Was the USA ever No. 1 in education?

10/4/2012 • Ask Mr. History

Was the United States of America ever number one in world rankings in education?  If so, when did the ranking begin to change?  

Thank you.  

Larry Randolph

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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. Bill, which provided scholarships and student loans to veteran service personnel returning from World War II. Having matured on the battlefield, thousands of returning troops eagerly seized the opportunity to improve their postwar prospects in the civilian world, leading to a transformation of the American middle class in the 1950s and 1960s.  

In 2009, the United States was ranked 18th out of 36 industrialized nations. Over that time, complacency and inefficiency, reflective of lower priorities in education, and inconsistencies among the various school systems contributed to a decline. The United States still ranks No.1 in the world’s higher education institutions (i.e., colleges), including their ability to help graduates transition into the job market, but the cost of higher education has become a challenge in itself. Concurrent with any even minor decline in American education, one has to consider the ambitious increases in education among the countries that have surpassed it. Another factor is the diversity of people entering the American educational melting pot. The top three leaders in general education, Finland, Japan and South Korea, have relatively smaller and much more homogeneous populations, making it easier to maintain a consistent standard.  

Overall, the united States still has an excellent education system, even if it is not Number One … it simply has been surpassed by those of other rising countries.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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