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Asia gains on US and Europe in education

South Korea and other Asian nations are outpacing the US and Europe in grade-school and university education, potentially threatening Western economic dominance, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported. The US spends more on primary and secondary education than most developed countries, yet has larger classes, lower test scores and higher dropout rates, the Paris-based OECD said in its annual report on education. Britain, France and Italy are just meeting OECD averages on producing college graduates, and Germany has „fallen significantly behind,” the report said. „The time when OECD countries competed mostly with countries that offered low-skilled work at low wages is gone,” Barbara Ischinger, the OECD's director for education, said in the report. Thirty years ago, the US ranked first among OECD nations in high school completion, Ischinger said in an interview. „This needs urgent attention as the labor market prospects of those who do not leave school with strong baseline qualifications are deteriorating,” she said. The OECD analysis is the latest report to raise questions about the performance of US public schools, five years after President George W. Bush enacted the „No Child Left Behind” law, which was designed to improve schools by requiring states to give annual tests in subjects such as math and reading and established penalties for schools that don't meet the standards.

US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has credited the law with producing „more progress in the last five years than in the previous 28 years combined.” Yet international tests such as the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which compares 15-year-olds on reading, mathematics and scientific literacy, show US students performing below average. „In order for the United States to remain a global leader and for students to receive an education that will prepare them for great careers, it is clear our higher education system must adapt to the demands of a global marketplace and workforce,” said department spokeswoman Katherine McLane. „Secretary Spellings believes we must take action to achieve those goals and she will announce her action plan to make higher education more affordable, accessible and consumer friendly on September 26th.” Last week, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education issued its annual report on education and ranked the US seventh worldwide by its proportion of students completing college, as tuition becomes increasingly unaffordable.

The San Jose, California-based center also gave 43 of the 50 states a failing grade for their ability to make college affordable for their citizens, up from 36 states two years ago. „There is some cause for concern, no doubt about it,” Spellings said of that report. The OECD report found about 97% of all South Koreans aged 25 to 34 have completed high school, the highest rate among OECD countries. The number of students attending university more than doubled in China and Malaysia between 1995 and 2004. That's especially true for the science and engineering professions, which have fueled US economic dominance, she said. „The time in which the only route to success for these students lay in emigrating to Europe or the United States is coming to an end,” Ischinger said in the report. The US spends $12,000 per student on primary and secondary education, second only to Switzerland among the 30 OECD countries based on 2003 figures, the OECD said in its report today. Yet the US outperformed only five of the 30 countries on an OECD test given to 15-year-olds, ranked 12th in high school completion rates and averaged 23 students per class, higher than the average of 21.

Ischinger said of the US rankings, „It is not a money question,” noting that only Luxembourg spends more on its primary school students and only Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland spend more at the secondary level. In the previous OECD test of 15-year-olds, in 2000, the US performed near the OECD average in reading and below the average in math and scientific literacy. Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel Corp., the world's largest semiconductor maker, said US schools don't set high standards for students and don't insist that they meet standards. The US could improve its schools by copying the teaching approaches in successful foreign countries, then „set the passing expectation levels consistent with where you want to be,” Barrett said in an interview. The OECD report also finds the US facing growing competition at the college level, though it still remains the world's leader, Ischinger said.

The US attracts about 22% of all college students enrolled worldwide in a foreign country, the highest percentage. That's down from 25% several years earlier, as countries such as China, Japan and South Korea have been building up their own universities, she said. The US also has a 46% dropout rate from college, defined as not completing a degree within six years, giving it the second-highest rate in the OECD behind only Mexico. At the same time, it has the third-highest rate for continuing education, with 37% of working-age adults enrolled in school, behind only Sweden and Denmark in the OECD. „The strength of the US system is that many people get a second chance,” Ischinger said. (Bloomberg)