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By: Jennifer Craw

In September the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its annual Global Competitiveness Report, assessing the competitiveness of 144 economies around the world.  This year’s rankings continue a trend seen over the last few years, with the United States still among the top ten economies but steadily declining, while other economies such as Finland, Singapore and the Netherlands are on their way up.  Below, we show the WEF competitiveness rankings for the top performing education systems on PISA 2009 comparing 2006 to 2013 rankings.  In 2006, the first year for which the WEF maintains rankings in their database, the United States was at the very top of the global competitiveness rankings, but seven years later the United States has slipped to fifth. Meanwhile, Singapore has risen from number eight to number two overall, and Finland has risen from sixth overall to third.GCRhistory2

WEF ranks the competitiveness of economies by analyzing what it calls the twelve “pillars” or factors determining economic competitiveness:

  1. Institutions
  2. Infrastructure
  3. Macroeconomic Environment
  4. Health and Primary Education
  5. Higher Education and Training
  6. Goods Market Efficiency
  7. Labor Market Efficiency
  8. Financial Market Development
  9. Technological Readiness
  10. Market Size
  11. Business Sophistication
  12. Innovation

The quality of education factors heavily into three of these pillars. Health and Primary Education takes into account both the quality of primary education and the primary education enrollment rate for each country.  Higher Education and Training measures secondary and tertiary enrollment rates as well as the quality of education as evaluated by the business community.   And Innovation is based on both technological and non-technological innovations, both of which require an investment in quality education that promotes 21st century skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, decision-making, collaboration, and technological literacy.

In the diagram below, the top performing education systems are grouped according to whether or not each ranks in the top ten for these three education-related pillars.


Interestingly, the same economies which have risen in the competitiveness ranks over the past several years—Singapore, Finland and the Netherlands—are also the economies which rank in the top ten for all three education related pillars.  While the US maintains a top ten ranking in Higher Education and Training as well as Innovation, it is not within the top ten for Primary Education.  A continued decline in the quality of primary education does not bode well for US competitiveness.  Meanwhile, economies that emphasize quality education, such as Netherlands, Singapore, Finland and Hong Kong, are clearly on the rise.  Research shows that the quality of a nation’s education system is a major driver for its ability to innovate.  For a further look at how education drives innovation and economic competitiveness, see Marc Tucker’s Top Performers blog post “The Race Between Education and Technology—Revisited” on