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Digest of Education Statistics: 2012
Digest of Education Statistics: 2012

NCES 2014-015
December 2013

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 two international assessments of student achievement that are carried out under the aegis of IEA and supported by NCES. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), formerly known as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, assesses the mathematics and science knowledge and skills of fourth- and eighth-graders every 4 years. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) measures the reading knowledge and skills of fourth-graders every 5 years.

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 (20 percent) in 2009, followed by Israel and Turkey (both at 18 percent) (table 456). OECD countries with small percentages of people in this age group included the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Slovenia, and Spain (all at 9 percent), and Austria, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, and Switzerland (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 2010, about 1.4 billion students were enrolled in schools around the world (table 454). Of these students, 691 million were in elementary-level programs, 543 million were in secondary programs, and 178 million were in postsecondary programs.

From 2000 to 2010, enrollment changes varied from region to region. Changes in elementary enrollment ranged from increases of 45 percent in Africa and 6 percent in Oceania to decreases of 12 percent in Europe, 5 percent in Central and South America (including Latin America and the Caribbean), 3 percent in Northern America (including Bermuda, Canada, and the United States), and 1 percent in Asia (table F, table 454, and figure 27). Over the same period, secondary enrollment increased by 62 percent in Africa, 29 percent in Asia, 10 percent in Central and South America, and 7 percent in Northern America, but decreased by 18 percent in Europe and 5 percent in Oceania. At the postsecondary level, enrollments increased in all major areas of the world from 2000 to 2010. Postsecondary enrollment rose by 118 percent in Asia, 88 percent in Central and South America, 63 percent in Africa, 51 percent in Northern America and in Oceania, 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 2010
[In millions]
Area of the world Population Enrollment
Elementary Secondary Postsecondary
World total        
2000 6,089.8 654.8 450.7 99.9
2010 6,863.8 691.3 543.5 177.7
Africa        
2000 803.6 108.4 37.6 6.4
2010 1,024.4 157.4 61.0 10.4
Asia        
2000 3,693.9 404.1 259.2 41.1
2010 4,138.8 400.7 334.7 89.5
Europe        
2000 730.6 41.7 70.4 25.6
2010 738.4 36.7 57.5 33.0
Central and South America        
2000 517.9 70.0 55.1 11.4
2010 584.1 66.7 60.4 21.4
Northern America        
2000 313.4 27.4 25.1 14.4
2010 343.2 26.5 26.8 21.8
Oceania        
2000 30.4 3.1 3.4 1.0
2010 34.9 3.3 3.2 1.6
SOURCE: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, unpublished tabulations, and U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, International Data Base.

In 2009, 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 the United States (47 percent), Belgium (44 percent), Ireland (43 percent), and Slovenia (42 percent) (table 457). Also in 2009, the reporting OECD country with the highest proportion of 22- to 25-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education was Slovenia (39 percent), followed by Finland (37 percent), the Republic of Korea (36 percent), Denmark (33 percent), and Poland (32 percent). The United States’ proportion of enrolled 22- to 25-year-olds was 26 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

Mathematics and Science at Grades 4 and 8

The 2011 TIMSS assessed students’ mathematics and science performance at grade 4 in 45 countries and at grade 8 in 38 countries. A number of subnational entities also participated in TIMSS as separate education systems. Examples of subnational participants include the cities of Hong Kong and Taipei, several U.S. states and Canadian provinces, Northern Ireland and England within the United Kingdom, and the Flemish community in Belgium. Results for individual U.S. states are based on public school students only, while U.S. national results are based on both public and private school students. TIMSS assessments are curriculum based and measure what students have actually learned against the subject matter that is expected to be taught in the participating education systems by the end of grades 4 and 8. At both grades, TIMSS scores are reported on a scale of 0 to 1,000, with the scale average set at 500.

