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USA and Spain: a comparative study about educational systems

Manuel Blázquez

2 de marzo de 2012

During last decade, some numbers in Spanish educational environment, related with the decrease in number of students, specifically in Engineering, has made professors and teachers to alert about this situation. Some researchers suggest a general decline in the youngest population, leading to a progressive decrease in the number of students available in secondary and post-university courses. Some others suggest a general lack of motivation in a significant amount of student population in Secondary School.


Is this something real or is it something that happens as a cyclical behavior? Is the Spanish educational model in crises? Does it happen in other occidental countries? To answer these questions, it has been carried out a data acquisition from statistical estates in Spain and it has been compared with United States situation, in order to find out some coincidences or, at least, some similarities.

To begin setting both educational models in a common framework, the populations in both countries are not comparable. Both countries attend a universal educational model, with a similar courses structure where students begin at the age of five and finish in a preuniversitary course at the age of 17 years old. United States have increased its population in the last decade from 279 million people to 306, which it’s 9,6% of increment. Spain, a smaller country, has increased 17’5%, from 40 million people to almost 47 million. Thus, the only way to compare data between both countries is in a percentage way.

United States educational system

In US the education is universally available and compulsory for children. The age range for which school attendance is required varies from state to state, but normally children begin their education, in most states, at the age of five. State government decides the standards in Education to apply, but locally elected school boards set the curricula, funding, teaching and other policies.

Children in US, have to pass Elementary School, which consists of five-year courses. In order to this, a normal student can access to Middle School at the age of 14 years old, after passing 8th grade. At this moment, this student is ready to start High School, where he, normally, will study 4 years,(9th-Freshman, 10th-Sophomore, 11th-Junior and 12th-Senior), to complete his educational formation, becoming a 18 year-old teenager. So, upon completion of twelfth grade, American students achieve a certificate called the high school diploma, which is necessary to get for being admitted into college or university.

The amount of students integrated in Elementary and Secondary Schools have been increasing through the last decade. That’s a fact but its evolution doesn’t correspond to population increasing. The percentage of students, as calculated, is thus below the population increasing. During the first half of the decade, the observed ratio is maintained as a constant but in the second half, it can be observed a strong decrease, due to a great raise of US population, that has be enlarge from 279 in 1999 to 306 millions of inhabitants in 2009.

In any case, it’s a matter of fact that there are more young people studying in 2009 than in 1999, in spite of population increase. But, does it happen so in children as in teenagers? To maintain the courses structure set in US, it’s offered some evolution data, which has been extracted in three significant years of the study period, 1999, 2003 and 2007. The number of students does not follow the same behavior. In order to make comparisons with other educational models, there is not a great difference when talking about percentage data.

Of course, the numbers offered in the three lines graphic can’t be similar, given a structure of stages composed by different number of duration in courses, 5, 3 and 4 years respectively. To make it comparable, a linear relation can be made in order to obtain the average number of students per stage.

As the result of the calculations in stages from grade 1 to 5 and grade 6 to 8, comparable number lines offer a certain constant situation for younger students, although it’s necessary to think why the average in K1-5 is decreasing and in K6-8 is increasing. Does this mean that in the next future, High School would attend fewer kids than nowadays? Is young people population decreasing for the next decade? Would the situation be worst?

These are questions to answer quiet and deep. But, the fact is that in the third stage, from grade 9 to 12, already in secondary school, there’s a loss of student mass, that in spite of being increasing, keeps a difference, that grows from almost a half million average of student at the beginning of the period to 0,3 millions average at the end. This is a significant datum if it’s applied to the educational system: about almost 1 million people leave their studies in secondary school in US.

Spanish educational system

The Spanish educational system differs from US system in the courses structure. From 1990, a three stages model has been set up, Primary School (since 6 to 11 years old), Compulsory Secondary School (since 12 to 15 years old) and Bachelor degree or Preuniversitary Stage (since 16 to 17). So, with some obvious differences, some comparisons can be made between students behavior in both countries.

