U.S. Education Ranking Is Falling Behind the Rest of the World

How That Hurts the Economy and You

chinese students
••• Photo: David Butow / Kontributor

The United States is not investing as much in human capital as other developed countries. As a result, its comparative advantage is falling behind. For example, U.S. students' math skills have remained stagnant since at least 2000. This means they are falling behind many other countries, such as Japan, Poland, and Ireland, which have greatly improved. In fact, U.S. test scores are now below the global average. 

The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment tests 15-year old students around the world. It's administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States placed 24th out of 71 countries in science. It did worse in math, ranking 38th. 

The U.S. scored at 470 in math, below the OECD average of 490. That's well below the scores of the top five, all of which are Asian: Singapore at 565, Hong Kong at 548, Macao at 544, Taiwan at 542, and Japan at 532. China was not included, since only four provinces participated. 

In science, the United States scored at 496, above the OECD average of 493. The top five highest scoring countries were Singapore at 556, Japan at 538, Estonia at 534, Tawian at 532, and Finland at 531.

These low scores means U.S. students aren't as prepared to take high-paying computer and engineering jobs, which often go to foreign workers. Ironically, Silicon Valley is America's high tech innovation center. One reason for its success is the cultural diversity of its foreign-born software engineers.

Other companies simply outsource their tech jobs overseas. The result, however, is the same. There are- fewer high paying jobs to American citizens.

An economist from the Hoover Institution, Eric A. Hanushek, estimated that the U.S. economy would grow 4.5 percent more in the next 20 years if our students’ math and science skills were as good as the rest of the world's. This statement would come as a shock to most Americans who believe that our students' skills ARE among the best in the world.

In fact, nearly half of those in a 2008 Associated Press poll said that American students’ achievement test scores are the same as or better than those of children in other industrialized nations. Furthermore, 90 ninety of them recognized that education helps economic growth.

The truth is shocking. The U.S. ranks near the bottom in a survey of students’ math skills in 30 industrialized countries. Instead of knowing and confronting the facts, most Americans are in denial. In fact, the same survey showed that while one-third believed their schools were excellent, only one-sixth believed the same of any other schools.

One reason is that so many states don't invest in education. The states that are poorest have lower education scores. This cycle creates structural inequality.

China Graduates More College Students

In 2017, a record 8 million students graduated from Chinese universities. It's 10 times more than in 1997. It's twice as many who graduated from U.S. universities. China's economic reform plan wants to make the country a world leader in advanced IT and robotics. It wants to shift away from being a low-cost exporter. It wants to create higher-paying jobs for its citizens. That will give them enough to spend, spurring economic growth. 

Since the 1980s, Chinese college enrollment has quadrupled to 20 million. On average, they graduate 200,000 engineers per year, compared to 60,000 in the United States. (Source: Computer Systems Policy Project).

U.S. Companies Outsource Skilled Jobs to China

China's technology exports total $8 billion, while U.S. technology exports to China are only $1.6 billion. However, China's "exports" are from U.S.companies like Intel, Motorola, Microsoft and Cisco Systems to take advantage of China's technologically trained labor force. Wages for these workers are 88 percent less in China than in the U.S.

Chinese technology firms are increasing their skills. These companies include semiconductor companies (e.g. Semiconductor Manufacturing International), telecommunication equipment manufacturers (e.g. Huawei, ZTE Corporation) and Internet portals (e.g. Baidu, Alibaba/eBay partnership).

U.S. Slips to #3 in WEF Global Competitiveness Report

This slippage in education is hurting U.S. competitiveness. The World Economic Forum reports that the U.S. is #3 in its 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report. According to the WEF, a highly competitive country is one that has high productivity. That gives it high prosperity, return on investment, and economic growth. Switzerland retained its #1 status, followed by Singapore at #2. 

The U.S. had been #1 in the 2007-2008 Report and stayed there in 2008-2009 Report. This was due to its innovative companies, excellent university system, and strong collaboration between the two in research and development. It had slipped from #1 to #2 in the 2009-2010 Global Competitiveness Report

China Has World's Fastest Supercomputer

Since 2013, China has hosted the world's fastest supercomputer, the National University of Defense Technology's Tianhe-2. It has 109 of these high-performance systems, up from 37 just six months ago. The United States has 200, its lowest level since 1993. These computers are needed to for sophisticated modeling and simulations. (Source: "China Adds Heft as Computing Power," WSJ, November 17, 2015.)