According to a new report out from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the US is spending less on education while the UK is pouring more money into its ed system.
The 570-page report, Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, looks at student test results, government spending, employment and other topics in order to decipher "the critical role that education and skills play in fostering social progress."
The report looks at a wide range of educational subjects, from how many 3-year-olds are attending preschool to how well adults without a college education are doing finding a job.
Perhaps the most sobering results are the ones pertaining to education mobility – how much education an adult child completes compared to their parents. The US and Germany are at the bottom of this topic, with only 30% of US adults having completed more schooling than their parents, and 25% in Germany. For the same topic in Russia, Finland and Korea, the numbers rise to 60%.
The numbers are similar when looking at downward education mobility – 20% for Germany and the US, while the other three countries mentioned above are at less than 10%.
The report also mentions a 2012 finding that 15-year-olds in East Asia score the highest in math among every country studied.
"Children from all sorts of backgrounds take part in education and achieve good results, despite relatively weak public support systems," said Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the OECD.
"I actually attribute that largely to high values that families, parents and everyone and teachers place on education, much more so than the rest of the world," he said.
These results are especially surprising when one stops to consider the small amount of money Asian countries spend on education, leaving it up to private families to spend more for private tutoring and college.
In Japan, 30.5% of money spent on education comes from private families. That number is even higher in South Korea at 37.2%, while the average according to the OECD report is 16.1%. Sweden reported the lowest number, with 97.2% of education costs paid for by the state and just 2.8% by families.
When it comes time for college, parents in Japan and South Korea spend about 65.5% and 73% of the total cost. The average cost of higher education to parents according to the report is 30.8%.
Many Asian countries are pressured to "to build better systems of public support to enable talented people from all sorts of backgrounds to take part in higher education", said Schleicher.
"East Asian countries spend relatively limited public budgets for education," he said during a video conferencing for Tokyo-based journalists.
"A lot of the burden for financing of education, particularly higher education, (falls on) parents, families. That's a chronic trend among East Asian countries," he said.
The report shows Israel ranking 5th in education spending, yet its per-pupil spending was among the lowest in industrialized countries. The country spends $4,058 per student compared to the OECD average of $7,428.
However, the report also discovered that of the country's 25-64 year-olds, 46% hold an academic degree, compared to 33% from the other countries studied. Almost twice as many people aged 55-64 hold a degree as they do in other countries, 47% in Israel compared to 25% in other countries. Meanwhile, only 45% of people age 25-34 hold degrees in the country, meaning that more of the older generation has a higher education than the younger generation.
While the US still remains the leader in education spending, its students are not appearing to learn as much as they should be for that amount of money. That spending did drop by 3% for the 3 years after the economic meltdown of 2008, while spending in the UK rose by 17% in the same time frame.
As of 2011, spending in the US was 96% of what it was in 2008, while in the UK spending had risen to 120%, the highest amount of any of the 34 countries looked at in the report.
Schleicher noted the higher class sizes in the UK, with the average class being 26, while the OECD average was lower at 21, as well the higher salaries of UK teachers. Schleicher believes this combination could make the perfect balance for education systems worldwide.
"If you have a certain amount of money, that's the sort of trade-off you have to make. Smaller classes limit your capacity to pay your teachers well. If you have a limited budget that's basically your choice."
Dylan William, emeritus professor at London University's Institute of Education, warns that there are other factors to consider, and it is not merely a matter of larger class sizes and higher salaries.
"The class size issue revolves around the quality of additional teachers that you bring in," he said. "If you have smaller classes you will have higher achievement, because smaller classes do do better. But, you generally need to bring in more teachers to raise more classes.
"It's crucial how good those extra teachers are. If they're in the bottom 10% then class size reduction actually makes things worse. You get an extra four months' learning per year from the smaller class sizes, but you close five months' learning per year because now you've got so many bad teachers in the system. It's really hard to predict how this will play out in a different country."