High school report Graduation: Rates are stagnant in the United States, rising in other industrialized nations.

November 29, 1998

IN THESE days of global competitiveness, a nation that fails to move ahead falls behind. That is the first lesson that can be drawn from a recent report comparing graduation rates of the world's industrialized countries.

Lesson two: The United States is falling behind on several important education indicators.

The study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the United States is no longer No. 1 in high school completion rates. Of the 29 countries studied, the United States ranked next to last, beating out only Mexico, in the proportion of high school graduates.

This distressing news comes although the United States spends more money overall on education, more money per pupil on education and has more students entering college than other industrialized nations.

The problem is not that graduation rates in the United States are dropping; rather, other nations have increased their proportion of high school graduates. While the U.S. graduation rates stagnated, 16 countries -- including Canada, Finland and Spain -- increased their graduation rates by more than 25 percent.

The news gets worse. Looking at teacher pay, the average salary in this country, based on percentage of gross domestic product, is higher than only the Czech Republic, Hungary and Norway. In comparison, experienced teachers in Germany, Ireland, South Korea and Switzerland receive far higher salaries.

And while students in many countries are being asked to pay more of their own educational expenses, the trend is particularly disturbing in the United States. That is because students' out-of-pocket payments replace public spending here. In other countries, it supplements the government's education spending.

Some of the explanations for the United States' flat graduation rates seem obvious: American children spend more time distracted by television, malls, video arcades, automobiles, part-time jobs and even the furious pace of life itself.

Also, there is the United States' historic opposition to federal involvement in education, which gives the federal government little say when a state sets ill-advised education policies. California, for example, decided two decades ago to turn on its head a school system regarded by many experts as the best in the nation. Today, the state is scrambling to undo the resulting damage.

But explanations can't be accepted as excuses. The OECD's international comparisons must not be ignored. When it comes to key educational indicators, the United States is not measuring up.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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