Browsing through the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, I stumbled on puzzling numbers on education in the article by Elizabeth Cascio, Damon Clark and Nora Gordon: while the United States is severely lagging in literacy for 16-17 year olds among countries with similar income levels, it is in the middle of the pack for ages 26-30. This is based on the International Adult Literacy Survey, which tests how well respondents answer to questions after reading a text.
That the performance of school students in the US is poor should surprise no one. What I find surprising is how well they catch up on the other countries later on. It is true that university graduation rates used to be higher than anywhere else, but this has changed now. Also, I am not convinced that a diploma in the US is worth the same as in other countries. However, the first two years in US colleges are typically spent furthering general education which has already been acquired in high school elsewhere. Can this explain the catching up? At least part of it. But I cannot believe that US college students learn that much to pass the Italian, Swiss or Danish ones.