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Digest of Education Statistics: 2011
Digest of Education Statistics: 2011

NCES 2012-001
May 2012

Chapter 6: International Comparisons of Education

This chapter offers a broad perspective on education across the nations of the world. It also provides an international context for examining the condition of education in the United States. Insights into the educational practices and outcomes of the United States are obtained by comparing them with those of other education systems. Most of the education systems represent countries; however, some of the tables in this chapter also include data for subnational entities with separate education systems, such as Hong Kong. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) carries out a variety of activities in order to provide statistical data for international comparisons of education.

This chapter presents data drawn from materials prepared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). Basic summary data on enrollments and enrollment ratios, teachers, educational attainment, and finances were synthesized from data published by OECD in the Online Education Database and the annual Education at a Glance report, as well as from data collected by UNESCO. Even though their tabulations are carefully prepared, international data users should be cautioned about the many problems of definition and reporting involved in the collection of data about the education systems of the world (see the OECD and UNESCO entries in Appendix A: Guide to Sources).

Also presented in this chapter are data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), carried out under the aegis of IEA and supported by NCES. This survey was formerly known as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. TIMSS, conducted every 4 years, is an assessment of fourth- and eighth-graders in mathematics and science.

This chapter includes additional information from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an OECD assessment supported by NCES. PISA provides performance scores of 15-year-olds in the areas of reading, mathematics, and science literacy; it also measures general, or cross-curricular, competencies such as learning strategies. While PISA focuses on OECD countries, data from some non-OECD education systems are also provided.

Further information on survey methodologies is in Appendix A: Guide to Sources and in the publications cited in the table source notes.

Population

Among the reporting OECD countries, Mexico had the largest percentage of its population made up of young people ages 5 to 14 (21 percent) in 2008, followed by Israel and Turkey (both at 18 percent) (table 410). OECD countries with small percentages of people in this age group included the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Japan, Slovenia, and Spain (all at 9 percent), and Estonia, Germany, Hungary, and Portugal (all at 10 percent). In the United States, the proportion of 5- to 14-year-olds was 13 percent, which was higher than in most of the other OECD countries.

Enrollments

In 2009, about 1.4 billion students were enrolled in schools around the world (table 408). Of these students, 702 million were in elementary-level programs, 531 million were in secondary programs, and 165 million were in postsecondary programs.

From 2000 to 2009, enrollment changes varied from region to region. Changes in elementary enrollment ranged from increases of 43 percent in Africa and 3 percent in Asia and Oceania to decreases of 12 percent in Europe, 3 percent in Central and South America (including Latin America and the Caribbean), and 2 percent in Northern America (including Bermuda, Canada, and the United States) (table F, table 408, and figure 27). Over the same period, secondary enrollment increased by 50 percent in Africa, 26 percent in Asia, 9 percent in Central and South America, and 8 percent in Northern America, but decreased by 17 percent in Europe and 5 percent in Oceania. At the postsecondary level, enrollments increased in all major areas of the world from 2000 to 2009. Postsecondary enrollment rose by 96 percent in Asia, 72 percent in Central and South America, 56 percent in Africa, 43 percent in Oceania, 42 percent in Northern America, and 29 percent in Europe. These increases are due to both growth in the percentages of people attending postsecondary institutions and population increases.

Table F. Population and enrollment at different levels in major areas of the world: 2000 and 2009

[In millions]
Area of the world Population Enrollment
Elementary Secondary Post-
secondary
World Total        
2000 6,094.7 650.9 450.7 99.5
2009 6,792.9 701.6 531.2 164.6
Africa        
2000 807.0 108.4 37.7 6.3
2009 1,003.9 155.4 56.4 9.8
Asia        
2000 3,693.6 399.9 259.1 40.8
2009 4,095.3 411.2 326.3 80.1
Europe        
2000 730.4 41.7 70.2 25.5
2009 735.6 36.8 58.2 33.0
Central and South America        
2000 519.9 70.2 55.2 11.4
2009 583.0 68.2 60.0 19.7
Northern America        
2000 313.4 27.4 25.1 14.4
2009 340.6 26.8 27.2 20.5
Oceania        
2000 30.4 3.1 3.4 1.0
2009 34.5 3.2 3.2 1.5

SOURCE: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, unpublished tabulations, and U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, International Data Base.

