While the United States ranks among those spending the most on public school students, country has slipped among other developed nations in student achievement, according to a new study from the Council on Foreign Relations.
In its report, the CFR's Renewing America initiative, found that the United States has fallen 10 spots in both high school and college graduation rates in the last 30 years. Americans between ages 25 and 34 currently rank 10th out of 33 countries for high school attainment and 13th out of 34 countries for college attainment. Korea tops both lists for the same age group.
The drop is due in large part to stagnant high school and college attainment rates, the report found. Americans between ages 55 and 64 ranked first and third for high school and college attainment, respectively. American students now are "failing early and failing late" according to the report – preschool enrollment rates are lower, and college dropout rates are higher than other countries.
Nearly all 4-year-olds in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan are enrolled in preschool, for example, compared to only 69 percent of American 4-year-olds, according to the report.
And although test scores have improved slightly in the United States, they're still outscored by their international peers, the report said.
But the biggest problem in the nation's education system is an inequality in spending, said Rebecca Strauss, associate director for Renewing America publications, in a statement.
"The real scourge of the U.S. education system – and its greatest competitive weakness – is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student's academic career," Strauss said.
The achievement gap has been intensified by the fact that education funds are not distributed equitably in the United States, according to the report. In fact, the distribution of funds in America is the opposite of the majority of developed countries, which typically invest more resources per student in low-income school districts. It is the reverse in the United States largely because local property taxes provide most revenues for public K-12 schools, according to the report.
But the investment gap doesn't stop at high-school. The gap in annual per-pupil spending between the nation's most and least selective colleges was nearly six times larger in 2006 than in 1967 – up to $80,000 from $13,500. And although more Americans realize holding a college degree matters when trying to land a good job, many said they didn't think they could pay for a higher education, the report said.
In 2011, those with bachelor's degrees earned about $400 more per week than their peers with only a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Human capital is perhaps the single most important long-term driver of an economy," Strauss said in the statement. "Most of the value added in the modern global economy is now knowledge based."
Edward Alden, a CFR senior fellow and director of the Renewing America initiative, said in a blog post that federal education policy has failed in its mission to reduce these achievement disparities. Though federal funding for education has vastly increased under President Obama, and the report shows some progress in reducing racial disparities, the gap in achievement based on income is growing, he said.
"In short, children from well off families are vastly more likely to succeed in school than children from poorer families," Alden said.