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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as U.S. Graduation Rates Starting To Fall Behind

U.S. Graduation Rates Starting To Fall Behind

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The United States is falling behind other economic powers in one category that defines an educated workforce: the high school graduation rate.

For much of the century, U.S. graduation rates were far higher than those of leading industrial nations in Europe, Asia, and the rest of this hemisphere. But high school completion has risen dramatically around the globe during the past several decades, while the U.S. rate has declined slightly, according to an annual report of international educational indicators.

"The pack has risen and left the U.S. standing," said Donald Hirsch, a consultant to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based group that was scheduled to release the findings this week. "There was a time when the U.S. could say it had this human-capital advantage. Today, you can no longer say you've got that advantage."

"We can no longer be complacent that we're educating a higher percentage of young people than other countries," said Tom D. Snyder, the director of annual reports for the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Department of Education branch that compiled much of the data included in the OECD report.

For "Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 1998," the organization collected a range of data from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The international group annually publishes a book comparing developed countries' education spending, teacher salaries, and a wide range of other measures.

As in previous years, the OECD documents that the United States dedicates one of the largest shares of its gross domestic product to education. ("In Education Spending, U.S. Near the Top, Report Finds," Jan. 14, 1998.)

Education spending constituted 6.7 percent of the U.S. economy in 1995--the latest year for which data were available, the report says. That ranked the country fourth among OECD members, behind Denmark, Canada, and Sweden. Israel, one of several non-OECD members participating in the study, spends a higher portion of its GDP on education than any of the OECD countries.

A large share of U.S. school spending--1.7 percent of the 1995 GDP-- came from private sources, mostly in the form of college tuition. With private contributions deducted, the country's public spending on schools ranked in the middle of the pack of 26 industrialized countries in the survey.

Decline Among the Young

In addition to providing spending data, this year's report highlights long-term trends in graduation rates. The figures show how industrialized countries have adopted the U.S. model of a comprehensive high school education and tailored it to fit their needs.

One result is that the United States, which for generations had a higher percentage of high school graduates than any other industrial country, is starting to lag behind.

More than three-fourths of Americans aged 55 to 64 have a high school diploma. That percentage is higher than any other country in the report and far ahead of the average of 42 percent in the 26 developed countries from which the OECD collected similar data.

But such a dominance disappears in younger age groups. Among adults aged 25 to 34, the Czech Republic, Norway, South Korea, and Poland have higher graduation rates than the United States, where 87 percent of adults in that age span have diplomas.

And in comparing graduation rates of today's teenagers, the United States--with 72 percent of its 18-year-olds earning diplomas in 1996--ranks last behind all other developed countries, according to the report. The report looked at the typical age of graduation in each country, generally students 17 to 19 years old.

But those numbers may be misleading, according to one education historian, because this country offers several opportunities for dropouts to return to high school or earn equivalency diplomas.

"America is basically a second-chance educational system. To me, that's one of its best qualities," said Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University. "In a lot of other countries, you're in or out. If anything, it's a plus that people who have dropped out see it's in their best economic interest to get further education."

Indeed, the data in "Education at a Glance" do not count the half-million or so dropouts who earn a General Educational Development credential every year, according to Mr. Snyder, the Education Department statistician.

GED recipients receive some of the same economic benefits as high school graduates, he added, but they fail in higher education at higher rates.

A College Edge

But the relatively low U.S. graduation rates may be a symptom of deeper problems in the quality of the nation's schools, others say.

"We have to do a better job of getting more kids to graduate with a good education so they can lead productive lives," said Milton Goldberg, the executive vice president of the National Alliance of Business, a Washington group representing top corporate executives.

The data suggest other industrialized countries have slowly copied the vision of the comprehensive high school that the United States pioneered in the first half of the century. Such schools offered general and vocational education, along with college preparation to a broad population.

While adopting that model, other economic leaders have maintained their traditional emphasis on apprenticeships and vocational training.

"Their 19-year-olds are doing academic work that far surpasses our normal run-of-the-mill high school," said Samuel Halperin, a co-director of the Youth Policy Forum, a Washington nonprofit organization. "You know that at age 19, they have a trade and a career and they can do things."

While the United States' graduation rates are starting to trail, the nation's college attendance is still near the top of international comparisons. Slightly more than half the country's 18-year-olds enter higher education, but on average only one-third of teenagers in OECD countries enroll in educational institutions beyond high school, the report says.

Waiting until college to demand academic excellence may be too late, Mr. Halperin said. Many students in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are studying college-level material in high school, he said."Our [high school] kids just are not approaching Western European levels. They catch up later if they catch up at all."

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Pages 1,11

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