In 2008, the reporting OECD country with the highest proportion of 18- to 21-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education was the Republic of Korea (70 percent), followed by Greece (51 percent), the United States (47 percent), Belgium (42 percent), and Slovenia (41 percent). Also in 2008, the reporting OECD country with the highest proportion of 22- to 25-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education was Finland (39 percent), followed by Slovenia (38 percent), Denmark and the Republic of Korea (both at 34 percent), and Poland (31 percent) (table 411). The United States' proportion of enrolled 22- to 25-year-olds was 24 percent. Postsecondary enrollment varied among countries due partially to differences in how postsecondary education is defined and the age at which postsecondary education begins. For example, programs classified as postsecondary education in some countries may be classified as long-duration secondary education in other countries.

Achievement

On the 2007 TIMSS mathematics assessment, U.S. fourth-graders' average score (529) was higher than the average mathematics score of fourth-graders in 23 of the 35 other participating education systems, lower than the average score in 8 education systems, and not measurably different from the average score in the remaining 4 education systems (table 414). (Average scale scores from the TIMSS assessment are based on a range of possible scores from 0 to 1,000.) The education systems that outperformed the United States in fourth-grade mathematics—namely, Chinese Taipei, England, Hong Kong SAR,1 Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, the Russian Federation, and Singapore—were all located in Asia or Europe. In 2007, U.S. eighth-graders' average mathematics score (508) was higher than the average score of eighth-graders in 37 of the 47 other participating education systems, lower than the average score in 5 education systems, and not measurably different from the average score in the remaining 5 education systems (table 415). All of the education systems that outperformed the United States in eighth-grade mathematics were in Asia (Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore).

On the 2007 TIMSS science assessment, U.S. fourth-graders' average score (539) was higher than the average science score of fourth-graders in 25 of the 35 other participating education systems, lower than the average score in 4 education systems (all of them located in Asia), and not measurably different from the average score in the remaining 6 education systems (table 414). The education systems that outperformed the United States in fourth-grade science were Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, and Singapore. In 2007, U.S. eighth-graders' average science score (520) was higher than the average scores of eighth-graders in 35 of the 47 other education systems, lower than the average score in 9 education systems (all located in Asia or Europe), and not measurably different from the average score in the remaining 3 education systems (table 415). The education systems that outperformed the United States in eighth-grade science were Chinese Taipei, the Czech Republic, England, Hungary, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, Slovenia, and Singapore.

On the 2009 PISA assessment, U.S. 15-year-olds' average score in reading literacy was 500, which was not measurably different from the OECD average of 493 (table 416). (Possible scores on PISA assessments range from 0 to 1,000.) The average reading literacy score in the United States was lower than the average score in 6 of the 33 other OECD countries, higher than the average score in 13 of the other OECD countries, and not measurably different from the average score in 14 of the OECD countries. Reading literacy results were also reported for 31 non-OECD education systems, 3 of which had a higher average score than the United States. In all participating OECD countries and non-OECD education systems, girls outperformed boys in reading. The U.S. gender gap in reading (25 points) was smaller than the OECD average gap (39 points) and smaller than the gaps in 24 of the OECD countries and 21 of the non-OECD education systems.

In mathematics literacy, U.S. 15-year-olds' average score of 487 on the 2009 PISA assessment was lower than the OECD average score of 496. The average mathematics literacy score in the United States was lower than the average score in 17 of the 33 other OECD countries, higher than the average score in 5 of the other OECD countries, and not measurably different from the average score in 11 of the OECD countries. In 6 of the 31 non-OECD education systems, the average mathematics literacy score of 15-year-olds was higher than the average score in the United States. In science literacy, the average score of 15-year-olds in the United States (502) was not measurably different from the OECD average score (501). The U.S. average science literacy score was lower than the average score in 12 of the 33 other OECD countries, higher than the average score in 9 of the other OECD countries, and not measurably different from the average score in 12 of the OECD countries. In 6 of the 31 non-OECD education systems, the average science literacy score of 15-year-olds was higher than the average score in the United States.

