U.S. Education Rankings Are Falling Behind the Rest of the World (2023)

The United States isn't investing as much in human capital as other developed countries and its comparative advantage is falling behind as a result. U.S. students'math skillshave remained stagnant for decades. The country is falling behind many others which have greatly improved, such as Japan, Poland, and Ireland. U.S. test scores arebelow the global average.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. placed 11th out of 79 countries in science when testing was last administered in 2018.
  • The top five math-scoring countries in 2018 were all in Asia.
  • U.S. students' math scores have remained steady since 2003. Their science scores have been about the same since 2006.
  • The IMD World Competitiveness Center reports that the U.S. ranked 10th in its 2020 Competitiveness Report after ranking first in 2018.

Comparing Test Scores

The Program for International Student Assessment is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and it tests 15-year-old students around the world. The U.S. placed 11th out of 79 countries in science when the test was last administered in 2018. It did much worse in math, ranking 30th.

The U.S. scored 478 in math, below the OECD average of 489. That's well below the scores of the top five, all of which were in Asia:

  • Singapore: 569
  • Macao: 555
  • Hong Kong: 551
  • Taiwan: 531
  • Japan: 527

China was not included in this ranking because only four provinces participated.

The United States scored 502 in science, above the OECD average of 489. The top five highest scorers in science were:

  • Singapore: 551
  • Macao: 544
  • Estonia: 530
  • Japan: 529
  • Finland: 522

It's clear when analyzing the U.S. results that the scores have been stable over time. They're not declining but there aren't any signs of improvement, either. There's been no detectable change in U.S. students' math scores since 2003 or in science scores since 2006.

Economic Impact of Education

These low scores mean that U.S. students may not be as prepared to take high-paying computer and engineering jobs, which often go to foreign workers. Silicon Valley is America's high-tech innovation center but one reason for its success is the cultural diversity of its foreign-born software engineers.


Many companies simply outsource their tech jobs overseas, but the result is the same: There are fewer high-paying jobs going to American citizens because they may not be qualified.

Eric A. Hanushek, an economist from the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, estimatedthat the U.S. economy would grow 4.5% in 20 years if our students’ math and science skills were as strong as those of the rest of the world. But this statement would likely come as a shock to many Americans who believe that our students' skills are already among the best in the world.

Perception vs. Reality

Some Americans see no problem with the state of U.S. education. Nearly half of those who participated in an Associated Press poll said in 2008 that American students’ achievement test scores were the same as or better than those of children in other industrialized nations. But 90% of them did recognize that education helps economic growth.

The U.S. ranks near the bottom in a survey of students’ math skills in 30 industrialized countries and many Americans are in denial. The same survey showed that one-third believed their own schools were excellent, but only one-sixth believed the same of other schools. The states that are the poorest have lower education scores. This cycle creates structural inequality.

Impact on U.S. Competitiveness

The IMD World Competitiveness Center reports that the U.S. ranked 10th in its 2020 Competitiveness Report. The U.S. fell to the third spot in 2019 after ranking first in 2018. The seven-point tumble to 10th place represents the lowest the U.S. has ever been in the annual ranking system.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much does the U.S. spend on education?

Numbers for K-12 spending reveal that the U.S. spends $14,891 per public school student per year, which totals $762 billion.

Which state ranks first for education in the U.S.?

Several publications provide state rankings for K-12 education, but they use different methods to come to their conclusions. The National Center for Education Statistics doesn't rank the states, but Education Week assigns each state a grade from A to F based on several factors. No state has achieved an A, and only two states have achieved a B: Massachusetts and New Jersey.


How does the US rank in education compared to the rest of the world? ›

Ironically, despite the United States having the best-surveyed education system on the globe, U.S students consistently score lower in math and science than students from many other countries. According to a Business Insider report in 2018, the U.S. ranked 38th in math scores and 24th in science.

Why are American students falling behind? ›

The drop in test scores comes after school closures and shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, an outbreak that the world is still trying to recover from. AP reported that the average math score for 9-year-old students fell 7% between 2020 and 2022, while the average reading score fell five points.

Does the United States have a good or a poor educational system compared to the rest of the world? ›

The U.S. ranks toward the bottom of the industrialized nations on international tests of academic achievement in science and mathematics. Not only may American schools perform worse but they may do so at the same time as they use more resources than other schools systems.

Is US education the best in the world? ›

No. 1: United States

The U.S. is home to eight of the top 10 Best Global Universities, according to U.S. News. U.S. students had above-average scores in reading and science on the OECD's 2018 Program for International Student Assessment, but scored below the OECD average in math. Learn more about the United States.

What country is #1 in education? ›


Does the US rank low in education? ›

The U.S. ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with higher education (42%). have an upper secondary education are just 29% -- one of the lowest levels among OECD countries. enrolment rate. sources, while in the U.S., 62% does.

What is the biggest problem with education in America? ›

Many American critics believe that the major problem with public education today is a lack of focus on results. Students aren't expected to meet high standards, the argument goes, and the process of education takes precedence over analyzing education results in policy-making circles.

What is the #1 reason students drop out of higher education? ›

Academic struggles and financial concerns are significant factors, according to recent research by two California State University—Long Beach professors.

Do we fall behind in the global education race? ›

A generation ago, the United States ranked first in the world in higher education attainment. But since then, our country has failed to improve at the same pace as some other countries, in effect putting us at a grave competitive disadvantage.

Does the US actually have a good education system? ›

That's because American schools are well known for providing high-quality education through a balanced, tried-and-tested curriculum. The US education system is informed by cutting-edge research, which helps develop students into critical thinkers with well-rounded social-emotional skills.

How can America improve its education system? ›

5 Ways Policy Makers Can Improve the Quality of Education
  1. Acknowledge and address overcrowding.
  2. Make funding schools a priority.
  3. Address the school-to-prison pipeline.
  4. Raise standards for teachers.
  5. Put classroom-running and curriculum-building decisions in the hands of the community.
Apr 7, 2019

Why is American education so bad compared to other countries? ›

One of the main criticisms is that it is not meeting the needs of all students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds and students of color. The achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds continues to be a significant problem in the American education system.

Was the USA ever #1 in education? ›

As recently as 20 years ago, the United States was ranked No. 1 in high school and college education. Much of the boom in American education during the second half of the 20th century was fueled by the Montgomery G.I.

Which country has the best education system in America? ›

The United States takes the number one spot on the list due to its large number of prestigious universities and well-developed higher education system. With world-famous universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford among its ranks, the US has a wide range of educational opportunities for international students.

Does the US lead the world in education? ›

The U.S. ranks 14th in higher education attainment at 42% of 25-34 with a degree, 20 points behind the leader, South Korea. The U.S. ranks 26th in early childhood education (69%) The U.S. is the 6th worst in terms of high school graduation, with 23% failing to attain a diploma.

Where does America's education rank in the world? ›

Key Takeaways. The U.S. placed 11th out of 79 countries in science when testing was last administered in 2018. The top five math-scoring countries in 2018 were all in Asia. U.S. students' math scores have remained steady since 2003.

How do US states rank in education? ›

Public School Ranking by State
Overall RankStateQuality
32North Carolina36
47 more rows
Jul 24, 2023

How does the US rank against other countries? ›

United States is 19th in the overall Prosperity Index rankings. Since 2011, United States has moved down the rankings table by 1 place.

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