The total amount of students’ population in Spain has been represented in the following graph, where it can be observed that there’s an increasing population of children in Primary School along the decade, which offers a different aspect of what’s happening in Secondary High School.

At the beginning of the decade the difference between students in Primary and those in Secondary was a bit more than half a million people. That is something really weird, and makes wonder ourselves, where is the difference? But, instead of improving, the situation has turned worse, given that the difference has been increased to almost one million students.

Of course, somebody can think that in Primary, kids do study during 6 years and in Secondary just 4 years. This could be the reason for such a difference. But, let’s make a lineal calculus based on a simple division to know the average of students in one-year course. So, if the total amount of students per year is divided, for Primary by 6 and for Secondary by 4, new numbers let us observe the result in Figure 7.

Curiously, lines converge to 450,000 students on average in every stage, i.e, in 2009 there were the same amount of students in every course in Spain. So, Compulsory Secondary School is losing students, but as the primary figures trend looks upwards, it’s expected to recover new pupils over the next decade, given that all these kids from Primary will be attended in Secondary.

The comparative study between Spain and USA

To make a comparative between the students behavior in both countries, there are some aspects to be taken into account.

Looking at the previous figure, two almost parallel lines can be observed in both Spanish primary school and American K1-5. The upper one offers the USA data, where it can be seen that 1,5% of population was attended in Grade 1 to 5 and this number has decreased to 1,36% in 2007. The other line expresses that in Spain the situation has been a bit more sustained, having not decreased as much as in US. In both cases, data seem to indicate that the older population is increasing. So, during the decade, the scenario tells that in both countries there are fewer students in relation to the growth of the total population, very linear decrease in US and with a minimum stability in the last years in Spain. So, it can be said that in next decade the amount of students in second and third stages will decrease. But what has happened in next stage?

The scenario has in common with the previous stage that in US there are more students in grades 6-8 than the one in Spain during all the decade: a higher percentage of population is attended in American schools than in Spanish ones. There is almost the same people studying in this stage during the period and even that number of percentage is similar to the one from K1-5. So there is certain sustainability between both stages.

By other side, the situation in Spain turns worse, given there is a decrease of almost 0,3% along the decade. In this case, this is the moment where the leak of student begins. Perhaps the lack of motivation, aims to start working or the inexistence of attracting and retaining students’ actions. In particular, the mentioned leak can be limited to those students with technical profile who don’t have the opportunity to study since young and who are immersed in a theoretical compulsory program. This situation wasn’t in this way two decades ago when people from schools could start technical studies at the age of 14. In that case, a great amount of population achieved a technical certification and even, was motivated to continue studying technical university careers.

Nowadays, the situation has changed, given new laws according with European common directives, which forces to very young people to stay in a general secondary program until the age of 16. Data offer a decreasing scenario because of a low flexible educational system.

Finally, graphics show a similar trend in both countries that those depicted above in previous stages. US maintain the number of students, a bit reduced in Grade 9-12 but being normal in the society context and Spain continues with the loss of students.

In a general way, it can be said that in US, children are 1,5% of population and this number is reduced to 1,3% in preuniversitary students. So the leak is just a 0,2%. In terms of absolute number this means that 200.000 students leave school to high school, in a total population of 300 million people, i.e., a percentage of 0,07%.

However in Spain, both children at school and high school are almost 1% of population in every stage as a curious convergence point. Through the decade, primary school hasn’t had such a loss of students that two other stages, higher in compulsory secondary than in preuniversitary bachelor.

What can be supposed in the future? According to 2007 data, US will have a sustainable situation in next 5 years but it’s expected that the attendance in grade 9-12 will turn worse in a decade. In Spain, it has already started the decrease according to the relevant situation of having the same amount of students in every stage. This means that according to a natural trend, in next decade there will be fewer students attended in University. Of course this analysis does not take into account other variables like economical crises, immigration flows, etc, which perhaps will put in figures some significant variations.