Educational Attainment

In 2009, the percentage of 25- to 64-year-olds who had completed high school varied among reporting OECD countries (table 420). Countries with high percentages included the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic (both at 91 percent) and Estonia and the United States (both at 89 percent). Countries with relatively low percentages of 25- to 64-year-olds who had completed high school included Portugal (30 percent), Turkey (31 percent), and Mexico (35 percent).

In 2009, OECD countries reporting high percentages of 25- to 64-year-olds with a bachelor's or higher degree included Norway (34 percent), the United States (31 percent), and the Netherlands (30 percent) (table 421). Countries with low percentages of 25- to 64-year-olds who had attained a bachelor's or higher degree included Austria (11 percent) and Slovenia and Turkey (both at 13 percent). The percentage of younger adults (25 to 34 years old) with a bachelor's or higher degree also varied in 2009 (table 421 and figure 28). The OECD country reporting the highest percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds at this level of educational attainment was Norway (45 percent), followed by the Netherlands and the Republic of Korea (both at 38 percent). The lowest percentages were reported by Austria (15 percent) and Turkey (17 percent). In the United States, 32 percent of adults in this age group had a bachelor's or higher degree.

Degrees

In 27 of the 31 reporting OECD countries, more than half of all bachelor's and higher degrees were awarded to women in 2009 (table 425). However, the proportion of degrees awarded to women varied by field. For example, 29 of the 31 countries reported that more than 70 percent of education degrees at the bachelor's or higher level were awarded to women. In contrast, women received less than 30 percent of the computer science degrees in 29 of the 30 countries reporting data on degrees awarded in this field.

The percentages of bachelor's degrees that were awarded in mathematics and science fields—including natural sciences, mathematics and computer science, and engineering—varied across the 33 reporting OECD countries in 2008 (table 426). Two of the reporting OECD countries awarded more than 30 percent of their bachelor's degrees in mathematics and science fields: the Republic of Korea (35 percent) and Portugal (34 percent). Four of the countries awarded 15 percent or less of their bachelor's degrees in mathematics and science fields: Norway (13 percent), the Netherlands (14 percent), and Iceland and Hungary (15 percent each). In 2008, the United States awarded 16 percent of its bachelor's degrees in mathematics and science fields, a lower percentage than most other reporting countries. The percentages of graduate degrees awarded in mathematics and science fields also ranged widely across OECD countries in 2008 (table 427). Six of the reporting OECD countries awarded 30 percent or more of their graduate degrees in mathematics and science fields: Portugal (49 percent), Japan (47 percent), Germany (34 percent), Greece (33 percent), and Austria and Finland (32 percent each). Seven OECD countries awarded 15 percent or less of their graduate degrees in mathematics and science fields: Hungary (8 percent); Iceland, Poland, and Chile (11 percent each); Mexico (12 percent); the United States (13 percent); and the Netherlands (15 percent).

Finances

In 2008, per student expenditures at the elementary level of education were $9,500 or more in 6 of the 30 OECD countries reporting finance data (table 429). Specifically, Luxembourg spent $13,600 per student at the elementary education level; Norway spent $11,100; Iceland spent $10,600; Denmark spent $10,100; the United States spent $10,000; and Austria spent $9,500. At the secondary level, 5 of the 31 reporting countries had expenditures of over $11,500 per student: Luxembourg ($19,900), Switzerland ($17,800), Norway ($13,100), the United States ($12,100), and Austria ($11,700). At the higher education level, 6 of the 30 reporting countries had expenditures of over $17,000 per student in 2008: the United States ($29,900), Switzerland ($21,600), Sweden ($20,000), Norway ($18,900), Denmark ($17,600), and the Netherlands ($17,200). These expenditures were adjusted to U.S. dollars using the purchasing-power-parity (PPP) index. This index is considered more stable and comparable than indexes using currency exchange rates.

A comparison of public direct expenditures on education as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in reporting OECD countries shows that national investment in education in 2008 ranged from 3.3 percent in Japan and 3.5 percent in the Slovak Republic to 7.3 percent in Norway and 7.2 percent in Iceland (table 430 and figure 29). Among reporting OECD countries, the average public direct expenditure on education in 2008 was 5.1 percent of GDP. In the United States, the public direct expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP was also 5.1 percent.

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1 Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China.

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