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U.S. is often an outlier in global education

The United States cut back on education spending after the Great Recession, whereas the government of the United Kingdom poured more money into its schools.

Those two contrasting data points are part of a massive new analysis of the state of education around the world by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Released today, the group’s 2014 report, Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, draws upon student test results, government spending, employment statistics, and other metrics to make the case for what OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría calls “the critical role that education and skills play in fostering social progress.”

The United States remains the world leader in overall education spending, although the OECD report suggests that it’s getting a poor return on its investment in terms of what students learn. Even so, spending dropped by 3% in real terms for the 3 years after the global financial meltdown in 2008. Only five other countries chose to go that route. (Italy, Iceland, Hungary, and Estonia recorded double-digit declines, and Russia cut spending by 5%.) The U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 1% during that period, meaning that 2011 education spending in relation to its GDP was only 96% of what it was in 2008.

U.S. spending on education headed south after the 2008 crash, a path most countries avoided.

U.S. spending on education headed south after the 2008 crash, a path most countries avoided.

Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators

In contrast, public spending on education in the United Kingdom rose by 17% after the recession. Combined with a 3% drop in its GDP, the results put U.K. education spending in 2011 at 120% of its 2008 level—by far the strongest showing for any of the 34 countries in the OECD report.

The 570-page report covers everything from how many 3-year-olds are attending preschool to how adults without a high school education are faring in the workplace. It’s no surprise that a country’s economic philosophy—be it socialist, free market, state capitalism, or some combination—is often reflected in the findings. Still, the data on education mobility—whether an adult child completed more education than his or her parents did—are sobering.

Along with Germany, the United States sits in the bottom tier of countries when it comes to giving the next generation a leg up the skills ladder. Only 30% of U.S. adults no longer in school, and 25% in Germany, have surpassed their parents in the classroom. In Russia, Finland, and Korea, the percentage is nearly 60%. A similar sharp split exists for downward educational mobility: The U.S. and German percentages are nearly 20%, whereas for the other three countries they are less than 10%.