Thursday, April 2, 2009

Report Reveals How the US Education System Stacks Up Against Other G-8 Countries

This March, a study was released by the US Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics which compared the education systems of the United States and other G8 countries. The countries included in the study were the Russian Federation, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom sometimes reported separately as Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. Canada sometimes reported by province as well. The study used results from four primary sources: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Indicators of National Education Systems (INES). The full report can be viewed here, but for a quick summary, read on.

As far as the percentage of 3-4 year olds who attend a preschool program or school, the United States was found to be behind all other participating G8 countries. France and Italy reported that all or almost all of their 3-4 year olds were enrolled in school. Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan had 97%, 90% and 83% respectively. The United States reported only 48% of the 3-4 year old population enrolled in a preschool program or school.

There were also extensive studies about math, reading and science performance in the 4th grade. In the reading category (from PIRLS), 4th grade females performed better than males in all G8 countries. The PIRLS test relies on a scale from 0 to 1,000, with 500 being the average. As far as total average scores, the Russian Federation led the pack with 565, followed by Italy (551), Germany (548), the United States (540), England (539), Scotland (527) and France (522).

In the mathematics assessment (from TIMSS), 4th grade males outperformed females in Italy, Germany, Scotland, England and the United States. 4th grade females outperformed males in Japan and the Russian Federation. The TIMSS test relies on scales which break up into different benchmarks (low, intermediate, high and advanced). Japan led the other countries in the highest percentage of 4th grade students to reach the advanced benchmark (23%), followed by the Russian Federation (16%), England (16%), the United States (10%), Germany (6%), Italy (6%) and Scotland (4%). This information is especially interesting when discussing the math standards issue in New Jersey and the United States as a whole. How is Japan teaching math? Perhaps the United States should look to Japanese math educators for clues.

In the science assessment (also from TIMSS), 4th grade males scored higher than females in the United States, Scotland, Germany and Italy. 4th grade females scored higher than males in England, Japan and the Russian Federation. As far as reaching the advanced benchmark, the Russian Federation led with the highest percentage (16%), followed by the United States (15%), England (14%), Italy (13%), Japan (12%), Germany (10%) and Scotland (4%).

The study also conducted teacher assessments. When students needed help reading, one of the most common responses by teachers was to ask the student's parents to work with them at home. Two other common responses were to work individually with the student or to have the student work with other students.

When asked whether they always had access to a remedial reading specialist, 4th grade teachers in the United States led (34%), followed by England (24%), and France, Germany and Italy (all with less than 10%).

Principals were asked about behavior problems in the 8th grade. 60% of Scotland's 8th grade principals reported at least one weekly occurrence of a classroom disturbance. Scotland was followed by the United States (55%), England (54%), Italy (46%), the Russian Federation (14%), and Japan (8%). As far as weekly occurrences of verbal abuse between students, the United States led (39%), followed by England and Scotland (23%), Italy (20%), Japan (5%) and the Russian Federation (1%).

As far as first university degrees (corresponding to a Bachelor's Degree in the United States), the United States was the only country to award more degrees in arts and humanities than science, math and engineering. This is important to consider when analyzing the fact that there is such a shortage of math and science teachers in the United States today.

Teachers must also engage in professional development to keep themselves up to date with the subjects they teach. The Russian Federation reported the most science and math teachers to engage in professional development at both the 4th and 8th grade levels (66% and 84% respectively), followed closely by the United States (60% and 81%).

With respect to starting salaries at both the primary and secondary school levels, the study found that Germany pays its teachers the most, followed by the United States, England and Scotland (both with the same salary rates), Japan, Italy and France. When discussing the countries' expenditures, the United States spent the highest percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education than all other G8 countries (6.7%).

While this study is to be respected, there is a certain percentage of error that should be taken into account when observing a study of this scale and type. For example, many of the teacher assessment categories (such as access to reading specialists and the occurrences of classroom disturbances) were conducted by asking teachers or administrators to report the answers. One has to expect that there may be some error there, especially if the schools do not keep clear records, or if the teacher or administrator didn't check the records and used their own memory to determine their responses. As far as errors due to the large scale of the study, some countries did not participate in certain areas of the study. Also, as explained previously, some countries reported differently in separate categories, such as the United Kingdom reporting as Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. For a full explanation of possible errors, read the report in its entirety here.

On the other hand most of the information from the study, such as the PIRLS and TIMSS test scores, is reliable and can definitely be used to draw some conclusions about the different education systems. Salary rates and the amount of degrees awarded can also be trusted as being fairly reliable, since the study relies on concrete numbers that can be checked and rechecked.

This study shed some light on the different education systems of the G8 countries. The math and science information is very interesting when discussing some current education issues in the United States, such as the revision of the math standards in New Jersey and the shortage of math and science teachers in the United States as a whole. Perhaps educators in the United States should look to other, more successful systems for solutions to problems throughout the United States' education system.

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