In 2011, the average mathematics scores of U.S. fourth-graders (541) and eighth-graders (509) were higher than the TIMSS scale average of 500 (tables 460 and 461). The average U.S. fourth-grade mathematics score was higher than the average score in 37 of the 44 other countries participating at grade 4, lower than the average score in 3 countries, and not measurably different from the average score in the remaining 4 countries (table 460). The 3 countries that outperformed the United States in fourth-grade mathematics were Singapore, the Republic of Korea, and Japan. At grade 8, the average U.S. mathematics score was higher than the average score in 27 of the 37 other participating countries in 2011, lower than the average score in 4 countries, and not measurably different from the average score in the remaining 6 countries (table 461). The 4 countries that outperformed the United States in eighth-grade mathematics were the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Japan, and the Russian Federation.

Of the two U.S. states that participated in the 2011 TIMSS as separate education systems at grade 4, one state—North Carolina—had an average score for public schools that was higher than both the TIMSS scale average and the U.S. national average in mathematics (table 460). Public schools in the other state, Florida, had an average fourth-grade mathematics score that was higher than the TIMSS scale average but not measurably different from the U.S. national average. Of the nine U.S. states that participated separately at grade 8, four states—Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana—had public school average scores that were higher than both the TIMSS scale average and the U.S. national average in mathematics (table 461). The public schools in three states—Colorado, Connecticut, and Florida—had average eighth-grade mathematics scores that were higher than the TIMSS scale average but not measurably different from the U.S. national average. The average eighth-grade score for public schools in California was not measurably different from the TIMSS scale average but was lower than the U.S. national average, while Alabama’s public school average was lower than both the TIMSS scale average and the U.S. national average in mathematics.

The average science scores of both U.S. fourth-graders (544) and U.S. eighth-graders (525) were higher than the TIMSS scale average of 500 in 2011 (tables 460 and 461). The average U.S. fourth-grade science score was higher than the average score in 39 of the 44 other countries participating at grade 4 and lower than the average score in 5 countries (table 460). The 5 countries that outperformed the United States in fourth-grade science were the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Finland, Japan, and the Russian Federation. At grade 8, the average U.S. science score was higher than the average score in 28 of the 37 other participating countries in 2011, lower than the average score in 6 countries, and not measurably different from the average score in the remaining 3 countries (table 461). The 6 countries that outperformed the United States in eighth-grade science were Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Finland, Slovenia, and the Russian Federation.

Public schools in both Florida and North Carolina, which were the two U.S. states participating in the 2011 TIMSS at grade 4, had average fourth-grade science scores that were higher than the TIMSS scale average but not measurably different from the U.S. national average (table 460). Of the nine U.S. states that participated at grade 8, three states—Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado—had public school average scores that were higher than both the TIMSS scale average and the U.S. national average in science (table 461). Public schools in four states—Indiana, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Florida—had average eighth-grade science scores that were higher than the TIMSS scale average but not measurably different from the U.S. national average. The average eighth-grade score for public schools in California was not measurably different from the TIMSS scale average but was lower than the U.S. national average, while Alabama’s public school average was lower than both the TIMSS scale average and the U.S. national average in science.

Reading Literacy at Grade 4

PIRLS has conducted international assessments of fourth-grade reading literacy in 2001, 2006, and 2011. In 2011, PIRLS participants consisted of 40 countries as well as a number of subnational education systems. Examples of subnational participants include the cities of Hong Kong and Taipei, the public school system of the U.S. state of Florida, several Canadian provinces, Northern Ireland and England within the United Kingdom, and the Flemish community in Belgium. PIRLS scores are reported on a scale from 0 to 1,000, with the scale average set at 500.

On the 2011 PIRLS, U.S. fourth-graders had an average reading literacy score of 556 (table 462). The U.S. average score in 2011 was 14 points higher than in 2001 and 16 points higher than in 2006. In all 3 assessment years, the U.S. average score was higher than the PIRLS scale average.

