by Ben Feller
Washington — The United States is falling behind other countries in having a high-school-educated public, with the gap widening the most among young adults, a new comparison of industrialized nations shows.
A total of 87 percent of U.S. adults age 25 to 34 have finished high school, which puts the country 10th behind such nations as Korea, Norway, the Czech Republic and Japan.
The older the population, the better the United States fares — it remains first in high-school completion among older adults and fifth among adults age 35-44. But other nations are making fast gains among younger adults and passing the United States on the way.
“They’re catching up with you in the proportion that finish school (and) the proportion that go to college,” said Barry McGaw, director of education for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which develops the rankings.
“The one area you remain ahead is how much you spend,” McGaw told U.S. reporters Monday. “They don’t need to catch up with you on quality, because many of them are already ahead.”
Although titled “Education at a Glance,” the yearly report has ballooned into a 450-page compilation. Measuring 30 countries, it relies mostly on data from 2002 and 2001, although its achievement figures date to 2000. Organizers call those the most current numbers available.
The United States has a higher share of its population with at least a four-year college education — 38 percent — than any country other than Canada. The United States is second in adults age 25 to 34 who have earned a college education.
But in higher education, the United States is slipping, too, as other countries with traditionally lower college rates are closing the gap, the report says.
“If we are less competitive educationally, we will soon become less competitive economically,” Education Secretary Rod Paige said. “That’s just a cruel fact.”
Among other findings:
? The United States finished near the top in fourth-grade reading performance in a comparison of nine countries. But while four countries showed increases from 1991 to 2001, the U.S. performance was unchanged.
? The United States spends more per student on all levels of education — $10,871 — than any other country. Per-student spending in other nations ranges from less than $3,000 in Mexico, Poland and the Slovak Republic to more than $8,000 in Austria, Denmark and Norway.
? The United States has the highest number of teaching hours per school year in the primary and high school grades, and the second highest for middle-school students.
Under the nation’s education overhaul of 2002, schools must show yearly progress for many historically disadvantaged groups. No other country in the economic coalition has committed to measure achievement that way, a method designed to ensure schools do more to help underperforming children.