© Shutterstock

How much countries around the world spend on education

Mack DeGeurin

Aug 22, 2019

The US spends over $700 billion on public education, yet it lags behind most other industrialized countries in key measurements of academic success.

The curriculums, teaching styles, and class structure of schools differ widely all around the world.

INSIDER analyzed US government data to see which countries spend the most money on their students and looked at how well each of those countries fares in internationally recognized test scores.

Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

It seems like hardly a week goes by in the US without some news of school budget cuts, underfunded classrooms, or teachers forced to pay out of pocket for school supplies. With all that in mind, it might be surprising that the US education system has so many woes despite spending so massively.

In 2017, the US spent $12,800 per student on public education, which is the second-highest amount spent per student of any country in the world. But when it comes to total spending, the comparison isn’t remotely close. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the US spent over $700 billion on public education in 2017 alone. To put that in perspective, you could add up the total GDP of Finland and Vietnam and you still wouldn’t hit the amount the US spends on education.

But despite all that spending, the US has struggled. Pew Research from 2017 found the US ranked 38th in math and 24th in science when compared against 71 other countries. Only two decades prior, the US’s education system ranked 6th internationally.

So clearly money doesn’t solve everything, but it can serve as a signal for how interested particular countries are in improving education outcomes. INSIDER looked at US Department of EducationWorld Bank, and Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development data to see how much countries around the world spend on education (converted into US dollar amounts) and what they’re getting out of it.

In addition to spending per student, INSIDER looked at how well each country performed on the Program for International Student Assessment. First launched in 1997 by the OECD, the PISA is a test taken by 15-year-olds from 80 different countries around the world. The test features sections on reading, math, and science and currently stands as one of the best benchmarks for comparing academic performance between counties. The graph below shows the international results for the 2015 OECD reading exam.

While some critics have rejected the usefulness of comparing international test scores and even argued that the PISA reinforces a “neoliberal framing of education policies,” it’s still some of the best data available and one referenced by most industrialized nations.

Continue scrolling below to see which countries spend the most on education.

© Reuters

15. Portugal

Portugal spent $8,700 per student in 2015 and the government recently started paying for books.

Portuguese education is free and universal and is required for students between the ages of six and 15. The schooling process is broken up into three “cycles ” and students take an exam at the end of each cycle.

Despite classes being free of charge, many Portuguese students have had to purchase the majority of their own books until recently. That changed in 2016 when lawmakers added class books to the state’s education budget.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 4.9%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 24
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 16
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 19

Sources: The Portugal NewsNational Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Reuters

14. Italy

Italy spent $9,100 per student in 2015.

Italy requires kids between the ages of six to 16 years old attend school, even if they’re not an Italian citizen. Unlike in the US, Italian students attend school year-round. Italian public schools are also required to offer at least one hour of religious study per week, but parents can request that their kids opt out of it.

Italy is known for its food culture, which extends its schools as well. According to Italy Magazine, public school classes are structured so that most students have an hour to go home, enjoy a homemade meal, and come back for afternoon classes.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 4.1%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 20
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 28
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 31

Sources: Italy Magazine,National Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Reuters

13. France

France spent $10,000 per student in 2015 and many parents enroll their kids before the age of three.

The French education system is broken up into four stages: “Maternelle,” “Ecole Elémentaire,” “Collège,” and “Lycée.” Schooling starts for most students at just three years old and an increasing number of parents are starting their kids even younger. While this early education is popular, it is not mandatory until children are required to enroll at age six.

Unlike American high schoolers who earn diplomas for completing school, French teens can only receive the equivalent of a diploma once they pass a difficult test called the Baccalauréat.

If students pass the test, they then have the choice to pursue a higher education degree in vocational training or academic disciplines.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 5.5%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 26
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 22
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 27

Sources: Fulbright,National Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Reuters

12. Finland

Finland hardly has any private schools or standardized tests. The country spent $10,100 per student in 2015.

Finland is often referenced as one of the top education systems. Much of what makes Finland’s education system stick out from other countries is the quality of its teachers. In Finland, all teachers are required to complete a rigorous five-year master’s program.

According to a Guardian report, the purpose of this lengthy program is to allow the aspiring teachers the freedom to design their own class structures.

Private schools are exceedingly rare in Finland. Plus, class curriculums focus less on long hours and tedious homework and more on creative playtime.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 7.1%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 18
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 7
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 8

Sources: The GuardianThe AtlanticNational Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Reuters

11. Japan

Japan spent $10,200 per student in 2015 and has one of the most rigorous school schedules in the world.

Japan’s public education system experienced a major overhaul following the end of WWII and has quickly become one of the most egalitarian – and challenging – systems in the world.

Similarly structured to the US, Japanese students take six years of elementary school, three years of middle school, and three years of high school. Japanese students take most of their classes in a single classroom for about six hours per day. School in Japan takes place all year-round and is typically broken up into three separate terms.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2016: 3.6%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 5
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 5
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 2

Sources: ThoughtCo.National Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Reuters

10. Germany

Germany revamped its education system after 2001 and by 2015 it had spent $11,000 per student.

Germany has one of Europe’s best education systems, but that wasn’t always the case. Following a series of disappointing national test scores in 2001, and reports of inequality, the German government stepped in to quickly find solutions.

