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The Problematic Education Index

Submitted by on May 30, 2012 – 3:14 pm 8 Comments |  
The United Nations’ annually published Education Index is one of the main components of the widely used Human Development Index. An accurate portrayal of educational differences among the various countries of the world would be very beneficial. I have my suspicions, however, about the Education Index, which “is measured by the adult literacy rate (with two-thirds weighting) and the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary gross enrollment ratio (with one-third weighting).” But does Kazakhstan really belong in a higher educational category than Switzerland, Singapore, and Japan? Does Costa Rica really belong in the same category as Bolivia and Paraguay? Such findings rest on the premise that all countries are able, and willing, to gather and publish accurate data on such issues, which is not necessarily the case. The index fails to capture, moreover, educational intensity. I think that it is safe to assume that Japanese students in secondary school on average work more intensively than those in Greece, Uruguay, and the United States.

The Wikipedia map of the index is also problematic. The key, for example, uses the wrong color for the highest category, which I highlight by placing a square of that color on the United States. The highest and lowest color categories, moreover, are difficult to differentiate; the former is dark green and the latter dark red, but both look more “dark” than either red or green.

But despite such problems, the map does effectively portray some interesting patterns. Note the low-education zone in the Sahel belt of Africa. Note as well that Pakistan, but not Afghanistan, also falls into the lowest color category. The high standing of Latin America relative to Africa and South Asia is also significant.


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  • I think, you can use the results of the PISA surveys fot the more accurate measuring of the educational level. The only problem I see that the last survey (PISA-2009) covers only 65 countries. So I’m waiting for the results of PISA-2012.

    • Thank you for an excellent point, Dmitry! PISA, however, only measures one aspect of education. It doesn’t take into account the more elementary levels of education (so countries in the less educated belt are not likely to be tested in a sensible way by PISA). Also, it doesn’t take into account higher education attainment. What surprises me about the index discussed in the post is the way that the two measures are weighted. But no formula would be entirely objective…

  • I wonder whether Japan’s numbers don’t reflect a lower enrollment at the secondary and tertiary level, or possibly an idiosyncratic definition of adult literacy.  I would not be at all surprised if literacy in Japan were measured by recognition of a specific canon of characters.

    • These are interesting points, Jim! But when it comes to defining literacy, while Japan’s educational index may suffer for this reason, why doesn’t South Korea’s?

    • These are interesting points, Jim! But when it comes to defining literacy, while Japan’s educational index may suffer for this reason, why doesn’t South Korea’s?

      • While there may be some things written in Chinese characters in Korea, it is only for effect, like Roman numerals or very ornate fraktur script.  Usually, Korean is written in Hangul, which is as easy to learn as any alphabet on Earth.  For reading everyday Japanese, on needs to have mastered two 48-character syllabaries and a large number of Chinese characters, each of which can be pronounced in at least two ways, depending on the context.  For my money, Japanese is the most difficult writing system in current use.  Moreover, since knowledge of Chinese characters is so important to a reading knowledge of Japanese, the Japanese tend to define levels of education based on recognition of very specific sets of these characters.  I don’t know where they might cut off “adult literacy.”

        As a matter of anecdote, my sister has lived in Japan for over twenty years.  Her command of the spoken language is such that she says customers in the bar she sometimes tends often think she is Japanese until they turn around and recognize in shock that she is a little, white, American woman.  That said, while she can read instructions and can usually read subtitles on movies, she tells me she couldn’t possibly read a novel and doesn’t find it enjoyable to read anything more complex than manga.  If she were in Korea, she would have mastered the written language as soon as she mastered the spoken language.

        • Excellent points. My wife teaches Japanese history and I have spent a lot of time in Japan.  Because of that, I once decided that I needed to learn the language. I lasted three days, as I was not willing to give it the time that it demands. And if Japan has the most difficult writing system, Korea probably does have the easiest, or at least most logically constituted, writing system in the world. Korean scholars generally do have to learn Chinese characters, but for most people they are not necessary. Both countries have extremely intensive educational systems, but that of South Korea is probably more intensive than that of Japan. 

          • Yes, from what I understand, learning Chinese characters for Koreans is a bit like learning Osmanlica for Turks.  Of course, as my sister would point out, Japanese is a lot easier to pronounce than Korean, which seems to have an unlimited supply of slightly varying vowel sounds.