Was the USA ever No. 1 in education?

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
More Questions at Ask Mr. History 

10 Responses

  1. Jason

    The GI Bill was a way for veterens to obtain a college education or a trade. I’m not seeing how that relates to becoming #1 in high school education. You seperated them later in your piece but failed to explain why we were #1 in the 50’s and perhaps before.

    I have my opinions on why we are failing to even meet college admission goals. As more and more of the attendees are women and foreigners. Young men in this country are not “cool” if they are smart. Emphasis is placed on being entertained rather than promoting community involvement or self improvement. It gets worse year after year because kids #1 role model is their parent(s). Obviously if the parents get worse every generation then the kids will follow suit. It’s a vicous cycle and I don’t see it ending anytime soon.

  2. Carl

    Jason does have a good question… I would like some more explanation of how our primary and secondary systems rose to prominance.

    As for his cultural comments, I do agree that the largest problems with our schools today is cultural. And this may explain the lag in performance amongst males vs females aswell.

    Whether you agree that is the situation now or not, are there possible historical parrallels?

    So that’s two questions, reaffirming Jasons and my own.

  3. Dan

    Read the article again. “..United States was ranked No.1 in high school and COLLLEGE education…”

  4. Ernie

    On 11/20/2012 Dan asked for references to the claims made in the article. A year and a half later they still have not been posted. I suspect such data does not exist.

  5. Jason

    I was stating an opinion based on my observations. As I stated in my previous post. These observations are based on my relatives and their friends.


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