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U.S. Not Biggest Spender on Education, Study Finds

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Moreover, the United States also lags other nations in academic achievement. Citing previously released test data, the report notes that most nations' students outperform Americans in mathematics.

The report, the first of what is expected to be an annual series of reports on education in the 24 nations belonging to the Paris-based O.E.C.D., could help improve policymaking by providing for the first time accurate comparisons between nations, according to Nebeel Alsalam, a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics, which helped fund and prepare the report.

"A lot of discussions about international differences are based on poor information,'' he said. "Hopefully, this will improve the quality of information available on what is going on, and what could be going on, given that other countries are doing it.''

Some of the data appear to challenge Bush Administration assertions about education spending. Although Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander has maintained that the United States spends more per pupil on education than every other nation except Switzerland, the report shows that other countries, including Canada, Finland, and Sweden, also outspend Americans.

But Mr. Alexander said in a statement last week that the report confirms that "money alone is not the answer.''

"The U.S. today spends more on elementary and secondary education per pupil than any of our major international competitors, for example about 50 percent more than Japan and Germany,'' he said.

Importance of 'Smarts'

The report, "Education at a Glance,'' published in both English and French, is the result of a four-year effort, led by the United States, to compile comparative education data.

Herbert J. Walberg, a research professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who chaired a scientific advisory group for the project, called the result a "historic'' acknowledgment of the importance of education to economic prosperity.

"The organization started off in economics and agriculture,'' Mr. Walberg said of the O.E.C.D. "For the first time, there is a greater realization of the importance of human capital--'smarts'--and of getting objective information on it.''

To compile the report, the member nations of the organization formed networks to select indicators and collect data in four areas: educational outcomes, student destinations, school features and processes, and attitudes and expectations. (See Education Week, May 2, 1990.)

Mr. Walberg said that coming to an agreement on the measures posed problems, because of the different languages and different systems involved. As an example, he noted, the groups had difficulties defining the levels of education; even within the United States, some systems have eight-year elementary schools and some have six-year programs.

"In some ways, they were comparing the uncomparable,'' Mr. Walberg said.

Attainment and Wealth

In a section designed to provide a context for the education data, the report shows that the United States is the best-educated and wealthiest nation in the industrialized world.

Among adults ages 25 to 64, it found, 82 percent of Americans in 1989 had completed high school, and 30 percent had completed postsecondary education. In most European countries, by contrast, fewer than one in five adults are college graduates, and in Spain and Portugal, fewer than 20 percent had completed secondary school.

The report also shows that the United States, with a 1988 per-capita gross domestic product of $19,523, is the wealthiest of all the industrialized nations.

"The assumption is, the more wealth, the greater the scope of educational expenditure,'' said Albert Tuijnman, an author of the report. "If a nation is poor, it can afford less.''

Yet, the study found, that assumption does not always hold up. Using for the first time data on private as well as public expenditures on education, the report states that the United States spends 5.7 percent of its G.D.P. on education, the average amount spent by the O.E.C.D. countries.

Canada, by contrast, spends 7.2 percent of its G.D.P. on education, while Japan, with the highest proportion of private education expenditures among the industrialized nations, spends 4.7 percent of its wealth on education.

Using a separate measure of spending, the report shows that public expenditures per pupil in the United States exceed the international average.

However, despite Administration officials' frequent statements that only Switzerland spends more per pupil than the United States, the report shows that other industrialized nations--including Canada, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden--also outrank the United States.

Mr. Tuijnman explained that the discrepancy reflects the fact that the O.E.C.D. report adjusted the differences in spending to take into account differences in purchasing power because of varying exchange rates.

'Wastage' in Higher Education

Mr. Tuijnman also noted that the data show that, compared with Japan, the United States devotes a far greater proportion of its per-pupil expenditures to higher education.

The United States, the report shows, spends $6,386 per pupil on higher education, compared with $3,843 per pupil in preprimary, primary, and secondary schooling, even though only about half the college-age population pursues higher education. By contrast, Japan spends about equally for students at each level.

"A student in higher education [in the United States] is costing twice as much public money as a pupil in primary school,'' Mr. Tuijnman said. "Taxpayer money is used to subsidize students in higher education.''

And, he pointed out, the number of students who complete college in the United States on time does not significantly exceed that in other countries, such as Japan and Canada.

Although a far higher proportion of American high school graduates goes on to postsecondary education, the report states, 25.6 percent of 22-year-olds in the United States have graduated from college, compared with 25.4 percent in Canada and 26.3 percent in Japan.

"Even though the U.S. is spending additional money on higher education, and puts a priority on higher education, what comes finally out is not much more than in Japan and Canada,'' Mr. Tuijnman said. "There appear to be wastages.''

High School Completion

Similarly, Mr. Tuijnman said, the proportion of students who complete high school on time in the United States is about average in the O.E.C.D. countries. Some 74 percent of American 17-year-olds have received diplomas, compared with virtually all in Germany, Denmark, and Finland, and 90 percent in Japan.

Although many students in the United States receive diplomas after age 17, Mr. Tuijnman said, the large proportion of those who fail to do so on time represents wastage, since additional years of schooling are costly.

Mr. Walberg also pointed out that those who graduate from high school in the United States lag behind their peers in other nations in academic achievement.

The report cites previously published data from the 1982 Second International Mathematics Study and the 1991 Second International Assessment of Educational Progress, which show that U.S. 13-year-olds performed well behind those of other nations in math.

Other Findings

Among other findings, the report notes that:

  • The United States is one of the few O.E.C.D. countries where women exceed men in college and university enrollments. Some 25.6 percent of female 18- to-25-year-olds in the United States are enrolled in college, compared with 24.3 percent of males. In Japan, by contrast, nearly three times as many men as women are enrolled.
  • As in most countries with three-year preprimary education, the United States enrolls just under a third of eligible children in the first year. In Belgium and France, by contrast, more than 90 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in preprimary schooling.
  • Individual schools in the United States have less decisionmaking authority than their counterparts in most other industrialized nations, even those with national curricula.

Copies of the report, "Education at a Glance,'' are available for $28 each from O.E.C.D. Publications and Information Office, 2001 L St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

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