In 2011, the average reading literacy score of fourth-graders in the United States was higher than the average score in 33 of the 39 other participating countries, lower than the average score in 3 countries, and not measurably different from the average in the remaining 3 countries. The 3 countries that outperformed the United States on the 2011 PIRLS were the Russian Federation, Finland, and Singapore. Public school students in Florida scored higher than both the PIRLS scale average and the U.S. national average.

In the United States, the 2011 average reading literacy score for girls (562) was higher than the average score for boys (551). In 34 of the 39 other participating countries, the average score for girls was also higher than the average score for boys, while there was no measurable difference between girls’ and boys’ average scores in the remaining 5 countries.

Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy at Age 15

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 463). (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 2010, the percentage of 25- to 64-year-olds who had completed high school varied among reporting OECD countries (table 467). Countries with high percentages included the Czech Republic (92 percent); the Slovak Republic (91 percent); Estonia, the United States, and Poland (all at 89 percent); and Canada (88 percent). Ten additional countries had percentages between 80 and 87 percent. Countries with relatively low percentages of 25- to 64-year-olds who had completed high school included Turkey (31 percent), Portugal (32 percent), and Mexico (36 percent).

In 2010, the OECD country reporting the highest percentage of 25- to 64-year-olds with a bachelor’s or higher degree was Norway (35 percent), followed by the United States (32 percent), Israel (31 percent), and the Netherlands (30 percent) (table 468). The countries with the lowest percentages of 25- to 64-year-olds who had attained a bachelor’s or higher degree were Austria (12 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 2010 (table 468 and figure 28). The OECD country reporting the highest percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds at this level of educational attainment was Norway (46 percent). Five other countries reported that more than 35 percent of their 25- to 34-year-olds had a bachelor’s or higher degree: the Republic of Korea (39 percent), the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (both at 38 percent), and Poland and Finland (both at 37 percent). The lowest percentages were reported by Austria (15 percent) and Turkey (17 percent). In the United States, 33 percent of adults in this age group had a bachelor’s or higher degree.

Degrees

In 30 of the 33 reporting OECD countries, more than half of all bachelor’s and higher degrees were awarded to women in 2010 (table 472). However, the proportion of degrees awarded to women varied by field. For example, 31 of the 33 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 25 percent of the computer science degrees in 27 of the 32 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 32 OECD countries that reported these data in 2009 (table 473). Only one of the reporting OECD countries awarded more than 30 percent of its bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and science fields: the Republic of Korea (35 percent). Three of the countries awarded 15 percent or less of their bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and science fields: Norway and the Netherlands (14 percent each) and Iceland (15 percent). In 2009, 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 ranged widely across the 31 OECD countries that reported these data in 2009 (table 474). Six of the reporting OECD countries awarded 30 percent or more of their graduate degrees in mathematics and science fields: Japan (47 percent), Finland (34 percent), Austria and Portugal (both at 33 percent), and Germany and Sweden (both at 32 percent). Seven OECD countries awarded 15 percent or less of their graduate degrees in mathematics and science fields: Chile (8 percent), Hungary (10 percent), Poland (11 percent), Mexico (12 percent), Iceland and the United States (both at 13 percent), and the Netherlands (15 percent).

Finances

In 2009, per student expenditures at the combined elementary and secondary level of education were over $11,000 (in current U.S. dollars) in 6 of the 31 OECD countries reporting finance data (table 476). Specifically, Luxembourg spent $18,000 per elementary/secondary student; Switzerland spent $13,400; Norway spent $13,000; the United States spent $11,800; Austria spent $11,700; and Denmark spent $11,100. At the higher education level, 6 countries had expenditures of over $17,500 per student in 2009: the United States ($29,200), Switzerland ($21,600), Sweden ($20,000), Norway ($19,300), Denmark ($18,600), and the Netherlands ($17,800). 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 2009 ranged from 3.6 percent in Japan to 7.3 percent in Iceland and 7.5 percent in Denmark (table 477 and figure 29). Among reporting OECD countries, the average public direct expenditure on education in 2009 was 5.4 percent of GDP. In the United States, the public direct expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP was 5.3 percent.

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