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With the long-term growth in the trade of goods and services in the global economy, policymakers have turned to international comparisons to assess how well education systems are performing in other countries. These comparisons shed light on a host of issues, including access to education, equity of resources, and outcomes such as educational attainment and performance on standardized tests. They provide the opportunity to compare different aspects of countries' education systems, consider these systems' performance, and suggest potential strategies to improve student achievement and system outputs.

Since the 1960s, the United States has participated actively in international projects that are designed to provide key information about the performance of the U.S. education system relative to education systems in other countries. These projects include the Indicators of Education Systems (INES) program and Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), both sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), both sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. This report, Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-8 Countries: 2011, draws on the most current information available at the time the report was being produced (in the fall of 2010) to present a set of education indicators that describes how the U.S. education system compares with education systems in other economically developed countries. Updated information from these various projects will be incorporated in subsequent reports.

Although the international education projects cited above involve many countries worldwide, the comparisons in this report focus on the Group of Eight (G-8) countries: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. While together the G-8 countries make up about 13 percent of the world population, they represent about 53 percent of the gross world product (GWP) as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) (Central Intelligence Agency 2011). Moreover, all of the G-8 countries are among the 15 top-ranked countries in terms of merchandise exports [on a free on board (FOB) basis] and in terms of the value of all final goods and services produced within a country in a given year valued at prices prevailing in the United States [i.e., GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates]. The G-8 countries were selected as a comparison group because of the similarities in their economic development and because the other G-8 countries are among the major economic partners of the United States. The leaders of these countries meet regularly to discuss economic and other policy issues. Although the G-20 represents a broader range of major economies, this larger number of countries is more diverse economically (including both industrialized and emerging market economies) and in their education systems, thus making international comparative indicators more difficult to develop and interpret. Also, for the indicators presented in this report, there is generally more data available for the G-8 countries than for the G-20.

In this report, "education system" is used as a construct in presenting national statistics on education in the G-8 countries. It is important to note, however, that there is considerable variation among countries in how unified these systems are, including variation in the level of local autonomy. For example, while Japan and France have education systems that are highly centralized, the United States and Canada have education systems that are largely decentralized.

What's New in 2011?

This report is the fifth in a series of reports published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that describes how the education system in the United States compares with education systems in the other G-8 countries. Many of the indicators draw on 2008 data from the OECD's INES program, in which countries collaborate to develop comparable education data on topics of mutual interest. In addition, while previous reports in this series have presented data from PIRLS, TIMSS, and earlier rounds of PISA, the indicators in this report related to international assessment draw only from PISA, with a focus on data from the most recent administration in 2009 that was released in December 2010. Neither of the other major international assessments—PIRLS or TIMSS—has released data since the last G-8 report was published in 2009. For the most recent comparisons among G-8 countries in reading performance at the fourth-grade level or mathematics and science at grades 4 or 8, as well as information on learning contexts unique to those studies, please see Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-8 Countries: 2009 (Miller et al. 2009).

Education Levels Used for the Indicators

Many of the indicators in this report refer to at least one of the following education levels: preprimary education, primary education, secondary education, and higher education. A brief overview of the education levels is presented here to provide the reader with a frame of reference while reading the indicators (see appendix A for more detailed descriptions). To ensure comparability in the indicators across countries, each country restructured its national education data to correspond with the definitions of education levels that were developed in the 1997 revision of the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED97) (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] 1997). The following descriptions highlight the key features of (1) education programs from preprimary through secondary education and (2) higher education programs.

Preprimary education includes programs of education for children at least 3 years of age that involve organized, center-based instructional activities; in most countries, preprimary education is not compulsory. Primary education includes programs that are designed to give students a sound basic education in reading, writing, and mathematics, along with an elementary understanding of other subjects, such as history, geography, science, art, and music. In the international classification, primary education usually begins at the start of compulsory education (around age 6) and lasts for 6 years. Secondary education encompasses two stages: lower secondary education and upper secondary education. Lower secondary education includes programs that are designed to complete basic education; the standard duration in the international classification is 3 years. Upper secondary education is designed to provide students with more in-depth knowledge of academic or vocational subjects and to prepare them for higher level academic or vocational studies or entry into the labor market. The standard duration of upper secondary education in the international classification is 3 years.

