Grading America

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Education is always a hot-button issue during election season. All parents want their children to get the best possible education; they want to know they will be prepared and successful in the 'real world.' When children don't succeed, the blame is often directed at a child's school, and sometimes, at the entire educational system. By looking at our schools in a global context, both positive and negative aspects of the American system are revealed. A recent report, called "Education at a Glance 2004," by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), examined the state of education in its 30 member countries. All of these countries, from Australia to the United Kingdom, share a commitment to democracy and market economy.

Many of these countries have seen rapid growth in education and educational attainment, while the United States has stayed relatively stagnant. On the one hand, this points to the already high level of educational achievement in place a generation ago. On the other hand, however, it suggests that the United States may not be the great power that it once was. "Many other countries have caught up and overtaken what was once a very strong position," explain Andreas Schleicher, head of the Indicators and Analysis Division for the OECD. For example, while the United States is first in higher education attainment levels among 45- to 54-year-olds at 30 percent, among 25- to 34-year-olds, the United States drops to second, even though the 31 percent rate of attainment is higher. "Nothing has gotten worse in terms of education attainment, but what is very clear is that a generation ago, the United states was at a position well ahead of anyone else, and now that position has almost become the norm," Schleicher concludes.

The rest of the world is discovering the advantages of higher education. "All the indictors show that with a degree comes clear reduction of unemployment and clear earnings advantage," Schleicher says. For instance, in Hungary, the average income is 110 percent higher with higher education than it is for those with only a secondary school education. In the United States, college grads earn 86 percent more than those with just a high school degree, also a very significant difference. What is disheartening, however, is the obvious difference between the incomes of males and females with similar levels of education. While more highly educated American males make 93 percent more than their secondary school-educated counterparts, females with tertiary degrees only make 76 percent more. This puts American women behind Hungarian men, British women and Czech men, among others.

When it comes to disparities, however, the most important in America is socioeconomic. Reading ability for 15-year-olds in this country is just average, with American children placing right in the middle of the 30-country pack. Schleicher points to the inability of American education to create a uniform level of education in its schools. "If you look at the performance, much of this difference is explained by socioeconomic factors. Social background is hindering a fair share of American students to realize their potential." While the American educational system is still quite successful, the public school system clearly has to be more successful in educating poor and minority students. If America hopes to remain among the world powers, quality education for all will be key.

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