Focusing the comparison to engineering studies in both countries

To carry out a suitable comparison between both countries, it’s necessary an initial explanation about the features of engineering studies when finishing High School. In both countries, students finish secondary level at the age of 17. In Spain, once preuniversitary studies have been finished, those students who want to continue their studies in University need to pass a general aptitude examination, called “Selectividad”, from which results, in combination with general marks in previous years, offer a quantitative qualification used to decide if it’s enough to attend a certain Faculty or University school. Among university careers, some are Grades, as 2-year or 3-year courses and others are Masters, which needs at least 2 more years to achieve the final qualification. Nowadays, Spain is in the transient situation to adapt studies to Bologna European Directive.

In USA, after high school, students must attend what is referred to as an undergraduate school if they would like to attend college or university. Undergraduate schools offer a two-year degree, the associate degree or a four-year degree, bachelor’s degree as specific course of study, also called major. Students who complete an associate degree can continue their education at a four-year school and eventually complete a bachelor degree. Once the student has completed this stage, a student can continue his education by pursuing a master’s degree.

Thus, the comparative study will be centered in engineering studies in students at the same age, i.e., Bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in US, and studies of grade and master in Engineering in Spain, also called Technical Engineering and Superior Engineering respectively.

As it can be observed from the following figure, engineering students graduation have been risen through the decade, with an increment of almost 10.000 graduated students between 2000 and 2009. In Spain, these numbers are lower, about 15.000 students and 20.000 students in Grade and Master respectively, as a constant number with slightly variations through the decade. These variations have had a different trend in the decade, but are not significant enough to determine a leak of students in engineering. This means that students’ interest to attend engineering schools is maintained, even is rising. So, problems in Engineering graduation seem not to be in the own engineering schools but in previous stages.

Two kinds of ratios can be done over absolute number of students, those done in the basis of year 2000 numbers, as a general trend through the decade and the ratios calculated as a division between two consecutive years, which offer a particular trend made year by year.

The first kind of ratio offers the graphic from the following figures for USA and Spain, respectively. First, about the percentage numbers, the amount of graduated engineers has been increasing year by year, reaching a maximum at the end of the decade, so that in 2009 almost a 40% of master’s degree graduated engineers are ready to start a professional career. In combination with the numbers from previous figure and in spite of being greater amount of bachelor’s degree graduates than master’s degree one, the increase of bachelor’s degree graduates is smoother, bringing up a 15% of increase since 2000.

Otherwise, in Spain, engineering graduation seems to behave on decreasing numbers. In combination to numbers of previous figures, in which the amount of graduates maintains in a almost horizontal line, it’s very slight how more engineers graduate year by year, having a change of trend by 2005, since when the increase begin to slow down, becoming negative increasing numbers by 2008 in the particular case of those students who achieve the Grade in Engineering.

This behavior may worry in a relative way to engineering institutions and economic organizations, given there are fewer technical engineers in labor market nowadays in comparison to those working in 2000. Looking at master in engineering graduates’ numbers, those called in Spain Superior engineers, the line stands about 8% average of increase, and this will probably be the trend by the next decade and will lighten the decreasing engineering situation.

The second studied ratio from absolute numbers is represented in the two following figures on the left for USA and Spain respectively. The ratio is calculated as the relative difference in students in two consecutive years.

About this calculation basis, in USA, both Bachelor’s and master’s degrees seem to behave as an oscillating wave, with a maximum by 2003 and a minimum by 2007. The average number in the decade stands by a 5% increase, which is positive, but it seems to behave like social changes in economic crises time.

By 2001-2003, USA was affected by a crises, not so big than 2008 one, and the number of engineers began to increase. Once the economical situation became to maximums, graduated engineers relative numbers became smaller, even decreasing. By 2008, economic crises arose strongly, and in that moment the amount of engineers began to increase year by year. The hypothesis works for the decade and it would be very useful to find out the behavior in some other decade and even, some other factors.

In Spain, otherwise, the behavior of increments in graduation in engineering increments can be defined as “any past year was better”. Both Grade and Master Engineer’s graduation behave in a very similar way, as called in control electronic system, a negative exponential sinusoidal transient. Numbers in 2009 offer a behavior like the end of the situation, with a slightly increase. The numbers between 2005 and 2008 are in negative percentages, in coincidence with the better economic situation period in Spain ever.

