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Determining Where the U.S. Ranks in Education

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August 26, 2010 03:46 pm


In its first ever “Best Countries” special issue, Newsweek seeks to answer the question, “If you were born today, which country would provide you the very best opportunity to live a healthy, safe, reasonably prosperous, and upwardly mobile life.”

To answer this question, Newsweek chose five categories of national well-being–education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness, and political environment–and compiled metrics within these categories across 100 nations.

Here’s the Top Twenty:

1) Finland
2) Switzerland
3) Sweden
4) Australia
5) Luxembourg
6) Norway
7) Canada
8) Netherlands
9) Japan
10) Denmark
11) United States
12) Germany
13) New Zealand
14) United Kingdom
15) South Korea
16) France
17) Ireland
18) Austria
19) Belgium
20) Singapore

Among the individual categories, the United States ranked second in economic dynamism (behind Singapore), ninth in quality of life, fourteenth in political environment, twenty-sixth in health, and twenty-sixth in education.

However, unlike all but one other category (health), Newsweek only used one indicator to determine its rankings for education. To determine a nation’s rank in education, Newsweek relied on a combined universal score on TIMSS and/ or PISA tests using Eric Hanushek’s normalization methodology. For schools that do not administer these tests, Newsweek assigned an achievement score by doing a regression of literacy rate (CIA World Factbook) and average years of schooling against the universal score.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Eric Hanushek’s work. In fact, the Alliance held a webinar back in January to highlight the report that he co-authored for the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) that served as Newsweek‘s source document. However, Newsweek could have looked at some other education indicators to present a more accurate view of U.S. performance.

Consider the Global Competitiveness Report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) last year. The WEF ranked the U.S. second behind Switzerland in its overall rankings, but it factored in eleven different education-related indicators across the two broad categories of “Health and Primary Education” and “Higher Education and Training.” Under Health and Primary Education it considered health indicators such as infant mortality, life expectance, incidence of malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, as well as education indicators such as quality of primary education (the U.S. ranked #30 out of 133 countries); primary enrollment (#77); and education expenditure (#45).

Under Higher Education and Training, the WEF considered indicators such as secondary enrollment (#43); tertiary enrollment (#6); quality of the educational system (#22); quality of math and science education (#48); quality of management schools (#4); Internet access in schools (#10); local availability of research and training services (#3); and extent of staff training (#8).

However, there’s a problem with the WEF ranking as well-namely that the indicators that examine “quality” are based on opinion surveys of experts, not hard data. As a result, these measures of “quality” can sometimes be a better reflection of a nation’s reputation rather than how its systems actually stack up based on data.

If you’re interested in even more rankings, consult The Atlantic Century: Benchmarking EU and U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness, which was issued in early 2009 by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). That report ranks the U.S. sixth in “overall competitiveness” behind Singapore, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark, and South Korea.

In its analysis, ITIF uses sixteen indicators to determine a global competitiveness score. The sixteen indicators are grouped into six broad categories: human capital, innovation capacity, entrepreneurship, IT infrastructure, economic policy, and economic performance. Unlike the WEF, the ITIF only uses hard data in calculating its analysis. However, like Newsweek, it only devotes one of its indicators to education–higher education attainment in the population for ages 25-34.

Perhaps the best source of international education rankings is Education at a Glance, which is published annually by the OECD and includes more than twenty-five indicators for education. All are based on hard data. However, unlike Newsweek, the WEF, and the ITIF, Education at a Glance does not attempt to combine all of its ranking into a single list of the “best” countries for education.

So, at the end of the day, where does the United States really rank? Number one, without a doubt-at least when it comes to a love of rankings.

International Comparisons

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