The U.S. was ranked 17th in an assessment of the education systems of 50 countries, behind several developed Scandinavian and Asian nations, which claimed the top spots.
Finland and South Korea grabbed the first and second places in a global league table published by the education firm Pearson while Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore followed the high-ranking education superpowers.
The study, carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), combines international test results and data such as literacy rates and graduation rates between 2006 and 2010.
A wide range of education inputs, both quantitative – such as spending on pupils and class size – as well as qualitative – such as level of school choice -- were examined along with numerous potential outcomes ranging from the inculcation of cognitive skills to the GDP growth.
The UK was ranked 6th followed by the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. Canada was ranked 10th followed by Ireland and Denmark.
Australia, Poland, Germany and Belgium fared above the U.S. on the top-20 list which also included Hungary, Slovakia and Russia.
At the lowest end of the 50-nation ranking were Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia.
A report that accompanied the rankings suggested that promoting a culture that is supportive of education is more important than the amount of money invested.
It said that the success of Asian nations in the rankings reflects the complex impact the society's attitude to education has in defining its effectiveness.
“More important than money, say most experts, is the level of support for education within the surrounding culture. Although cultural change is inevitably complex, it can be brought about in order to promote better educational outcomes,” the report said.
The study also underscored the importance of good teachers in improving educational output.
“Having a better one (teacher) is statistically linked not only to higher income later in life but to a range of social results including lower chances of teenage pregnancy and a greater tendency to save for their own retirement,” the report noted.
However, there was no agreed list of traits to define or identify an excellent teacher or a recipe for obtaining them, the report said.
Teaching profession commands greater respect in nations with successful education systems. However, higher salaries accomplish little by themselves, according to the report.
The study suggested that countries with greater choice of schools fared better in educational outcomes.
“For-profit private education is providing students in some of the least developed areas of the world an alternative to poor state provision and showing the potential benefits of choice and accountability,” the study said, adding that parental pressure on educational institutes for better performance should not be seen as impediments.
“Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago,” the study said, adding that schools needed to revamp their syllabi to inculcate in students skills that they may need in future with the advancements in science and technology.
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