Education Abroad

| Thu Sep. 15, 2005 2:10 PM EDT

Dan Drezner links to a new OECD study (pdf) on education, and the results aren't entirely encouraging for the motherland—the United States is still lagging behind its developed-country peers in math and science education—but we seem to be improving. As far as the "What is to be done?" question goes, this passage deserves comment:

Lower expenditure cannot automatically be equated with a lower quality of educational services. Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands and New-Zealand, which have moderate expenditure on education per student at the primary and lower secondary levels, are among the OECD countries with the highest levels of performance by 15-year-old students in mathematics.

The study also notes that the United States spends, on the aggregate, much more on education than any other OECD country besides Switzerland. Seems the answer to fixing schools in America does not involve spending more money, right? Maybe, but not necessarily. First question: A good deal of public education spending in the United States, after all, goes towards spending on students with disabilities; in 2004, IDEA grants to states totaled $12 billion, roughly a tenth of all federal education spending. So I wonder what the OECD numbers look like with that factor removed.

Second question: looking only at aggregate expenditures seems misleading to me—as Jonathan Kozol reminds us in Harper's this month, the United States boasts a segregated public school system in which many (often white, suburban) districts rake in obscene amounts of money from local property taxes, while others (often black or Hispanic, urban) have very little to spend on their students. A chart merely showing that the U.S. spends a lot on education obscures some of these points. On the other hand, the "between-school variance" on public education in the United States was fairly low, when compared to supposedly stellar countries like Japan, Germany, and South Korea. I don't know if this means that our savage inequalities aren't quite as savage as they are elsewhere around the world, but it's fairly surprising.

Flipping through some of the other charts, it looks like the United States pays its secondary-school teachers more than most other countries, on an absolute level, but in the context of GDP per capita, our public school teachers don't make very much. Incidentally, Norway and Sweden pay their teachers even less than we do, when compared to GDP per capita, and they seem to be lagging in math and science too. Coincidence? No idea; it would be interesting to see some regressions on this. I also see that teachers in the United States teach far and away more hours than any of their OECD peers, while teachers in Japan—a country generally noted, with caveats like the above, for its educational excellence—teach only about half as many hours as their American counterparts. This doesn't pass for proof that underpaid and overworked public-school teachers are partly the reason for America's poor education showing, but on the surface that idea has at least some plausibility.

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