School days were increased from four hours to six and a half hours, pre-kindergarten and nursery school access was expanded, and a national standard was set for academic performance. According to information from just over a decade later, the changes appear to have worked, as proven by the country’s strong test scores, listed below.

According to the National Center for Education and the Economy, 94% of German three-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood programs.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 4.8%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 11
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 8
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 10

Sources: The GuardianNational Center on Education and the EconomyNational Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Reuters

9. Austria

Austria spent $11,100 per student in 2015. The country requires students to attend classes for at least nine years.

Austria also places a strong emphasis on public education. Austrian students are required to attend school for nine years, between the ages of six and fifteen.

The youngest cohort of Austrian children are taken care of in nurseries called “Kinderkrippens.” From there, students transition to kindergarten which, in Austria, includes students between the ages of three and six.

Once Austrian students complete their nine years of required study they can then choose to continue on with anywhere from one to four years of vocational or university classes.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 5.5%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 17
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 31
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 22

Sources: Austria.orgNational Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Reuters

8. Netherlands

The Netherlands spent $11,000 per student in 2015 and has more private schools than many of the countries on this list.

With just over 17 million people living in an area that could fit in Texas 16 times over, the Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. While the crowded country has required free and accessible education since 1801, private parochial and other religious schools are still commonplace.

Unlike most of Europe, which tends to have strict rules and regulations for who can open a school, the Netherlands allows just about anyone run a school and create a curriculum of their choosing, so long as the school meets certain national academic requirements.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 5.4%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 13
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 14
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 11

Sources: WENRNational Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Maskot / Getty

7. Sweden

Sweden spent $11,400 per student and mandates 10 years of schooling for students over the age of six.

Sweden separates its education into three distinct sections: optional pre-school, compulsory education for grades one through 10, and optional “upper secondary school” for years 10-12. Sweden’s education system has declined in recent years, a deterioration the country has admitted to publicly.

As of 2013, in an effort to “raise the status of the teaching profession,” the Swedish government now requires professional certifications for all school and pre-school teachers.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 7.6%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 30
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 25
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 29

Sources: Sweden.se,National Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

6. United Kingdom

The United Kingdom spent $11,400 per student in 2015 and has six types of schools.

Schooling in the United Kingdom is broken up by primary education, secondary education further education, and higher education. UK children are required to enroll in primary and secondary school, which typically starts when a child turns five and ends at 16.

Students can choose to opt for “faith schools,” which emphasize religion, “free schools,” which are funded by the government but don’t have to follow the national curriculum, private schools, or “state boarding schools,” that are funded by the government but charge for room and board.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2016: 5.5
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 22
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 19
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 14

Sources: Gov.UKNational Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Blue Planet Studio/ Shutterstock

5. Iceland

Iceland spent $11,600 per student in 2017.

Located atop a volcano just a few miles south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is nothing short of unique. The small country’s education system extends from pre-school to university-level classes.

All children between the ages of six and 16 are required to attend school and they can do so for free. If students graduate from the compulsory stage they are then guaranteed entrance into “upper secondary school,” which is intended for students between 16 and 20 years old. Only one private upper secondary school exists on the entire island.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 7.7%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 32
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 35
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 35

Sources: Iceland.isNational Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Reuters

4. South Korea

South Korea spent $12,000 per student in 2015 and offers free half-day preschool.

South Korean students take three years of lower school, six years of primary school, and three years of upper secondary school. More recently, South Korea has started offering free half-day preschool for kids between three and five years of age.

According to The National Center for Education and the Economy, South Korea places a great emphasis on public school equality. Since the 1970s, the government has used an “equalization” lottery intended to reduce excessive competition to just a few competitive schools.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 5.3%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 8
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 9
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 12

Sources: National Center on Education and the EconomyNational Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Reuters

3. Belgium

Belgium spent $12,300 per student in 2015 despite having more private than public schools.

The Belgian school year hews closely to the US school year.

While Belgium offers free public schools, private schools are more popular and are often subsided at least in part by the government.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 6.6%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 12
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 15
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 18

Sources: OECDNational Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankInternational

© monkeybusinessimages / Getty

2. United States

The United States spent $12,800 per student in 2015 and over $700 billion total yet still falls short when it comes to academic achievement.

It’s no secret that the US education system in decline. Despite spending the second most per student of every country on this list and blowing every other country in the world out of the water by spending more than $700 billion on education, American students regularly under perform when compared to other industrial countries.

Two decades ago, the country’s education system ranked 6th internationally.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2014: 5%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 36
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 18
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 23

Sources: National Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankOECD

© Andrey Armyagov/ Shutterstock

1. Norway

Norway spent $15,000 per student in 2015 and classes place an emphasis on music and art education.

Norwegian students between the ages of six and 16 are required to attend school. The country’s school system is broken up into “Barneskole” (primary school) “Ungdomsskole” (lower secondary school) and “Videregående skole” (secondary school).

Until recently, Norway did not use letter grades for class scores. The national curriculum also emphasizes the importance of arts and music education.

Percentage of GDP spent on education in 2015: 7.6%
OECD international math ranking in 2015: 19
OECD international reading ranking in 2015: 10
OECD international science ranking in 2015: 24

Sources: Huffington PostNational Center for Education StatisticsWorld BankInternational

Help give kids in every zip code the supplies they need to succeed