How bad are U.S. schools?

Amazingly under-performing when you take into account the supposed wealth of this country.  But it’s not easy to notice when you have to wade through a bunch of numbers.  Let’s make it clear by looking at the data in two different ways.  We’re evaluating educational quality in comparison to the size and wealth of a country’s economy.  One would expect that the more money a country has, the better education its children would receive.

U.S. is 5th largest economy per capita in 2015…

The graph below has the most recent OECD country PISA scores, which are 2015, compared to the per capita GDP for the same countries in 2015[The PISA scores shown are the average of Reading, Science, and Mathematics.] The GDP data looks like this, with the U.S. framed in red; the 5th highest GDP of developed countries shown:


But when you graph the per person GDP vs. the Education Scores, it looks like this:

GDP per Capita vs. Educ. Scores

And some countries begin to stand out.  Mexico (in green) has the lowest GDP figure AND the lowest educational levels.  Which makes sense; the country has less resources with which to educate its population.  Luxembourg, in light blue, stands out for another reason.  It has far and away the highest GDP, but it’s education scores are below average.  You cannot stuff 5 or 7 times more education into a person just because the GDP is that much higher, but still one would expect a better performance for a rich country, even if that GDP is a statistical outlier based on a very small population.  Next, Estonia, in gold, stands out if you consider that it has a weak economy, but the 2nd highest education scores.

A clearer way to view these disparities, without magnifying very high and low values (like Luxembourg’s $102,554 GDP per capita), is to RANK each country from 1 to 35 on both education and GDP, and then see how their ranks on each measure compare by subtracting the Education rank from the GDP rank to create a Net Ranking.  Mexico, for example, is 35th in both measures, so has a Net Ranking of Zero, which would seem normal.  The chart below shows the Net Ranking for all 35 OECD countries.  The U.S. (in red) has a net ranking of -19: 5th in GDP but 24th in education.  And this is truly horrible performance which must be remedied for the good of our country, as described in Our Biggest Crisis: Education.

GDP ranking minus Education ranking

This statistical viewpoint is born out by teacher strikes in several states, and by anecdotal evidence like the article below.

How decades of underfunding affect our schools

3 thoughts on “How bad are U.S. schools?”

  1. Emailed comment: “Very interesting statistics & graphs. I wonder how regular public
    schools rate vs. charter schools vs. private schools? From what I read
    many charter schools turnaround the education level for many
    disadvantaged students. I heard an ad on the radio by CTA slamming
    charter schools. They stated that charter schools are being taken over
    or funded by the mega-rich. I don’t know how true that is. I do get
    tired of throwing more tax money into the system. I once worked for a
    company, BofA, that threw money at problems, whether it was the right
    solution or not. More money does not always solve the problem! I have
    distinct impression that you could flood the school system with funds
    and the results would be the same. I am a private school product during
    and after WW2 and I can honestly say that the 3r’s were taught, learned
    & retained, also, a sense of ethics & discipline.”

  2. Emailed Comment:
    “Whoever wrote this piece is either monumentally ignorant or has an axe
    to grind. No info on actual spending per student, qualifications of
    teachers, average IQ of students, time in the classroom, and about 10
    other variables which could plausibly be correlated with performance.
    Junk “science” and useless for analysis or decicion making.”

    1. Thanks for your comment.
      Sure, there could be many causes.
      But would you agree that a Top 10 (we were 5th) per capita economy ought to have about a Top 10 education ranking?
      could argue that having a small population might distort one’s ranking,
      like Lux or Iceland or Estonia. But at 320 million, the U.S.
      population is over 6 times the median OECD population at that time, and
      about 20% of the total OECD population – thus, one would expect the U.S.
      to move at least toward the Mean Education Score, or better, because of
      our wealth.
      Of course, you are correct that this statistic says nothing about solutions, but
      I would submit that having the 24th ranked education outcome while
      being the 5th highest in per capita GDP is enough to state “Houston, we
      have a problem”.

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