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Education Olympics: How Does the U.S. Rank?

The United States left the 2012 London Olympics with 104 medals in tow. But how do we stack up against the world when it comes to education?

According to this infograph by Certification Map, the U.S. — which leads in gold medal count — is ranked seventh in high school graduation rates, trailing countries like Germany, Japan and Great Britain.

Click here to enlarge this graphic by Certification Map.

Fourth to last place was not always the case, reports American Graduate partner station WAMU’s Kavitha Cardoza. The United States used to lead in high school graduation rates, but as developed countries continued to improve, our progress plateaued around 76 percent. Here are some key findings from her report:

What makes education in the U.S. different from the rest of the world?

“Schools have diluted their academic mission, by emphasizing the social experience: sports, proms and clubs,” said Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution.

Loveless doesn’t dispute that those activities teach qualities such as creativity and teamwork. “But it doesn’t boost your knowledge of mathematics or literature so there’s a price to pay,” he said. “When you do the statistical analysis of what countries are growing rapidly now, they tend to be the countries that have an education system that’s focused on academic skills.”

What are other countries doing instead?

“Many countries offer multiple paths to a high school diploma, including career and technical programs,” points out Russell Rumberger, a researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

“We have a very monolithic conception of high school, which is a comprehensive high school with a singular diploma that everyone gets,” Rumberger said.

The U.S. has placed less emphasis on vocational education because in years past, educators have been criticized for “tracking” children or steering them to certain careers — especially low income, immigrant and minority students. But many experts say the U.S. should rethink its approach and model itself after countries that offer rigorous, challenging coursework in their vocational schools.

For example, if you want to work in a bank in Switzerland, you can either go to a university or combine your high school courses with professional experience, Schleicher explains.”

“The transformative power of education”

This belief in the transformative power of education is widespread in developing countries and is pushing graduation rates “unambiguously upward,” said Kevin Watkins, of the Brookings Institution. He calls it a parent’s “primordial drive” to get their students in school.

“This real conviction that that the way out of poverty for our family is to get our children into and through the system,” Watkins explained.

Even U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan agrees that’s something the U.S. needs to copy.

“I think in other countries, there’s a greater understanding that education is the path to a middle class life,” he said. “And somehow we have to get back that sense of urgency, that commitment that other countries have.”

Education Inequality:

The top students in the United States can compete with anyone in the world. The problem is the inequality within the school system, which Watkins calls “shocking.”

“In the American education system, the fact that the best 10 percent outperform Singapore and the worst 10 percent of schools with high concentrations of poverty are down there with countries like the average level for Indonesia,” Watkins said. “That’s an extraordinary spread of inequality in a very rich country.”

In that sense, the U.S. is actually a lot like India, he adds.

“We know from the data in the United States that today’s education inequalities and dropout rates will be tomorrow’s social inequalities,” Watkins said. “That’s true for India; it’s true for the United States; and unless we can close education divisions, the social divisions are automatically going to widen over time.”

Read and listen the full report on global graduation rates here.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to address the dropout crisis.

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