December 7, 2010 / 4:56 PM / 7 years ago

OECD warns West of losing global edge in education

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<p>Children of migrant workers attend a class at a primary school in Shanghai March 5, 2010.Aly Song</p>

PARIS (Reuters) - The world's richest countries risk losing the edge gained by better education as standards rise sharply in for example South Korea and the Chinese city of Shanghai, the OECD said Tuesday.

In a report based on surveys of half a million 15-year-old students in 65 countries, the Paris-based OECD noted a drop in reading skills in the United States and many western European countries in the past decade, most notably Ireland and Sweden.

In contrast, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development signaled marked improvement in reading proficiency in countries such as Peru, Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, Latvia and Poland, albeit from low starting points in most of those cases.

While wealthy Western economies still ranked far higher, the OECD rated many of them as average or little more than average, weaker than before and way behind a country such as South Korea, which outshone all other countries on the list.

"It is a warning to advanced economies that they cannot take for granted that they will forever have 'human capital' superior to that in other parts of the world," said Angel Gurria, secretary general of the OECD.

"At a time of intensified global competition, they will need to work hard to maintain a knowledge and skill base that keeps up with changing demands."

The OECD said South Korea offered a striking example because its achievement rate went beyond that of a privileged elite.

"(South) Korea's average performance was already high in 2000, but Korean policy makers were concerned that only a narrow elite achieved levels of excellence in PISA (the report)," said the OECD.

"Within less than a decade, Korea was able to double the share of students demonstrating excellence in reading literacy," said the OECD.

Shanghai Success

For lack of a truly national sample for China, the OECD took Shanghai, the burgeoning business city that symbolizes not only the new wealth of China but is also a stark contrast with the underdevelopment of much of the world's most populous country.

While comparison with national averages for other countries is misplaced, Shanghai topped the OECD league tables, not only for the best readers but also for maths and science, two other areas tracked in the OECD's so-called PISA report on education.

"The stunning success of Shanghai-China, which tops every league table in this assessment by a clear margin, shows what can be achieved with moderate economic resources and in a diverse social context," said the report.

"In mathematics, more than a quarter of Shanghai-China's 15-year-olds can conceptualize, generalize, and creatively use information based on their own investigations and modeling of complex problem situations."

OECD officials acknowledged Shanghai was not representative of China and said more areas were being brought on board for future studies.

The lead Shanghai students had over low-ranking counterparts in Mexico as a whole was equivalent to about three years, and it amounted to six years advance on Kyrgyzstan, the country at the bottom of the table, the OECD said.

The great leveler was sex.

Girls beat boys on reading standards irrespective of whether their country was rich, in the middle or poor, according to the OECD.

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