 hours
Korea (most days)           220 days          618 hours
Greece (fewest days)        147 days          426 hours

American students spend 50% more time in class than students from the other advanced nations.  And American teachers work that many more hours as well, in spite of all the complaints about the teaching profession.  American teachers' contracted time per year is 1,977 hours.  The OECD average is 1,660.  This does not include all the extra hours every good teacher puts in evenings, weekends and during the summer.  It also does not include the time for extracurricular activities and field trips that many teachers donate.

Student Achievement

Tests in Reading, Math and Science are given to a random sampling of students in each of the 34 OECD nations.  The test, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), is given to 15-year olds in each country.  The 2009 results show better than average performance in reading and science and average performance in math.

2009 PISA Results in Reading, Math and Science

OECD Reading   492                OECD Math         488                OECD Science         496
USA Reading       500                USA Math             487               USA Science             502

USA Rank in Reading  12/34    USA Rank in Math   25/34         USA Rank in Science   17/34

However there is another international test soon to be released, Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS).  It was given last year but the most recent data is from 2007.   On the TIMSS, the US outperformed every European nation except the UK.  The top ranks were filled with Asian students.

2007 TIMSS Results in Math and Science

USA Rank in Math (4th grade)  11/36             USA Rank in Science (4th grade)     8/36
USA Rank in Math (8th grade)    9/48             USA Rank in Science (8th grade)   11/48

It is true that math and science are emphasized more in other nations.  In the United States, students receive a different, more inclusive, education.  Writing makes a good counterpoint.  American students do well in writing assessments.  Anyone who has hosted a foreign exchange student though can attest to the panic the first time that student was assigned to write an essay.  It's not just the language barrier, students in most countries do not learn to write coherently, to organize their thoughts or even to have independent thought.  Learning is rote memorization in many places, the sort of learning that helps you do well on a test but might not help elsewhere.

Graduation Rates

If the furor over test scores has abated just a smidgeon in the past few years, it's been replaced with much wailing and moaning over abysmal high school dropout rates.  Of all the international data, I found this the most enlightening.

Consider the following chart:

Percentage of Students in High School at Each Age

                                     Age 16           Age 17          Age 18           Age 19            Age 20            Age 21
United States                   95%               84%              23%                5%                  0-1%             0-1%
OECD Average            92%              84%              52%               25%                13%                 9%

While the range of 16-year olds in high school was broad (from 56% in Turkey to 101%--huh?-- in Belgium), only a handful of countries exceeded the numbers of American 16-year olds in school.  By age 18 in the US, many students have already graduated, yet in other OECD countries students continue in high school until they finish.  Our national graduation rates only consider those who have graduated after four years of high school.  Those who continue another year to complete their requirements are counted as non-grads.  Obviously, using the same criteria for other nations would classify large numbers of continuing students as non-grads.  

Most interesting for educational policy makers would be the flexibility allowed elsewhere that is not available here.  In Denmark for example, a third of 20-year olds are still in high school.  Are we short-sighted to assume that everyone needs the same amount of time to complete the curriculum?

If those who disparage American education (and American families) are right that not enough high school students finish and earn their diplomas, a comparison with the rest of the world should confirm that.  But here's the data:

2009 -- Percentage of 25 to 64 year olds who completed high school

United States               88.6%
OECD Average           73.3%

Only three countries had higher completion rates than the US: the Slovak Republic (90.9), Estonia (88.9) and the Czech Republic (91.4).  Combined these three countries can claim 17 million homogeneous people, about half the population of California, compared to the world's third largest nation, the United States, with a diverse population and many languages spoken.

College Attendance and Completion

It's well known that students from all over come to the US to attend our colleges, still considered the best in the world.  Of course, it's a narrow slice of the elite that can afford to do so but if they can, they come.  I found it interesting that as hard as we work to increase our rates of college entrance and completion, we still lead the world.  This in spite of the fact that college is cheaper almost anywhere else.

Post-Secondary Education Participation by Age Group (2008)

                                        Ages 18 to 21                Ages 22 to 25                Ages 26 to 29
       United States                        47%                               24%                               11%
OECD Average                         29%                               24%                               10

Family wage jobs for those with just a high school education are rapidly disappearing, not just here but everywhere.  Continuing one's education -- whether vocational or academic -- is essential for the individual, but also for the national economy, to attract sophisticated industries.

Percentage of 25 to 64 year olds with Bachelor's Degrees (or higher) in 2009

United States                  31.4%
OECD Average              20.8%

Highest: Norway with 34%.  The United States is second highest.


Readers of this blog are aware I have plenty to say about how we could improve our education system.  But criticizing our schools and recommending changes are not the same as slamming them as some sort of national disgrace.  That is the agenda of those who want to privatize.  And they've been very successful at convincing everyone (everyone but you and me) that in fact our schools are in dismal shape.

But next time you hear someone bemoan the sorry state of American education, please print this blog out for them and ask them to explain how it is that we work harder, achieve comparable (test) results, have more in school, graduate more and send more on to college.


  1. I am forwarding this on to all my teacher friends. :)

  2. They've been beaten down so much by the "our schools are failing" mantra that I hope they enjoy a touch of reality.

  3. It's heartening to see the facts around this issue. Fascinating stuff, Linda!

  4. Thank you. Just posted it to Facebook. :-)


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