S. Korea Tops U.S. in Key Education Ratings

By Andrew Trotter — September 24, 2003 3 min read
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South Korea leads the world in investment in education as a percentage of gross domestic product, and it appears to have overtaken the United States and many other wealthy nations in key measures of educational quality, concludes a report released last week.

Order “Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators —2003 Edition,” from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The Asian nation invested 7.1 percent of its gross domestic product in education in 2000, the most recent year for which data is available. That barely topped the 7.0 percent figure for the United States, according to the report, which was produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The United States once held the top ranking among OECD nations in some important categories, such as investment in education, but has slipped in recent years, said Barry McGaw, the OECD’s director of education, at a press conference here.

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See the accompanying chart, “Global Positioning.”

The average education investment for the OECD nations was 5.9 percent of GDP, or the total value of goods and services that a nation produces, which is a standard measure of the size of a nation’s economy. Canada, Denmark, and Sweden were not far behind the leaders in the category, which includes both public and private funds spent on all levels of education.

Vaulting Ahead

South Korea’s improvement was the focus of much discussion during last week’s press conference, when the 2003 edition of “Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators,” was released by the Paris-based group. Its 30 members include most Western European nations, the United States, and other industrialized countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and Mexico. Most of the data in the 485-page report are from 2000 through 2002.

South Korea has vaulted ahead in the proportion of its population that has completed at least high school and entered universities. In the former category, the country had 49 percent of its citizens finishing high school a generation ago, based on those who now are 45 to 54 years old—a ranking of 24th among OECD countries. It progressed to having 95 percent of its citizens aged 25 to 34 completing high school, for a first-place ranking. The U.S. dropped from first to ninth for the same age groups.

In the percentage of its population completing university, South Korea moved from 17th a generation ago, to third today. Norway improved to first place, nudging the U.S. from the top spot into second. Mr. McGaw said those changes matter because “the biggest contribution to a nation’s economic growth comes from increases in the skills of its labor market.”

Asked to explain South Korea’s rapid progress, Mr. McGaw said: “It is important to note that [South] Korea has a most extraordinary national commitment to learning. Children spend hours and weekends outside of schools in tutoring.”

Mr. McGaw also said the United States gets about the least “bang for the buck” for its educational dollars. "[South] Korea and Japan get much more from their investment in education,” he said.

The report also shows that American education still suffers from a large gap in achievement between its best and lowest- performing students, Mr. McGaw said.

In literacy skills, for example, the United States has as many students who are on a par with the elite of other wealthy countries—only six countries rank higher—but the U.S. proportion of low-achieving students is no better than the average for the OECD nations.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who spoke at the press conference here, saw that result as a “wake-up call.”

“While our country remains mired in internal education politics and mediocrity, other countries are moving ahead to put their focus squarely on improving the education of their students,” Mr. Paige said. “First, our students do well early on, but by the time they reach high school, American 15-year-olds are nearly average compared to the OECD [average] in reading, math, and sciences.”

“I think we have become a little complacent, self-satisfied, and often lacking the will to do better,” Mr. Paige added.

The education secretary also said that highly rated South Korea has the largest student-to-teacher ratio. “This shows that [the movement for] small classes isn’t the magic bullet that some may claim it is,” he argued. “It’s important, but it’s not a fix-all.”

Still, Mr. McGaw pointed out that other wealthy countries have educational problems, too. Germany, for example, has an even bigger achievement gap between lower- and higher-achieving students than the United States does.


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