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How Does the U.S. Compare in Global Education?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016 | 12:00 AM

The Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) conducts regular testing every three years to establish world rankings in education. The test covers math, science and reading literacy among 15-year-old students. Many educators and policymakers look at the rankings of U.S. students compared to other countries in order to assess the education system in the U.S.

The most recent data from 2012, in reading literacy and science, shows that average U.S. scores were the same as the average scores around the world. In math, however, the average U.S. score was slightly lower than the global average. Some experts see these results as cause for concern; they fear that a below-average position for the U.S. in world rankings in education is an indication of future status in the global economy.

Other educators and policymakers advocate a broader perspective regarding how the U.S. compares to other countries on major education issues. Rather than focusing solely on PISA results, they suggest considering other factors that affect student performance. Those factors include the amount of instructional time students receive, societal perceptions of teachers, teacher salaries, student population diversity and the availability of secondary education.

Instructional Time

The same organization that coordinates PISA also examines the amount of time students spend in the classroom around the world. On average, U.S. students attend fewer days of school per year compared to students in other countries, creating the impression that U.S. students spend less time in school. A closer analysis of the numbers, however, shows that the majority of U.S. states require more instructional hours per year than most industrialized countries at all grade levels. Although U.S. students may attend school for fewer days out of the year, they are actually receiving more instructional hours.

Teacher Perceptions and Salaries

Another key education issue to compare globally is the public perception of teachers. Annual Gallup polls show that American perceptions of teachers continue to be positive, but teachers are experiencing decreasing job satisfaction. Many experts attribute the decline in teacher satisfaction to centralized policymaking for the education system in the U.S. Compared to other countries, local administrators and teachers in the U.S. have little say in the decision-making affecting their schools, and they often feel ignored when it comes to education policy.

While public opinion of teachers is high, many teachers feel that their salaries reflect the true value of their profession. Compared to other industrialized countries, teacher salaries in the U.S. are relatively low. In U.S. secondary schools, teacher salaries comprise 55.3 percent of total expenses in the education budget. The average for industrialized countries is 62.8 percent, suggesting that teacher salaries are a lower priority for U.S. budgets.

Diverse Student Populations

Some analysts point out that world rankings in education should consider the diversity of student populations. A country such as the U.S., with a larger immigrant population and more students speaking a variety of native languages, should expect to rank higher than countries with mostly homogeneous student populations.

For example, Finland regularly scores among the highest nations in the world on PISA rankings, and schools in Finland show little variation in their scores. A closer look at Finland's population reveals that their students come from a mostly homogeneous background. Few Finnish students speak a language other than Finnish at home, compared to eight percent of U.S. students who are English language learners. The diversity in student population in the U.S. creates educational challenges that high-scoring countries like Finland do not face.

Focus on Middle and High School

One area where the United States excels in world rankings in education is the availability of secondary education throughout the country. Other nations such as India score highly on science and math assessments, and they steadily produce high numbers of scientists and engineers in the global economy. Compared to the U.S., however, India does not prioritize education for all citizens, with only 40 percent of Indian children continuing into high school. The U.S. continues to rank high in the accessibility of equal education for all students at the primary and secondary levels.

Certain analysts and policymakers would classify the condition of U.S. education as grim, according to the most recent PISA results. While U.S. students test lower than other countries by some standards and teacher salaries need to increase to reflect the value of the profession, the state of U.S. education is not completely dismal. The U.S. continues to provide adequate universal education to a diverse student population from kindergarten through grade 12, a remarkable feat in a constantly changing world.

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