Six founders of NCEE’s Superintendents Alliance make the case for proficiency based education. Read more.

By Marc Tucker

DVDOrdinarily, I try to pick topics for this column I hope will be of general interest to a wide international audience.  That is still my hope for this column, but, unlike the others, it is explicitly focused on one country.  It consists of an interview with Dirk Van Damme, head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division in the OECD Education Program.  I asked Dirk, in my experience one of the world’s most astute observers of the global education scene, to talk about what the statistics in the latest Education at a Glance say about the American education system.

Marc Tucker: Dirk, what did you learn about graduation rates in the United States, both in the schools and in the postsecondary system?  We think we see similar patterns.
Dirk Van Damme: The patterns are in fact similar.  It’s a story that is no longer new.  Many countries are catching up to the United States at both levels, and many of them are going beyond that to show attainment rates well above the United States.  High school graduation rates are moving very fast toward 90 percent, 95 percent, even 100 percent, while the United States seems to be stuck below 80 percent.  Not only are the PISA countries with the best high school achievement figures outperforming the United States, but other countries are also doing better.  The United States is moving into the bottom ten percent on the charts.  That’s not where you want to be.  In higher education, it’s a similar story.  Historically, the United States was the first country in the world to extend higher education to the masses, with enormous growth in the higher education system following World War II.  But that lead has now vanished.  Last week in Switzerland, I heard that the Swiss are now thinking of a national objective of 70 percent of its college-age cohort in some form of college education by 2030.  You have this enormous growth among Asian countries such as Korea and Japan, too, but the United States is now way behind and making no progress.

MT: The Swiss are a particularly interesting case to us because they ignored the advice of OECD and many others, and kept university enrollment rates low, to focus on vocational and technical education in their higher education system.  They believe it is a major secret to economic success.
DVD: Their university academic and research programs are excellent, among the best in Europe.  But, at the same time, they are strengthening an already strong program of vocational education in their higher education system.  The Dutch, Swiss, Germans, and Flemish have all invested in high-quality vocational education and that’s paying off now.  I personally do not believe the distinction between academic and vocational will last for long.  They are becoming more and more similar.  Academic education is becoming more applied and applied education is incorporating more academic content.  The pathways now, instead of separating academic from vocational education, are doing the opposite, providing many more ways for students to move freely between academic and vocational pathways, in both directions.

MT: I’ve seen the same thing, all over the world.  Returning to the United States, I noticed that the Education at a Glance data suggested that the United States might have a quality problem, not just an attainment problem.  I read for example that Japanese associate degree holders are more proficient than U.S. four-year degree holders.  Where did that proficiency data come from and what does it mean?
DVD: The data comes from the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey, the OECD adult skills survey.  It measures literacy and numeracy proficiency and problem-solving ability in technology-rich environments for adults.  The findings on proficiency are very important.  No matter what a country values most in its education system and no matter how diverse the student body and their objectives, foundational skills are necessary.  These proficiency gaps identified by the PIAAC survey suggest that there are enormous differences among countries with respect to what superficially similar credentials actually signify.  As you point out, holders of two-year postsecondary credentials in Japan appear to have a stronger grasp of the foundation skills in language and mathematics than average graduates of four-year institutions in the United States.

EAG2014MT: Let’s talk about mobility, another focus of the new Education at a Glance.  Americans have long seen their schools as engines of social mobility, the best way for young people brought up in poverty to break out of that poverty and enter the middle class.  But if neither our schools nor our higher education institutions are providing even the foundation skills needed to get good middle class jobs, what does that say about mobility, and, if mobility is a fading dream, could that have some bearing on rising inequality of incomes in the United States?
DVD: We know from the PISA data that the United States is slipping further and further behind the world leaders in student achievement.  We know that the United States is home to a disproportionate share of the world’s leading universities.  But the PIAAC data would suggest that the average higher education institution in the United States is not doing much to improve students’ foundational skills relative to their counterparts in most of the other OECD countries.  My impression is that the reason for this has to do with the unusually high amount of institutional autonomy enjoyed by American higher education institutions.  At one end this enables institutions to achieve world-class status. But at the other end, it is very easy for individual colleges to slip down the ladder, to let standards decline, without anyone noticing.  We want to see educational institutions as providing a way out of poverty, as an antidote to inequality.  But, if the institutions attended in large numbers by the poor and by the children of parents who did not themselves have a higher education offer very low-quality programs, then higher education may be contributing to increasing social and economic inequality, not the reduction of inequality.

MT: The larger question raised by this whole conversation is why the United States has been topping out with respect to access and quality, while cost has been increasing rapidly.  Why do you suppose it is that one nation after another is going past us with respect to access and performance, and we are spending more money than all but a handful of them?
DVD: Diminishing efficiency is a problem at all levels of the system for most countries in the OECD.  Budgets in almost all countries increased by 10 to 15 percent over the last ten years, without seeing a proportional increase in output. But this trend is much more evident in the United States, so the system has bigger efficiency problems.  And the drivers of cost are more pronounced in the United States.  The historical advantage that the United States has enjoyed for many decades has blinded Americans to the situation they are in.  It is very hard for Americans to say goodbye to their belief that the United States is the most educated country in the world.

MT: What do you mean by efficiency problems?
DVD: It has to do with the quality of the teaching profession, the way teachers are recruited, educated, trained and compensated, which determines whether the system they are working in is capable of coping with the challenges that schools in all the advanced industrial economies everywhere now face.  There are so many new challenges coming to teachers.  It is a problem in many countries, but I think it is accentuated in the United States, particularly in secondary schools.  Another explanation is the still-archaic way that schools are organized in the United States.  In other countries, schools are organized differently and with more advanced management.  In Finland, schools are learning organizations.  In the United States, many schools are administrative units at the bottom of elaborate bureaucracies.

MT: I see top-performing countries embracing models based on very high quality teachers, and that is changing everything they do.  But the United States is not doing that.  However, I also see our governance system, not just the way we manage schools, but the way we govern the whole system, as problematic, too.
DVD: Looking across the whole range of OECD and PISA countries, the enormous autonomy enjoyed by American school districts seems very strange. Autonomy is translated into laissez-faire.  I believe in school autonomy but not in laissez-faire.  School autonomy and teachers’ professional autonomy is about empowering them to achieve excellence and that requires a framework of incentives and guidance.  That is, it makes sense to give schools a lot of latitude in figuring out how to get the job done, but only when government has set the goals, created the measures of success, allocated resources for schooling in a fair and equitable way, provided the right incentives to the actors, created a talented workforce and set the framework for the curriculum.  If you provide autonomy but do not do these other things, it is almost certain that the system will provide much less effective support to the students who are most dependent on the public education system for upward mobility than it does to the students who are already at the top of the heap.

For more information on Education at a Glance 2014, visit