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Digest of Education Statistics: 2006
Digest of Education Statistics: 2006

NCES 2007-017
July 2007

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 countries. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) carries out a variety of these activities 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 Institute of International Education, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). The basic summary data on enrollments, teachers, enrollment ratios, and finances were synthesized from information appearing in Education at a Glance, published by OECD. Even though OECD tabulations are very carefully prepared, international data users should be cautioned about the many problems of definition and reporting involved in the collection of data about the educational systems in the world (see the OECD entry in Appendix A: Guide to Sources).

This chapter also presents data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) carried out under the aegis of the IEA and supported by NCES and the National Science Foundation. 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. In 1995, TIMSS collected data for fourth and eighth grades. In 1999, TIMSS collected data for eighth grade only. With the 2003 data collection, TIMSS offers the first international trend comparisons in mathematics and science at grades 4 and 8. In 2003, the United States and a number of other countries participated in data collection at two grade levels: 25 nations collected data on fourth-graders, and 45 nations collected data on eighth-graders. For 15 of these nations, including the United States, TIMSS offers comparisons of fourth-grade student achievement between 1995 and 2003. For 34 of these nations, including the United States, TIMSS also offers comparisons of eighth-grade student achievement between 2003 and at least one prior data collection year, either 1995 or 1999.

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

The role that the United States plays in the world of higher education is illuminated by data on foreign students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education. The Institute of International Education provides estimates of the number of foreign students and their countries of origin.

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


Among the reporting OECD countries, Iceland had the largest percentage of young people ages 5 to 14 (16 percent in 2002) (table 394), followed by New Zealand (15 percent) and the United States (15 percent). Countries with relatively small proportions of persons these ages included Greece, Spain, Japan, and Italy (all at 10 percent). Turkey had the largest percentage of young people ages 5 to 14 (21 percent) among reporting OECD countries in 1999 (2002 data were not available for Turkey).


In 2004, about 1.3 billion students were enrolled in schools around the world (table 392). Of these students, 685 million were in elementary-level programs, 503 million were in secondary programs, and 132 million were in higher education programs. Between 1990 and 2004, enrollment changes varied from region to region. Changes in elementary enrollment ranged from increases of 56 percent in Africa, 23 percent in Oceania, 16 percent in Asia, and 9 percent in Northern America (defined in UNESCO tabulations as including the United States, Canada, Greenland, Bermuda, St. Pierre, and Miquelon) to a 21 percent decrease in Europe and an 8 percent decrease in Central and South America (figure 26). Over the same period, enrollment increases at the secondary level outpaced increases at the primary (elementary) level. At the secondary level, enrollments increased by 158 percent in Central and South America, 99 percent in Africa, 85 percent in Oceania, 66 percent in Asia, 25 percent in Northern America, and 5 percent in Europe.

At the postsecondary level, developing areas of the world also had substantial increases in enrollment between 1990 and 2004 (table 392 and figure 26). Postsecondary enrollment rose by 173 percent in Africa, 154 percent in Asia, 103 percent in Oceania, 101 percent in Central and South America, 64 percent in Europe, and 16 percent in Northern America (figure 26). These increases are due to both growth in the proportion of the people attending postsecondary institutions and increases in the populations.

Postsecondary enrollment varied among countries due partially to differences in how postsecondary education is defined and the age at which postsecondary education is thought to begin. In 2002, the OECD countries with the highest proportion of 22- to 25-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education were Finland (39 percent), followed by the Republic of Korea (32 percent), Denmark (29 percent), Sweden (28 percent), Norway (27 percent), and Poland (26 percent) (table 395). The United States' proportion was 25 percent.

In 2004–05, there were about 565,000 foreign students studying at U.S. colleges and universities (table 414). Fifty-eight percent of these students were from Asian countries. Between 1990 and 2005, the proportion of students at U.S. colleges who were nonresident aliens rose from 2.8 to 3.3 percent (table 210).


On the 2003 TIMSS assessment, U.S. fourth-grade students scored 518, on average, in mathematics, exceeding the international average of 495 for the 25 participating countries (table 399). (Average scale scores from the TIMSS assessment are based on a range of possible scores from 1 to 1,000.) U.S. fourth-graders were outperformed by their peers in 11 countries, including four Asian countries (Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, and Singapore) and seven European countries (Flemish Belgium, England, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and the Russian Federation). On the other hand, U.S. fourth-graders outscored students in 13 countries. In 2003, U.S. eighth-grade students scored 504 in mathematics, on average, exceeding the international average of 467 for the 45 participating countries (table 400). U.S. eighth-graders were outperformed by their peers in nine countries, including five Asian countries (Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Korea, and Singapore) and four European countries (Flemish Belgium, Estonia, Hungary, and the Netherlands). On the other hand, U.S. eighth-graders outscored students in 25 countries.

In 2003, U.S. performance in mathematics literacy among 15-year-old students on the PISA assessment was lower than the average performance for 20 of the other 28 OECD countries for which comparable PISA results were reported (table 397). In problem solving, U.S. performance on PISA was lower than 22 of the other 28 OECD countries. The U.S. average score in reading literacy was not measurably different from the OECD average, and the U.S. average score in science literacy was below the OECD average.


Ratios of bachelor's degrees conferred per 100 persons at the typical age of graduation in 2004 ranged from 14 in Mexico and 19 in Belgium to 51 in Iceland and New Zealand and 55 in Finland (table 409 and figure 27). The ratio for the United States was 33. In 2004, women had higher bachelor's degree ratios than men in 21 out of 23 countries reporting data.

The percentages of undergraduate degrees awarded in science fields (including natural sciences, mathematics and computer science, and engineering) reported by OECD countries ranged from 11 percent in Denmark to 38 percent in Korea for 2003 (table 410). Germany, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and Korea all awarded at least 30 percent of their undergraduate degrees in science fields. Denmark, Norway, Poland, Iceland, the United States, Japan, Portugal, and New Zealand awarded 20 percent or less of their undergraduate degrees in science fields. The proportion of graduate degrees awarded in science fields also ranged widely across countries in 2003 (table 411). Among the countries with the highest proportions of their graduate degrees in science were Korea (46 percent), Japan (39 percent), Germany (36 percent), and Spain (36 percent). Among the countries with the lowest proportions were Poland (4 percent), Hungary (8 percent), the Czech Republic (12 percent), Italy (13 percent), and the United States (14 percent).


In 2003, per student expenditures at the elementary level of education were at least $7,500 in six OECD countries (table 412). Specifically, Luxembourg spent approximately $11,500 per student at the elementary level, the United States approximately $8,300, Switzerland approximately $8,100, Norway approximately $8,000, and Denmark and Iceland each approximately $7,800. At the secondary level, four countries had expenditures of over $9,000 per student: Luxembourg (approximately $17,100), Switzerland (approximately $12,200), Norway (approximately $10,900), and the United States (approximately $9,600). At the higher education level, the following five countries had expenditures of at least $14,000 per student in 2003: Switzerland ($25,900), the United States (approximately $24,100), Canada ($19,992 in 2002), Sweden (approximately $16,100), and Denmark (approximately $14,000). 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 OECD countries shows that national investment in education in 2003 ranged from 3.5 percent in Japan and 3.6 percent in Turkey to 6.7 percent in Denmark and 7.5 percent in Iceland (table 413 and figure 28). Among reporting countries, the average public investment in education in 2003 was 5.1 percent of GDP. In the United States, the public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP was 5.4 percent. The percentage of expenditures on education in the Russian Federation, a non-OECD country, was 3.7 percent.