Pearson’s Global Education Index Ranks U.S. 14th in Learning and Skill Attainment

Associate Editor

By guest blogger Danielle Wilson

The United States ranks 14th in the world in cognitive skills and educational attainment, while Pacific Asian countries and regions dominate the top rankings, according to a report commissioned by Pearson, the multinational education company. The report cited a “culture of accountability” as the reason South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong were ranked in the top four for their overall education performance.

The Learning Curve 2014 report analyzes the educational performance of 39 countries using a “global index” that consists of data compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which is part of Economist magazine. In addition to the report, The Learning Curve database provides education inputs, education outputs, and socioeconomic indicators from 50 countries and Hong Kong, going back to 1990. More than 60 indicators are represented in the database.The Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Attainment ranks countries based on only two categories: cognitive skills and educational outcomes, including graduation rates and literacy. 

According to the global index, the United States moved up three places from its 2012 ranking of 17, and Finland dropped to 5th place. The United Kingdom ranked 6th, meaning its performance was unchanged. 

In a phone interview with Education Week, Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor Sir Michael Barber said that the U.S. college completion rate greatly affected its ranking. Completion rates are 50 percent in comparison to 90 percent in countries like the United Kingdom. 

Pacific Asian countries have continued to outrank their peers because of an effective education system and “culture of accountability,” according to the report.  The research showed that teachers, students, and parents took equal responsibility for their roles in education. These countries also valued teachers and schools significantly higher than other nations.The report attributes this to a commitment to attracting good teachers into the profession and giving them the social status of other professionals, setting clear goals and expectations within the education system, and providing autonomy for education professionals to reach those goals. 

Barber said he doesn’t believe countries should copy each others’ education models, but should instead consider what research says about strategies for improving schools, and how to implement those policies.

“In the U.K. and America we tend to think smartness is given at birth, and Pacific Asian countries don’t think that,” said Barber. “They believe if children work hard they can be smart, and that makes a difference.”

Lifelong learning skills were another factor considered in the ranking. It found that adults’ cognitive skills decline rapidly when not used on a daily basis at their jobs.The Learning Curve report states that there is a strong correlation between the number of people in a country with basic cognitive skills and the nation’s labor productivity and economic growth.

Increasing education funding, on its own, was not shown to improve a country’s educational performance.

Pearson commissioned the research in 2012 as part of its Learning Curve program, to provide a comprehensive database for researchers and policymakers. “We want to generate dialogue among educators and administrators about how to prepare for the 21st century,” said Barber. “It shows what kinds of things are getting lots of attention in political discussions around the world but don’t make much difference.”

The report states that “education correlates with economic growth: the average time spent in school by a country’s students and the labor productivity of its workers have been statistically linked for the last two decades.”

Alan Ginsburg, a former director of policy and program studies for the U.S. Department of Education, disagrees.

In a phone interview with Education Week, Ginsburg pointed out that the countries with the highest rankings on the index are actually associated with lower rankings in labor productivity, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics International Labor Comparisons. “It’s not as simple as they’re saying, these tests are not measuring workplace readiness skills, they are very general and don’t go past high school students,” said Ginsburg. 

Ginsburg said assessments other than just the PISA, TIMMS, and PIRLS–three international education studies the Learning Curve report used for data–should be used to establish a clearer picture of the link between education and economic growth. He suggests that the report should include data that covers skill attainment and educational outcomes among students in universities and colleges, the role of technology in education and the workforce, and data from studies done by international economists. “The international test scores don’t take into account that U.S. students may catch up with others in educational outcomes when they attend our highly respected universities,” said Ginsburg.

He agrees that the Pacific Asian countries have benefited from higher educational outcomes due to the philosophy that student effort matters more than ability. “The U.S. holds teachers and schools but not students accountable for performance on state assessments,” said Ginsburg. He believes other countries could adopt the models of education used by Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, but such adoptions should be carefully implemented. He said a commitment to developing highly qualified teachers and providing extra support for lower performing students is helpful but other common practices in these countries may prove harmful in the United States. “The downside to high stakes testing is that they (Asian countries) begin to sort students by performance and that includes determining admission to high school and middle school, and we may not want that as a society,” said Ginsburg.

Ginsburg believes the report was compiled in an objective manner considering it was done by a private company with financial interest in the topic. When asked what interest Pearson may have in collecting this data, Ginsburg told Education Week it could prove useful for education companies. “The relationship between education and labor productivity is very important and it’s something that should be studied,” said Ginsburg. “This data might be helpful for them (Pearson) in encouraging the purchase and development of certain textbooks and materials.”  

The Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Attainment was first created in November 2012 and recently revised in January 2014.  The corresponding report with analysis was written with the help of international education experts. The Economist Intelligence Unit, the group commissioned to gather, organize and interpret the data, is part of The Economist Group, which Pearson is a stakeholder in. The full report, index and database can be found on Pearson’s website.

CLARIFICATION: This item has been reworded to make it clear that ranking of the United Kingdom, which ranked 6th, remained the same from 2012 to 2014.


4 thoughts on “Pearson’s Global Education Index Ranks U.S. 14th in Learning and Skill Attainment

  1. Thanks for this incisive article! The report correctly points out the need for teacher autonomy and status–long a major goal of the teachers’ union in the US. The cause of high rates of high school and college dropouts is traced to low literacy levels in the early grades. That in turn is due to high poverty levels in inner-city and rural areas. In the US, we have known about the high correlation between literacy and workplace production since the 1970s studies in the military done by Tom Stitch and colleagues.

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