Higher education includes tertiary programs1 that fall into three main categories:

  • Academic higher education below the doctoral level. These largely theory-based programs are intended to provide sufficient qualifications to gain entry into advanced research programs and professions with high skill requirements. To be classified as such, a degree program must last at least 3 years and is typically preceded by at least 13 years of formal schooling. In the United States, bachelor's, master's, and first professional degree programs are classified at this level.
  • Vocational higher education. These programs provide a higher level of career and technical education beyond secondary school and are designed to prepare students for the labor market. In the international classification, these programs last 2 to 4 years. In the United States, associate's degree programs are classified at this level.
  • Doctoral level of academic higher education. These programs usually require the completion of a research thesis or dissertation.

The international classification also includes an education level that straddles the boundary between upper secondary and higher education: postsecondary nontertiary education. These programs of study—which are primarily vocational in nature—are generally taken after the completion of upper secondary education. They are often not significantly more advanced than upper secondary programs, but they serve to extend the skills of participants who have already completed upper secondary education. In the United States, these programs are often in the form of occupationally specific vocational certificate programs, such as 1-year certification programs offered at technical institutes or community colleges.2

Mapping G-8 Countries' Education Systems to the ISCED97

Matching the education levels of individual countries to the ISCED97 classification can be challenging, because the particulars of individual countries seldom fit ISCED97 perfectly. Using ISCED97 classifications as a starting point, NCES worked with education professionals in other G-8 countries to create a general overview of each country's education system. As an aid to the reader, schematics of how the ISCED97 applies to each of the G-8 countries are provided in appendix A, accompanied by text describing each system in greater detail.

Organization of the Report

The report begins with a summary section that highlights key findings; it then presents 21 indicators that compare different aspects of the education system in the United States to education systems in other G-8 countries. The indicators are organized into the following sections:

  • population and school enrollment;
  • academic performance;
  • context for learning;
  • expenditures for education; and
  • educational attainment and income.

The first section, population and school enrollment, presents indicators that suggest the potential demand for education in countries as measured by the size and growth of their school-age population and current and past levels of enrollment in formal education. The section concludes with an indicator that examines the extent to which foreign students are enrolled in higher education across the G-8 countries.

The next section, academicperformance, has indicators pertaining to 15-year-olds' achievement in reading, mathematics, and science. There is an emphasis on reading given that this subject area was the focus of PISA 2009, and several indicators present data from two time points using PISA data. The indicators in this section present findings on student performance in reading, mathematics, and science; change in performance; change in performance by sex; and performance by immigrant status. There are also two indicators that look separately at low performing and high performing students.

The third section highlights a range of issues pertaining to the context for learning across the G-8 countries. This section presents data on class size and ratio of students to teaching staff and two indicators using data from PISA 2000 and 2009: the reports of 15-year-old students on their time spent reading for enjoyment and the reports of school principals about the various purposes for which assessments of 15-year-old students are used at their schools.

The fourth section provides a comparative look at expenditures foreducation, including breakdowns by expenditures as a percentage of a country's gross domestic product (GDP) and the portion of total education expenditures devoted to core services.3 This section also presents information on change in education expenditures and public school teacher salaries in primary and secondary education.

The final section, educational attainment and income, focuses on graduation rates, educational attainment, employment rates, and earnings (including breakdowns by sex and field of study for some of these areas).

Each indicator is presented in a two-page format. The first page presents key findings that highlight how the United States compares with its G-8 peers (with data available) on the issue examined in the indicator. The key findings are followed by a section that defines the terms used in the indicator and describes key features of the methodology used to produce it. The second page presents graphical depictions of the data that support the key findings. These tables and/or figures also include the specific data source for the indicator and more detailed notes on interpreting the data.

Data Sources

There are two main sources of data for this report:

  • INES data. Data from the INES project come from tables in Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2010 or from OECD's online Education Database. These data are derived from annual data collections carried out by OECD, with member countries' data coming from a variety of national data sources, including administrative data collections, school surveys, household surveys, and national financial reports. Most of the indicator data for the United States come from the Current Population Survey (CPS) of the U.S. Census Bureau, the NCES Common Core of Data (CCD), the NCES Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and the NCES Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS).
  • PISA data. PISA is conducted under the auspices of OECD by participating countries and is an assessment of 15-year-old students, with a major focus in 2009 on reading literacy.