Reflections about actions to attract engineering students

According to the analysis figures, if the situation goes on without any change, it’s probably that in the next decade, the societies in both countries will have a greater amount of people with no certification or with minimal qualification. The authors suppose that any reader can imagine the consequences of a worse educational level in a technological society. Engineering schools retain an almost constant number of students, with some variations depending on some external factors like economic situation of families, students’ motivation, etc. But the real problem seems not to be solved in Primary and Secondary Schools where a certain leak of students exists at the age of 14-16 years old.

So, some actions has already to be taken in order to attract students and over all, offer to students more motivating programs. Just because, society needs a natural distribution of non-qualified and qualified people in order to cover the needs and follow a regular evolution of society. But trends offer a future scenario with an increasing number of non-qualified people. However, a constant has been found in handled statistics in relation with economic cycles.

It’s well known that in economic crises time, labor market decays followed by an increase in studies attendance in University and other studies centers. This can be defined as a virtual increase of students, given most of them will leave studies once they get a new job. Long time careers don’t offer the kind of studies most of people needs to be trained in a particular topic, so people decide to attend one-year courses or similar.

So, numbers offered along this paper show two kinds of situations to improve the engineering panorama. First, the attraction of future engineering students since young in Secondary or even primary School, to construct a engineering culture close to Science or even by means of Science; and secondly, the making of a short-term courses network around engineering topics to attract those familiarized or fan with engineering.

In that line, there are some actions taken from European institutions, in which Spain is an EU active member. EU Member States and the European Commission has strengthened co-operation in 2009 with strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training ("ET 2020"), a follow-up to the earlier Education and Training 2010 work program, launched in 2001. The program aims consist in making lifelong learning and mobility a reality; Improving the quality and efficiency of education and training; Promoting equity, social cohesion and active citizenship; and enhancing creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training.

The activities include, for example, expanding opportunities for learning mobility or enhancing partnerships between education and training institutions and the broader society, as well as those actions relevant to all levels of education, such as promoting multilingualism, innovation, creativity and adoption of ICT (Information and Communication Technology).

Other kind of actions taken from international institutions as IEEE, promote students and teachers’ approach to engineering and entrepreneurship by means of resources from the web site “tryengineering.org”. This action brings near any kind of student to be motivated by basic and simple engineering lessons, easy to understand and offer answers about how an engineering career can be made part of their future. The list of resources are divided into several categories as exploring engineering, opportunities for students, helping to select a University, understanding engineering by means of lesson plans offered to children and young at an age range of 8-18 years old, asking a volunteer expert in any subject or a place to play games. And perhaps the portal can be defined as a meeting point for those interested in Engineering.

To promote the portal and other actions, IEEE Teachers in Service Program (TISP) has been developed in order to recruit engineering volunteer teachers and professors. TISP provides a forum for IEEE volunteers to demonstrate the application of engineering, science and mathematics concepts by sharing their real-world experiences with local pre-university educators. IEEE offers training workshops for its volunteers on how to provide in-service programs to local pre-university educators. The program’s goals are to empower section volunteers to collaborate with their local pre-university community; promote applied inquiry-based learning; enhance the level of technical literacy of pre-university educators; encourage pre-university students to pursue technical careers, including engineering; and increase the general level of technical literacy of pre-university students throughout their educational careers.

In short, all these actions are intended to motivate students not only to reduce the progressive dropout rates in school, but from the school to offer added value to their future careers.

When comparing every educational stage one by one, between both countries, Table 1 offers a qualitative reference of evolution trends in 1st stage (corresponding to students at the age of 6 to 11), 2nd stage (corresponding to students at the age of 12 to 15) and 3rd stage (corresponding to students at the age of 16 to 17).

When analyzing university engineering students’ numbers, a coincidence has been found among numbers, which does not match in previous stages: the fact of an inverse behavior in attendance numbers depending on economic depression and crisis time.