The (not so bright) hopes of the future

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In problem-solving, literacy and numeracy, 16- to 24-year-old Americans rank at or near the bottom on the OECD’s new international survey of adult literacy skills, reports the New Yorker. These young adults are “the folks who will be manning the global economy” for the next 30 or 40 years. Our 16- to 24-year-olds edge young Italians in literacy. That’s the bright spot.

OECD: U.S. lags in college completion

Fifty-two percent of U.S. students who start postsecondary education go on to graduate, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Education at a Glance 2013. The OECD average graduation rate is 70 percent with Japan leading the pack at 90 percent.

On average, OECD countries employ one teacher for every 14 students in upper-secondary school. Portugal hires one teacher for every eight students, while “Mexico breaks the scales at 28″ students per teacher, notes Education Gadfly.

U.S. spends big on schools, but results lag

The U.S. “is one of the world’s biggest spenders when it comes to education,” but is not keeping up with other nations, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The United States spends 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product on education from pre-kindergarten through the university level, the fifth highest in the world.  “But other countries have done a lot better at getting their resources where they will make the most difference,” said Andreas Schleicher, an education policy adviser to the OECD.

America used to have one of the highest college completion rates for young adults in the world. It has now dropped to 14th place, behind countries including Korea, Russia, Ireland and Canada, according to the OECD report

The United States also falls behind in early childhood education. Just half of 3-year-olds were enrolled in preschool in 2011 compared with more than 90 percent in nations such as France, Italy and Norway, according to the report.

In kindergarten through 12th grade, meanwhile, the U.S. posts middling test scores, dragged down by the high numbers of children living in poverty whose schools tend to receive lower revenues from property taxes.

“The U.S. is one of the few that invests in a regressive way,” said Schleicher. “Children who need (public funding) the most get the least of it.”

The U.S. spent $15,171 per student in kindergarten through college in 2010 — including more than $11,000 for K-8 students and more than $12,000 for high school students –  more than any other nation in the OECD report.

Switzerland’s total spending per student was close at $14,922; Mexico averaged $2,993.  The average OECD nation spent $9,313 per young person.

Public spending accounts for 70 cents of every education dollar in the U.S., down from 72 cents a decade earlier. Parents picked up another 25 cents and private sources paid for the remainder in 2010.

The average OECD nation spent 84 cents of every education dollar, down from 88 cents a decade earlier.

In the U.S., taxpayers pick up 36 cents of every dollar spent on college and job training, compared to 68 cents in other OECD nations.

The average high school teacher in the United States earns about $53,000, well above the average of $45,500 among all OECD nations. But other countries are raising teachers’ pay more quickly than the U.S.

Hey, big spender

The U.S. spends more on education than any OECD country except for Switzerland, according to Veronique de Rugy, a Mercatus Center senior research fellow.  The U.S. spends an average of $91,700 per student between the ages of six and 15, a third more than high-scoring Finland, she estimates.

PISA: U.S. is mediocre in reading, math, science

Compared to other developed countries, U.S. 15-year-olds are average in reading and science literacy and below average in math, according to study released today by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is coordinated by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

PISA tries to measure the reading, math and scientific literacy skills and knowledge “essential for full participation in society.”

In reading, Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia posted the highest scores with the U.S. in the middle, tied with  Iceland and Poland. The U.S. had average percentages of students scoring below level 2 (can’t find the main idea) and above level 4 (capable of critically evaluating a text) compared to other OECD countries.

In math, the U.S. was below average, on a par with Ireland and Portugal, but well below Korea, Finland and Switzerland. Top-scoring countries — and cities — included Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Finland and Switzerland.  The U.S. was similar to the OECD average in low-scoring students but had only 27 percent of students scored at or above level 4 compared to the 32 percent for the OECD average.

In science literacy, the U.S. matched the OECD average for both low-scoring and high-scoring students.  The usual suspects — Asian countries plus Finland and New Zealand– topped the charts.

U.S. scores for white and Asian-American students were above the OECD average, as were scores for students attending low-poverty schools.  Girls scored higher in reading but lower in math and science literacy.

Does it matter? Some argue the U.S. has more high-scoring students — because we have more people than Korea, Singapore, Finland or New Zealand — so it doesn’t matter if our students’ average performance can’t match the high flyers’ performance.

Eighteen percent of U.S. students scored poorly in reading and science and 23 percent scored poorly in math.  On the other end of the scale, 30 percent of U.S. students scored 4 or better in reading, 27 percent did well in math and 29 percent were strong in science literacy.  Can we afford to write off 18 to 23 percent of the population and rely on the top 27 to 30 percent?

The report is “an absolute wake-up call for America,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”

“Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States,” a report by the National Center on Education and the Economy, looks at the education systems in top performers, such as Finland, Singapore, Japan and Canada, and fast improvers, such as China and Poland.

Though there are many differences between Finland and Singapore, for example, NCEE president Marc Tucker pointed to commonalities, including “clear, rigorous standards for what students should know” closely tied to a curriculum aligned with “high-quality assessments that measure complex, higher-order thinking.”  Students don’t move on till they demonstrate they’ve mastered the curriculum.

The top performing systems ensure that they get high quality teachers by aggressively raising the standards to get into pre-service teacher education programs, concentrating teacher education in major universities, raising teacher pay (U.S. teachers’ pay is very low compared to the top performing countries), providing prospective teachers with the skills they need to diagnose student problems early on and prescribing the appropriate remedies, raising the standards to enter the teaching force, providing new recruits with master teachers who can mentor them, and creating career ladders for master teachers that will enable them to earn at high levels and stay in teaching.

“While many Americans believe that other countries get better results because those countries educate only a few, while the United States educates everyone, that turns out not to be true,” NCEE concludes. Compared to the U.S., most top-performing countries do a better job of educating students from low-income families.

Is Obama a college graduate?

The U.S. has dropped from first to 11th in college completion, according to the OECD. But transfers don’t count as college graduates in U.S. statistics, reports Mike Kirst on The College Puzzle. President Obama, who earned a Columbia degree, wouldn’t be considered a college graduate in the OECD tables because he started at Occidental College and transferred. International comparisons aren’t valid or useful unless data is reported consistently.

Increasingly, U.S. students “swirl” through several colleges before completing a degree. Or not. Kirst writes:

We have major problems with completion, but so do other countries. Our completion rate for associates and  two-year technical degrees is the major cause of low international rankings.

For the record, I believe Barack Obama is a college graduate. And a Christian. Born in Hawaii.