Data for indicator 1, on school-age population, are from the International Data Base (IDB) of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Except for indicator 14 (which explicitly states that the data pertain to public school teachers only) or where otherwise noted for a specific country's data, the indicators in this report include data from both public and private schools.

Availability of Country Data

It should be noted that many of the indicators in this report do not contain data for the complete set of G-8 countries. That is, specific countries are sometimes not included or country data may only be partially included in an indicator. In indicators using INES data, this is the result of source data not being reported; the "reporting" G-8 countries in these indicators vary somewhat, and these are shown in each indicator. In PISA, data for the United Kingdom are not reported in 2000 and 2003 due to low response rates. In other instances, PISA data may not be reported for a country due to the data not being collected or reporting standards not being met. These instances are noted in each indicator where relevant.

The United Kingdom includes England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. In one indicator (indicator 14), data for England and Scotland are shown separately and in place of data for the entire United Kingdom.

Every effort was made to use the most up-to-date data available across the G-8 countries (usually from 2008 or 2009), though sometimes the latest data available from a country are from an earlier year. To make this clear to the reader, these occurrences are noted in relevant tables and figures.

Data Quality and Response Rates

PISA has established technical standards of data quality including participation and response rate standards that countries must meet in order to be included in the comparative results. Response rate standards were set using composites of response rates at the school and teacher levels, and response rates were calculated with and without the inclusion of substitute schools that were selected to replace schools refusing to participate.4 These standards are described in detail in the technical reports (OECD forthcoming).

Consistent with NCES statistical standards, item response rates less than 85 percent are footnoted in the tables and figures of this report, as well as instances where reporting standards are not met because of too few observations to provide reliable estimates.

Statistical Testing

Thirteen of the indicators presented in this report (indicators 1–4, 11, 14–21) are derived either from administrative records that are based on universe collections or from national sample surveys for which standard errors were not available. Consequently, for these indicators, no tests of statistical significance were conducted to establish whether observed differences from the U.S. average were statistically significant. However, for the eight other indicators derived from PISA data (indicators 5-10, 12, and 13), standard t tests were calculated for comparisons of estimates within or between countries (e.g., to test whether a U.S. estimate is statistically different from other G-8 countries' estimates). Differences were reported if they were found to be statistically significant at the .05 level, using two-tailed tests of significance for comparisons of independent samples.

Other International Indicator Publications Prior to this report, NCES produced four earlier reports—in 2009, 2006, 2004, and 2002—describing how the education system in the United States compares with education systems in the other G-8 countries. The 2009 report can be found at The 2006 report can be found at pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2007006. The 2004 report can be found at The 2002 report can be found at pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2003026. General information about the International Activities Program at NCES, including work on international comparisons in education, can be found at


1 In the international classification, more advanced postsecondary education (such as attending a 4-year college or university) is referred to as "tertiary education." In the current report, the term "higher education" is used because this term is more familiar to American readers.
2 In data showing annual education expenditures (indicators 15 and 16), postsecondary nontertiary education data are included under primary and secondary education for most G-8 countries, though postsecondary nontertiary education data are included under secondary education and/or higher education for one or more countries as specified in the figures. In data showing the percentage distribution of the population by highest level of education completed (indicator 18), employment rates (indicator 20), and the distribution of the population by education and income (indicator 21), postsecondary nontertiary education data are included under upper secondary education for all G-8 countries reporting data.
3 Expenditures on core education services pertain to spending on instructional services, including faculty/staff salaries, professional development, and books and other school materials.
4 International requirements state that each country must make every effort to obtain cooperation from the sampled schools, but the requirements also recognize that this is not always possible. Thus, it is allowable to use substitute schools as a means to avoid sample size loss associated with school nonresponse. To do this, each sampled school was assigned two substitute schools in the sampling frame. Substitutes for nonparticipating sampled schools were identified by assigning as substitute schools the schools that immediately preceded and followed the sampled school on the frame. The sampling frame was sorted by the stratification variables and by a measure of size to ensure that any sampled school's substitute had similar characteristics.