The U.S. spends more to educate its students than most of the other 35 countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), yet by some measures we don’t seem to get much benefit from our expenditures. Is this a fair accusation?
Bruce Baker and Mark Weber, on behalf of the Albert Shanker Institute, posit that it’s not. When you take into account America’s high per-capita GDP, high child-poverty rate, and expenses that school systems in other OECD member countries don’t have to cover in the same way (employee health care, pensions, and disability, not to mention school sports), maybe we’re not doing so poorly, after all.
If you define school efficiency as being the best production (we’ll examine this using the results from PISA, which are international assessments administered by OECD) then based on the amount of money spent, we aren’t too far below the average (For per-pupil spending of about $12,000, we should have slightly higher PISA scores, if we had average efficiency.)
When you take per-capita GDP into account, we’re pretty close to where we should be on spending levels (if you draw a best-fit line through the dots, we would be close to that line).
When you take our high child-poverty rate into account, our PISA scores look pretty stellar (given how far above the line we are). Obviously, this excuse is still frustrating, as we also need to address why we have so many children in relative poverty.
What we can learn from this, however, is that some states do better than others. States with high rates of child poverty also tend to have lower per-pupil spending, giving them less capacity to help the students who most need it. We should look at what Massachusetts and New Jersey are doing with their dollars in comparison to Hawaii or West Virginia to determine education policies (though, of course, these states all have very different contexts).
The other insight in this report is that the U.S. spends relatively less on teacher salaries than other countries. So, if we were to address inefficiencies in our system, it would need to be on administration, buildings, and transportation. Small schools, especially rural schools, are more expensive to run than schools in more densely populated areas due to increased per-pupil administrative and transportation costs. Schools still need a principal and a custodian, whether there are 50 students or 500 students. Charter schools and districts also tend to be less efficient, as they are typically smaller, incurring greater costs for administration.
So, are we getting enough bang for our buck? Maybe.