NPR logo How Do America's Schools Compare To Jamaica's?


How Do America's Schools Compare To Jamaica's?

After hearing our podcast about GDP and education in Jamaica and Barbados, listener Julie A. sent us this note:

I live in New York City and my children attend public school. I was very sad to realize that your description of the "poor" Jamaican schools could be mistaken for the very schools my children attend here in New York—a city with the greatest wealth in the world. I think this disproves your GDP analysis. I have listed a few points below ... (read the rest of the letter)

Alex Blumberg replies:

These are all very valid and excellent points. GDP is only part of the problem. There's also what the government chooses to do with the money. Here are two charts comparing the US and Jamaica.

Both countries actually spend about the same percentage of GDP on education.

In the U.S., however, that amounts to a far larger chunk of change per kid than it does in Jamaica. And the U.S. directs 14% of all government expenditures to education. Jamaica only spends about 9%. That's probably because Jamaica is so laden with debt. Nearly 50% of Jamaica's budget goes to making loan payments. So, it has a much smaller share of it's budget to use for other purposes.

So if the U.S. is spending a lot more per pupil, and a larger percentage of its total tax revenues, what is it getting in return? If you consider the population of the entire country, a typical student in the U.S. will probably have access to a better education than a typical student in Jamaica. The U.S. has much lower teacher/student ratios than Jamaica, for example, which you can see reflected in the two graphs. And the U.S. does manage to teach its citizens to read. Nearly 99% of the adult U.S. population is literate. When I talked to Andrew Holness, the Jamaican minister of Education, he estimated that in Jamaica the adult literacy level is about 80%.

That said, when you start looking into other statistics, the U.S. can't really be too proud of itself. We can read, but a lot of us can't read that well. The most extensive recent literacy survey in the U.S., done in 2003, breaks readers down into four categories with "below basic" as the lowest ranking. Below basic means you can read a basic children's book, but you can't comprehend much in a basic newspaper article. About 14% of Americans fall into that category. The other categories were basic, intermediate and proficient. Only 14% of Americans were rated "proficient."

And when you compare the U.S. to other developed countries, the GDP vs. education breaks down quite a bit. The best comparison of international reading ability is something called the PIRLS 2006 International Report. It compares 4th graders from around the world on a standardized reading test.

Almost all the countries surveyed are developed economies. And when it comes to the reading ability of our 4th graders, the US falls pretty squarely in the middle, above New Zealand, Poland and Spain, but below Germany, all of Scandanavia, and the country with the overall best readers, Russia. GDP per capita in the US is nearly four times what it is in Russia.

The upshot of all this is pretty simple. A lot of American school kids face the same realities as a lot of kids in Jamaica. They're stuck in bad, underfunded schools, and their prospects for future employment are very limited. The percentage of those kids is smaller here than there. But the US has 100 times the population of Jamaica. And so in purely raw numbers, we're leaving a lot more kids behind.