By Kari Huus Reporter
updated 9/14/2004 12:01:08 AM ET 2004-09-14T04:01:08

Despite spending more money on education than other wealthy nations, the United States has made limited progress raising the rate of Americans who graduate from high school, with many countries now outperforming it according to a report published on Tuesday.

“Other countries have just gone right past it (for high school education) and the numbers suggest the same will happen for college education,” says Barry McGaw, director for education at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which published the study. The United States still ranks second for the rate of college education (31 percent), behind Norway (37 percent) but McGaw says the gap between it and those coming up behind has closed significantly in recent years.

Statistics published in the study, Education at a Glance 2004, generally refer to 2001-2002, looking at the 30 member countries in the OECD, a grouping of wealthy, market-driven countries.

A major factor in the stagnating U.S. graduation rates, says McGaw, appears to be the wide disparity in education in the United States between the rich and the poor.

While top-flight American students are among the most literate in the world, the average reading ability of 15-year-olds in the United States hovers around 17th, says the report’s authors, citing a 2000 literacy study. That average position has not budged for most of a decade.

“The reason it drops so much is because the United States has so many low performers,” says McGaw. “You’ve got some of the best schools in the world and some of the worst schools.”

That in turn creates a large pool of people who do not seek college degrees. A measure of people not in education and without a high school diploma was of particular concern, said the study. The figure for the United States is 12.3 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds, somewhat higher than the average for the OECD as a whole.

Total spending apparently not the problem
Overall spending on education does not appear to be the problem, McGaw says. While the United States does not spend the highest percentage of GDP on education, it does spend more per student than other OECD countries, by a large margin.

At the post-high-school level the difference is especially marked. Combined private and public spending is about $22 per student in post-high-school education, more than double that of the OECD average.

"The problem with the U.S. is the way the schools are funded — with wealthy districts providing fabulous schools for wealthy kids and poor schools providing poor schools and poor education."

McGaw appeared at a press briefing Monday in Washington alongside U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, who touted the Bush administration's plan to remedy educational disparity in the U.S. school system, a controversial effort encoded in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Other findings:
The OECD report also outlines how education levels affect individual careers, as well as employment rates and overall prosperity. Education and earnings are still closely connected, the report says, and McGaw says they dispel the notion that there are diminishing returns for pursuing higher degrees.

Using an equation that included costs of college education and opportunity costs, as well as higher taxes on top earners, the report concluded that education beyond high school is still a solid investment. Returns for American men with higher degrees was 11 percent, the study said, while American women who had a university or college diploma saw a return of about 8 percent on their investment.

Girls outperformed boys in reading in every country in a study that evaluates fourth graders. Girls were also better readers at age 15, while there was little disparity in science and math.

But the gender gap persisted after leaving school. Across the board, men were still more likely to be employed and earn more than women with similar educational achievement.

Starting salaries for primary teachers in the United States averaged $29,513, fourth among the 29 countries compared, falling behind Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. However, comparing the salary to GDP per capita, American teachers ranked 19th among 29 OECD countries.

In 2002, 1.9 million students were enrolled outside their home country within OECD countries, an increase of 15 percent over the previous year. Five countries — Australia, France, Germany the United Kingdom and the United States — play host to three-quarters of those students.

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