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Elliott Morss | November 27, 2014

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Education and Inequality: Global and Local

by Elliott R. Morss, Ph.D.

Introduction

The latest global results on reading, math and science achievements have just been reported by the OECD[1]. These educational achievements of young people are probably a pretty good leading indicator on how countries will fare in the 21st Century. In this article, these results are coupled with information on income inequality to draw interesting conclusions.

Education

The test scores for selected countries are presented in Table 1. They are ranked by the final column – the average score on all three subjects.

Table 1. – Education Test Score Results, 2009

Country Science Math Reading Average
Hong Kong-China 549 555 533 546
Finland 554 541 536 544
Korea 538 546 539 541
Japan 539 529 520 529
Canada 529 527 524 527
New Zealand 532 519 521 524
Australia 527 514 515 519
Netherlands 522 526 508 519
Switzerland 517 534 501 517
Estonia 528 512 501 514
Germany 520 513 497 510
Belgium 507 515 506 509
Macao-China 511 525 487 508
Poland 508 495 500 501
Norway 500 498 503 500
United Kingdom 514 492 494 500
Denmark 499 503 495 499
France 498 497 496 497
Ireland 508 487 496 497
United States 502 487 500 496
Sweden 495 494 497 495
Portugal 493 487 489 490
Italy 489 483 486 486
Spain 488 483 481 484
Greece 470 466 483 473
Russia 478 468 459 468

What do these findings tell us? Note the dominance of Asian countries at the top of the table. And note where most European countries and the US end up. Europe and the US had a tremendous head start on other nations. But now, does anyone in Europe or the US really care about how well educated their children are? These finding suggest the answer is no.

Does the amount spent per student in primary and secondary school influence scores? It does. For the 25 countries that the OECD has both scores and per student expenditure data, expenditures are positively correlated with scores and explain 47% of the variance in scores.  

Table 2 provides information on average scores and total primary and secondary school expenditures per student for selected countries.

Table 2. – Test Scores and Student Expenditures[2]

 

Country

Average Scores  

Expenditures

Finland 544 14,063
Korea 541 13,297
Japan 529 16,007
New Zealand 524 10,608
Netherlands 519 16,800
Switzerland 517 23,193
Estonia 514 8,927
Germany 510 13,390
Belgium 509 16,355
Poland 501 7,653
Norway 500 21,919
United Kingdom 500 17,114
Denmark 499 18,851
Ireland 497 16,276
France 497 15,576
United States 496 21,531
Sweden 495 17,481
Portugal 490 11,845
Italy 486 15,387
Spain 484 15,263

Does the pattern seen in Table 2 look familiar? For anyone who has read my pieces on US health care, it does. The US spends tremendous amounts on health and education with a small return.

Education and Income Inequality

I hypothesize that educational attainment and income inequality are related: in countries with high income inequality, test scores will be lower. What is the basis for this hypothesis? In all countries, most students attend public school. But in countries with high income inequality, rich families will send their kids to private schools: and as a result, they don’t care about the quality of public schools and won’t want to support them.

What is the evidence? The Gini Coefficient measures income inequality. A Gini with a zero value means everyone has the same income. As the Gini increases, income inequality grows. Using a sample of 56 countries and data from the OECD, the Gini coefficient explains 22% of the variation in average educational attainment: as the Gini (income inequality) grows, educational attainment falls.

US Youth

Two final points on young Americans: 

  • nearly 25% of students fail the written exam to join the US military;
  • 75 percent of those aged 17 to 24 don’t qualify for the military because they are physically unfit (25% of American youths are obese), have a criminal record or didn’t graduate high school.

 


[1] PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do: Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science (Volume I) – © OECD 2010

 [2] Education at a Glance 2010: OECD Indicators – © OECD 2010 and PISA 2009 Results, op. cit.

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