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Trends in the European Union: Education Seen Driving Prosperity

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo & Sean Cavanagh — April 22, 2008 3 min read

The European Union has its share of education successes. Finland outperforms the world on international exams in math and science. The Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, and several other European countries all score above the international average on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

But with the cooperative agreements that have strengthened the economic and political ties among the 27 countries in the European Union, education has been gaining new attention as a way to ensure the region’s competitiveness.

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Some observers have suggested that a unified Europe will prove stiff competition to the United States as a result of its growing “global economic and political clout,” writes T.R. Reid in his 2004 book The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy.

The European Union “has more people, more wealth, and more trade than the United States,” he notes. “The leaders and the people of the E.U. are determined to change a world that had been dominated by Americans.”

Although each E.U. nation controls its own education system and sets academic standards, graduation requirements, testing measures, and teacher-credentialing rules, efforts are under way to ensure educational opportunities and improve student achievement across the continent.

In 2001, for example, the ministers of education for the E.U. nations set objectives for the end of the decade that include the improvement of education and training systems, a reduction in dropout rates, and an expansion of academic opportunities for all E.U. citizens.

Many E.U. efforts are focused on higher education, however. A plan, announced this month, would set up a common credit system for vocational education and training, making it easier for citizens to transfer their credentials across national lines.

Individual countries have taken different directions in trying to improve education.

Education Highlights

Curriculum: Many European countries have national guidelines or procedures that control curricula. England began setting standards for curriculum, which outline required courses and content, in 1998. In Germany, national procedures guide regional and local curriculum councils. Switzerland has been working on a “harmonization” effort to craft national curriculum guidelines, which have traditionally been set by individual cantons, or states.

Achievement: Many E.U. countries have scored above international averages—and above the United States—on recent country-by-country comparisons, including the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA; the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS; and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS. While Finland and the Netherlands ranked near the top of several of those exams, test performance for many countries varied by subject. Students from England scored relatively well in science, for instance; Latvia fared well in math; 4th grade students from Italy, Hungary, and Sweden scored above international averages in reading. In some E.U. countries, such as Bulgaria and Germany, performance varied greatly between individual schools, according to the 2006 PISA; in high-performing Finland, as well as in Poland, Spain, and Denmark, however, the school-to-school performance was more consistent.

Spending: Spending on precollegiate education varies across Europe, ranging from 2.1 percent of the gross domestic product in Greece to 4.2 percent in Denmark and Norway, and a high of 5.2 percent in Iceland. The United States spends 3.7 percent of its GDP on precollegiate education.

German officials, for instance, have made significant changes in recent years, in response to concerns about the future workforce—as well as to low test scores on PISA.

Unimpressive PISA marks have been a “watershed” moment for the country, possibly having “a more far-reaching impact on German education than A Nation at Risk had on education in the U.S.A.,” Hubert Ertl of Oxford University wrote in a 2006 article in the Oxford Review of Education.

Germany has a decentralized education system guided largely by state and local entities. The German system sorts students by ability at the secondary level, dividing them into more academically oriented or vocationally focused schedules—a system that has been criticized as promoting inequity.

But recently, state and national officials have cooperated to promote general, national academic standards, which amount to “overarching frameworks,” said Andreas Schleicher, a native of Germany and the head of education indicators for the organization that runs PISA. More schools are also moving toward longer school days, Mr. Schleicher said.

German policymakers are seeking to refashion schools so they can “more quickly respond to a rapidly changing economy,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an assistant professor of international education and educational sociology at New York University, who has studied German education.

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Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Education Seen Driving Prosperity

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