The United States places 17th in the developed world for education, according to a global report by education firm Pearson.
Finland and South Korea, not surprisingly, top the list of 40 developed countries with the best education systems. Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore follow. The rankings are calculated based on various measures, including international test scores, graduation rates between 2006 and 2010, and the prevalence of higher education seekers. (See the list of top 20 countries in the slideshow below)
Pearson's chief education adviser Sir Michael Barber tells BBC that the high ranking countries tend to offer teachers higher status in society and have a "culture" of education.
The study notes that while funding is an important factor in strong education systems, cultures supportive of learning is even more critical -- as evidenced by the highly ranked Asian countries, where education is highly valued and parents have grand expectation. While Finland and South Korea differ greatly in methods of teaching and learning, they hold the top spots because of a shared social belief in the importance of education and its "underlying moral purpose."
The study aims to help policymakers and school leaders identify key factors that lead to successful educational outcomes. The research draws on literacy data as well as figures in government spending on education, school entrance age, teacher salaries and degree of school choice. Researchers also measured socioeconomic outcomes like national unemployment rates, GDP, life expectancy and prison population.
The report also notes the importance of high-quality teachers and improving strong educator recruitment. The rankings show, however, that there is no clear correlation between higher pay and better performance. The bottom line findings:
- There are no magic bullets: The small number of correlations found in the study shows the poverty of simplistic solutions. Throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results, and individual changes to education systems, however sensible, rarely do much on their own. Education requires long-term, coherent and focussed system-wide attention to achieve improvement.
- Respect teachers: Good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.
- Culture can be changed: The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.
- Parents are neither impediments to nor saviours of education: Parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision. On the other hand, parental input and choice do not constitute a panacea. Education systems should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.
- Educate for the future, not just the present: Many of today's job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today's students will need in future and teach accordingly.
To be sure, South Korea's top spot doesn't come without a price. Stories of families divided in the name of education are all too common, to the extent that the phenomenon has bequeathes those families with a title of their own -- kirogi kajok, or goose families, because they must migrate to reunite.
But America's average ranking doesn't come as a surprise. A report recently published by Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance found that students in Latvia, Chile and Brazil are making gains in academics three times faster than American students, while those in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia and Lithuania are improving at twice the rate. Researchers estimate that gains made by students in those 11 countries equate to about two years of learning.
What gains U.S. students posted in recent years are "hardly remarkable by world standards," according to the report. Although the U.S. is not one of the nine countries that lost academic ground for the 14-year period between 1995 and 2009, more countries were improving at a rate significantly faster than that of the U.S. Researchers looked at data for 49 countries.
The study's findings echo years of rankings that show foreign students outpacing their American peers academically. Students in Shanghai who recently took international exams for the first time outscored every other school system in the world. In the same test, American students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading.
A 2009 study found that U.S. students ranked 25th among 34 countries in math and science, behind nations like China, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Finland. Figures like these have groups like StudentsFirst, headed by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, concerned and calling for reforms to "our education system [that] can't compete with the rest of the world."
Just 6 percent of U.S. students performed at the advanced level on an international exam administered in 56 countries in 2006. That proportion is lower than those achieved by students in 30 other countries. American students' low performance and slow progress in math could also threaten the country's economic growth, experts have said.