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U.S. Loses Its Lead In High School And College Grads

By ANDREW MOLLISON / Cox Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The United States has lost its worldwide lead in high school and college graduation rates, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported Tuesday.

Most of the 28 other industrialized democracies in the OECD now have higher completion rates for high school, and three even have higher college graduation rates, according to the report.

"There is no evidence that anything is becoming worse in the United States, but the pace of progress is much more rapid in many other countries," said the report's principal author, Andreas Schleicher, in a telephone interview from OECD headquarters in Paris.

Graduation Rates


  • United States...........70 percent

  • OECD average...........79 percent

    The United States ranked 17th of 22 countries in percentage of young people graduating from high school.


  • United States ...........32.9 percent

  • OECD average...........17.5 percent

    The United States ranked 4th of 27 countries in percentage of young people graduating from college.

    Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey of its member countries, 29 market-oriented democracies.

    Some countries did not have usable statistics on all matters.

"What has happened is that every government has recognized that education is the key to economic success in a knowledge-based, global economy," he said.

The study showed:

-- Four decades ago, the high school graduation rate in the United States was 80 percent, the highest in the OECD. Now, largely because of immigration factors, the range of 70 to 74 percent in the last decade is lower than in at least 16 OECD countries.

-- For the first time ever, three countries have exceeded the U.S. college graduation rate, even though the percentage of young Americans earning college degrees has risen from 30 percent a decade ago to nearly 33 percent today. The report shows the United States in a statistical tie with New Zealand -- far ahead of the average OECD country, but behind Norway (37 percent), Britain (35 percent) and the Netherlands (34.6 percent).

If the researchers had counted two-year degrees from community colleges, the United States would still hold the lead, said Alan Ginsburg, director of planning and evaluation services at the U.S. Department of Education. The OECD researchers counted only degrees that require three to six years of courses.

But Ginsburg acknowledged the U.S. lag in high school completion rates. He said a surge of immigration, especially by students with little prior education whose first language isn't English, offset many efforts to discourage dropouts.

"The United States has a much more open border and immigration policy (than other OECD countries), which will help us in the long run," Ginsburg said. "But for now, we have a lot of Mexicans, half of whom drop out before high school graduation."

Experience shows that at least four-fifths of these immigrants' children, who will be Mexican-Americans born in the United States, will finish high school, Ginsburg said.

Meantime, he said, the Clinton administration is emphasizing more help for immigrants from Mexico and other nations through programs intended to encourage mentoring, to train and recruit more bilingual teachers, and to show adult immigrants how they and their children can prepare for and pay for college in the United States.

Education Secretary Richard Riley commented only on the financial section of the OECD report, which he said shows that the United States "spends more per pupil, but our teachers get paid less and they work much longer hours."

Schleicher said that his report shows that while U.S. teachers earn slightly more than the OECD average, "The gap between high school teachers and other university graduates in the United States is wider than in all other OECD countries except the Czech Republic and Italy."

The report said the typical U.S. teacher spends 943 hours a year in classroom teaching, compared to 642 hours in the average OECD country, where teachers have more time for preparation, consultation with colleagues, reading and professional studies.

"These findings make clear why it is so difficult to recruit and retain high-quality teachers," Riley said. "We simply cannot expect teachers to be professionals if we don't treat them as such."

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