September 19, 2012
We’re number one? Hardly. The entire idea of American exceptionalism should be called into question.
A new international report (PDF) demolishes several deeply held myths about our educational system. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, which compares the educational systems of over 30 developed nations, provides data that, when it comes to education, proves we’re so far from being number one, that the entire idea of American exceptionalism should be called into question. Rather than thumping our chests, we should be going to school on how other developed nations, especially those in Europe, invest in education. However, we have little chance of learning until we break through the mythology that blinds us to our decline.
Myth #1: Our educational system provides more upward mobility than any other in the world.
It’s practically a sacred oath to proclaim that we lead the world in upward mobility. America, we are told ad nauseum, is the best place on Earth for a poor person to improve his or her station in life. You might struggle for one generation or so, but your kids can make it up the ladder faster here than any place else. And the reason, of course, is because we provide the best educational opportunities for all young people, rich and poor.
Not true, says the OECD report. “The odds that a young person in the U.S. will be in higher education if his or her parents do not have an upper secondary education are just 29 percent — one of the lowest levels among OECD countries.”
Just how low is our ranking? Of the 28 countries listed, we’re third from the bottom.
Myth #2: Our teachers (protected by their greedy unions) work less and get paid more.
It’s open season on public employees, especially teachers and their unions. They get paid too much. Their benefits are too high. They get tenure while the rest of us fear layoffs. And they’re a bunch of lazy louts that get the entire summer off! If there’s educational decline, then teachers must be the cause. Right?
Wrong! says the OECD report, especially when it comes to hours worked: “Teachers in the U.S. spend between 1050 and 1100 hours a year teaching – much more than in almost every country.” Of the 38 countries surveyed only two countries had teachers who worked more hours – Argentina and Chile. And when it comes to the hours worked per years by our primary school teachers, we’re number one!
But surely, aren’t these unionized teachers making too much money? Not according to the OECD report: “Despite high overall levels of spending on education, teacher salaries in the U.S. compare poorly. While in most OECD countries teacher salaries tend be lower, on average, than the salaries earned by other workers with higher education, in the U.S. the difference is large, especially for teachers with minimum qualifications.”
Myth #3: Big government (via our tax dollars) funds higher education.
In state after state politicians are taking an ax to higher education budgets. As we plow more money into our prison system, we no longer can afford our lavish public colleges and universities, or so we are told. (See “Crazy Country: 6 Reasons America Spends More on Prisons Than On Higher Education”). But overall, don’t we still lead the world in big government support for higher education?
Well, we almost lead the world in overall spending on higher education, both in absolute dollars and as a percent of GDP. Unfortunately, we place more of the burden on students and their families than just about any other developed nation: “In the U.S., 38 percent of higher education expenditures come from public sources, and 62 percent are from private sources. Across all OECD countries, 70 percent of expenditures on higher education come from public sources, and 30 percent are from private sources.” Little wonder we have a trillion dollar student loan industry that serves as an ever-present lobby to make sure the debt burden remains students and their families.
Myth #4: We provide excellent early childhood education.
Worried about creeping socialism? Look no further than Head Start and other pre-school programs we throw money at. Isn’t this where the Nanny State begins?
Blinded by anti-government ideology, we fail to notice that the rest of the world invests much more in their young people, especially the very young: “On average across OECD countries, 84 percent of pupils in early childhood education attend programmes in public schools or government-dependent private institutions, while in the U.S., 55 percent of early childhood pupils attend programmes in public schools, and 45 percent attend independent private programmes. In the U.S. the typical starting age for early childhood education is 4 years old, while in 21 other OECD countries, it is 3 years old or younger.”
Even more telling is the fact that we tend not to employ professional educators for our very young. As the report delicately puts it: “In addition, education-only early childhood programmes in other countries are usually delivered by a qualified teacher and have a formal curriculum, while in the U.S., the situation can vary.” Vary indeed.
So where are we ranked?
- 3-year-olds (in early childhood education): 25th of 36 countries
- 4-year-olds (in early childhood education and primary education): 28th of 38 countries
- 5- to 14-year-olds (all levels): 29th of 39 countries
Myth #5: We have the highest percentage of college grads in the world.
OK, we may have some issues with early childhood education, who pays for college, upward mobility and public support for higher education. But, as the politicians tell us, we are going to win the global competition for knowledge-based industries and jobs, precisely because we have the best universities and the most college graduates.
While it’s difficult to compare global colleges and universities (and while I’m certain that we do have some of the very best elite institutions), it is possible to compare the number college graduates among developed nations. Again, we suffer by the comparison: “The U.S. ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with higher education (42 percent).” Those are our young people. That’s our future. And the richest country on Earth can’t even win the competition for the highest percentage of college graduates?
So aren’t we number one in something?
Yes, we are and it’s revealing. We’re number one in 55- to 64-year-olds who finished high school. We boomers actually went to school – 90 percent of us finished high school while the OECD average is 65 percent.
That statistic takes us right to the heart of this story – how during the post-WWII era the United States invested in its people. The GI Bill of Rights provided free higher education to more than 3 million returning GIs. Enormous investments in education helped us catch up with Sputnik and win the race to the moon. The super-rich faced high tax rates so that we could pay for education, a national highway system, and the defense budget. Unions were supported by the federal government and moved wages up across the board. And the burgeoning civil rights movement began to bring the promise of America to African Americans. The middle class was rising. We went to school. And we created the fairest income distribution in our history.
Then, we tossed it away as we forgot the lessons of the Great Depression and our collective response during WWII. We deregulated the rich and they tore our country apart.
You see, none of these myths apply to the wealthy. Their kids get plenty of early childhood education. Their kids don’t attend run-down schools. Their kids don’t run up debts in order to go to college. In fact, our elites are positioned perfectly to thrive in a global economy. They can attack public schools, teachers unions, big government and not suffer the consequences. Frankly they don’t give a damn about our international rankings. The rich are quite happy for the rest of us to swallow the myth of American exceptionalism, even when reality shows how exceptionally bad we are at providing decent education for all of our people.
Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green, 2009).