Five Ways U.S. Education Differs From Other G-20 Countries

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 04, 2016 5 min read
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It’s become common to dismiss the United States’ lackluster performance on global tests like the Program for International Student Assessment by arguing that America has a different education context. So it’s worth looking at how that context compares to those of other industrialized countries.

Last week the National Center on Education Statistics released its sixth comprehensive international comparison report, for the first time comparing the United States not just to the G-8 countries but to the G-20, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Leaving aside test scores (which you can dig into via NCES’ International Data Explorer), the data show some interesting areas in which the United States seems to stand out from other industrialized countries. For example:

U.S. Kids Tend to Start School Later.

From the beginning, young children in other G-20 countries are more likely than those in the United States to get a jump on school. Researchers found that as of 2011, 9 out of 10 students in France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom had entered formal education by ages 3 and 4. The United States didn’t enroll 90 percent of its students until age 6.

The U.S. enrollment rate for 3- to 4-year-olds was 64 percent, higher than only six G-20 countries, including Indonesia and Turkey. Preschool enrollment in the Russian Federation, for example, was 73 percent.

And even though other studies have shown rising rates of parents reading to their preschool-age children ...

U.S. Students Are Kind of ‘Meh’ About Reading.

Internationally, the NCES data found that girls uniformly reported enjoying reading more than boys did, based on a subset of suvey questions given to 4th graders in 11 countries. Students were asked whether they think reading is boring, whether they read only when they have to, or if they would be happy with a book as a gift. America had a gender gap of 13 percentage points, which was pretty middle of the road.

But the odd thing here is how little interest American students had in reading in general: Only 33 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys reported enjoying reading. Only girls in Italy and Russia and boys in England, Italy, and Saudi Arabia had lower rates of reading enjoyment than U.S. students. Interestingly, higher rates of both U.S. boys and girls reported being “motivated to read,” than to say they enjoyed reading. That suggests that while gender differences may contribute to reading achievement in school, educators may need to engage both girls and boys in the subject more to instill a thirst for lifelong reading.

By comparison, 44 percent of girls and 45 percent of boys in 4th grade reported enjoying mathematics—showing statistically no gender gap, and an enjoyment rate in the middle of the international pack. By 8th grade, less than half that many American students reported liking math, but that’s still about par or a little better than in other countries, and there’s no difference between boys and girls in math enjoyment. This is also 2011 data, and it would be interesting to see if it is an improvement from students’ attitudes before the push to interest more students in pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math careers.

The lack of enjoyment in reading is a bit ironic, considering that ...

The United States Has More Reading Specialists Than Other Countries.

American teachers were far more likely than those in other countries to say that a reading specialist was always on hand to help students with difficulties. American teachers were also less likely to wait and see if a student would grow out of reading problems than any other country studied except Australia and the United Kingdom.

U.S. reading teachers, like teachers in most other industrialized countries, reported being pretty satisfied with their jobs—but it’s worth noting that the United States has had one of the biggest drops in teacher job satisfaction of any G-20 country since 2006. In 2011, the percentage of 4th grade students who were taught by a “very satisfied” reading teacher fell 26 percentage points. It would be interesting to see research digging into how falling teacher enjoyment might have affected students’ love of reading.

The data did not include details on what sort of professional development reading teachers around the world get, but it did look at STEM subjects, which showed a bright spot for U.S. schools.

American Teachers Get a Lot More STEM Professional Development.

The G-20 countries asked teachers whether they had received training in the last two years in math and science content, pedagogy, assessment, or in integrating information technology into instruction. In 8th grade, the United States was the only country in which a majority of students were taught by teachers who had received math training in all four areas. In 4th grade, 68 percent of U.S. teachers reported participating in professional development in math content, the highest rate of any of the countries studied.

Similarly, only in the United States and Russia did a majority of 8th grade students have teachers who participated in science professional development in content, pedagogy, testing, and technology integration in the last two years.

The U.S. Spends More Per Student on Education But Has Mixed Graduation Rates.

At $11,800 per K-12 student and $25,000 per college student, the United States spends more public and private dollars on education than any other country studied. That includes both “core” spending, like teachers’ salaries or class materials, and ancillary spending such as transportation or meals.

However, the United States had mediocre high school graduation rates, leading China, Turkey, and Mexico, but lagging behind Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, and the United Kingdom.

You can dig into these and a lot more interesting data here.

Chart: U.S. teachers take less of a “wait and see” approach to early reading difficulties than teachers in other countries, according to new data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Source: NCES

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.