More than a Glancing Blow

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has just released its “Education at a Glance” report for 2007, but before glancing at it Americans might want to sit down.

We already know, from a variety of international testing programs (e.g. TIMSS, PISA), that U.S. students fall further behind their international peers the longer they stay in school (.pdf). We’re close to average among wealthy nations in the 4th grade, below that average by the 8th grade, and near the bottom of the heap by the end of high school. Apologists for the status quo sometimes claim that this is because many other nations track their students into vocational and academic programs, and supposedly do not test those in the vocational tracks. “Education at a Glance 2007” shows that isn’t so. Test data for vocational students are available, and show that vocational track students in other wealthy nations actually outperform the overall U.S. average.

Nor do any of the other common excuses for our poor performance hold up. At the elementary and secondary level, the United States spends more than all but two countries (Luxembourg and Switzerland – tax havens, both). Though the United States was once a world leader in the fraction of our student population that completes college, we have been caught and surpassed in that regard. With 34% of our students going on to graduate from college in 2005, we now fall below the average of the OECD, and in 13th place overall.

The reason we now lag in this area is not hard to fathom: We are tied for the highest college dropout rate in the whole of the OECD, 46 percent. The problem is not that our colleges are inaccessible, it is that our elementary and high schools have failed to prepare students for college. They can get in. They just can’t cut it once they’re there.

At the college level, we have consumer choice and competition between public and private providers, and our college system is still the envy of the world, according to the OECD’s “At a Glance” report. At the K-12 level, we have a monopoly in which most students are automatically assigned to government-run schools. The first works, the second doesn’t. The policy ramifications should be pretty obvious to anyone who actually cares about educational outcomes.