Wednesday, 21 December 2005
Choosing a School in a Global Marketplace
Every parent should take a flip through the OECD’s Education at a Glance*, their annual look at the state of learning in most industrialised countries.
Why? First of all, it’s a wonderful way to cut through a lot of FUD and local politics when you’re trying to figure out how well your kids are being educated. While no statistics are perfect (or often even close), it’s a whole lot better to make measurable comparisons between systems than it is to base decisions on anecdotal evidence and speculation.
Secondly, In an age when global trade is booming, companies are winging their employees around the world, and more and more people are mobile across national boundaries, it becomes increasingly important to be able to make informed choices about what different countries have to offer. Part of that is figuring out if taking that transfer (or making that big lifestyle move) is going to do good or harm to your kids.
This year’s indicators are revealing.
For example, while US adults spend the largest number of years in school (indicator A1), our students score quite poorly in math (A4) and problem solving (A5), sometimes dramatically so. This isn’t just because there are some really bad schools along with good schools in the US; the variation of scores between schools in the US is below average (A6). That’s not to say that the US isn’t putting its money where its mouth is; no country except Switzerland spends more per student than the US (B1), and our teachers’ salaries are reasonably in line with others’ (D3).
In my eyes, the most interesting — and damning — data regards how many contact hours teachers have (D4). Most OECD countries have lower secondary teachers (for example) spend about 600 to 700 hours a year in front of students, giving them the rest of the time to work on lesson plans, grading and so forth. US teachers, however, have more than 1,100 contact hours a year. It’s not that we have a longer school year or longer periods of instruction; it’s that we’re working our teachers to the bone, forcing them to do their non-contact work on their own time.
But what about the effect of education? If your child completes tertiary education in the US, they’ll go on to make, on average, nearly 200% of what they would have if they’d stopped after upper secondary education (A9). In other countries (except Hungary), it’s no nearly so dramatic; I have to wonder if this is because the US rewards achievement more, or if it’s just because the quality of education before the tertiary level is poorer here.
On another track, it’s interesting to see the increased numbers of foreign students in Australian universities over the last few years (C3); I’m not sure what the effects on the quality of education will be there long-term, but it’s been controversial in the short term.
Finally, the section comparing public and private schools (D5) is fascinating; once you balance for socio-economic factors, US public schools actually have an advantage over private ones, at least in mathematics.
Take all of this with a grain of salt; I haven’t read every word in the report (it’s over 400 dense pages long), and I’m just a layman. I’d love to see discussion and further interpretation of the results.
- Note that you can get a limited-time trial account at SourceOECD, which will allow you to download publications for free (I applaud their willingness to make this data accessible to laymen on a casual basis). Make sure you choose “Education Books” if you’re interested in Education at a Glance. Another good read is Taxing Wages, as discussed previously.