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Education Productivity: More With Less

Article by James W. Guthrie February 9, 2012 //   6 minute read


How do other nations get more for their school dollars than the U.S. does? In this era of sustained fiscal austerity, what Education Secretary Arne Duncan labels the “New Normal,” can the United States learn from other nations? Here is a partial answer.

Secondary school students from 21 industrialized nation’s scored higher than their United States’ counterparts on the most recent (2009) administration of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) science test.  Students from twenty-five competitor nations scored higher than the United States in mathematics. In both science and mathematics, the United States found itself being ranked near the bottom of the list with Greece, Mexico, Portugal, and Turkey.  Students of major global competitors such as Korea, Japan, France, Germany, and the U K. all did better than the U.S.  Even tiny Finland far outranked the United States. In some instances, such as Korea in Science, Finland in Mathematics the differences are dramatic, more than 50 test points (half a standard deviation) higher.  Our nearby neighbor Canada, which could be argued to be a less populous version of the United States, scored much higher than the United States, higher even in both science and mathematics than Japan and Korea Now, to add insult to injury, all of the more highly scoring nations spend less per pupil, and less to gain a scale score point on the PISA test, than does the United States. In some instances, they spend dramatically less per pupil. Here are examples. Using OECD data, the United States spends an average of $184 for each test score point. Top scoring Finland spends only $117, only 64 percent of the U.S., to gain a PISA scale score point. France, a nation that scores higher than the United States on both Math and Science, spends $133, 72 percent of what the U.S. spends. Most painful of all, Korea, second ranked in mathematics and seventh ranked in science, spends just a little more than half ($97.00 per test point) of what the United States spends to get dramatically higher results. What is the United States doing, not doing, or doing wrong, when contrasted with other nations, that elevates schooling costs and fails to elevate achievement? Separately tracking test scores and dollars expended is relatively easy.  Seeking linkages between the two is complicated. Several hypotheses are explored below. At the end of the day, however, there is one indisputable fact.  The immediate impediment to higher academic achievement for the U.S. is not a lack of money. First, should we shoot, or at least dispute, the messenger? Is there something about the test or U.S. schooling that calls findings into question? Dispute? Maybe a little.  PISA tests disadvantage the United States which tends to teach more specialized mathematics and science in the last two years of high school.  Pisa did not test these grade levels.  This condition assuages the injury of low test scores.  However, it adds to the insult of high spending.  It is in the last two years of high school that the U.S. spends the most on its students.  These two years were not included in the OECD calculation of per pupil spending. Public school apologists, concerned PISA results encourage charter school and voucher proposals, claim U.S. low scores are a function of disproportionate American student poverty.  This is a difficult argument to accept when faced with the reality of rural poverty in places such as western China or southern Italy. How does United States teacher pay compare with high scoring nations? U.S. teachers are paid well and receive generous fringe benefits. After calculating purchasing power parity, at every category for which OECD assembled data, U.S. mean teacher salaries are 5 or 20 percent higher than OECD or Euro Zone teachers.  There are interesting sidebars.  Switzerland pays its teachers more than the U.S.  Finland’ s most highly trained teachers are better paid than their U.S counterparts. Luxembourg has a particular problem.  Their maximum teacher salaries are the highest sampled, as much as $139,000, and their PISA scores are among the lowest. Are U.S. pupil/teacher ratios more or less favorable? The U.S. ratios are aligned with other OECD nations.  They are less favorable than some (Japan), more favorable than other (Korea), but exhibiting no large differences. What is interesting, however, is that competitor nations tend to provide favorable teacher/pupil ratios in secondary school and the U.S. the converse, favoring elementary schools. Competitor nations tend to differ from the U.S. in ways apart from financing. .  They hold higher academic expectations for students, have a more standardized curriculum, engage in more direct instruction, rely upon more high stakes examinations, have rigorous requirements for entering teaching, and exhibit a stronger cultural regard and higher student demand for education.  These factors warrant further study. What emerges clearly, however, is that spending more money is not the first answer to elevating U.S. academic achievement.  The United States already spends more. It simply does not appear to spend its resources wisely and, consequently, has a lower return on its investment. This post written by James W. Guthrie, Senior Fellow and Director of Education Policy Studies at the George W. Bush Institute. 

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