These days, the political rhetoric of this country has little use for subtlety. Either things are going along swimmingly, or we’ve got a crisis on our hands. Sometimes, sounding the alarm in a particular area can be an effective way to get people to pay attention to real problems. For example, study after study showed that the U.S. was spending more and more money on healthcare, but getting less and less healthy. Whatever you think about Obamacare as a solution, the existence of a puzzling problem was undeniable. Crisis rhetoric was, in my opinion, justified.
What about education though? Is there a crisis? One cynical response to that question might be “who cares?” Maybe there’s a crisis in education and maybe there’s not, but if pretending there is one will get people to make needed changes in education policy, then so be it. After all, there’s always room for improvement and sometimes exaggerating the problem is the only way to attract attention.
Perhaps, but I think the best change is sustainable change, and apocalyptic rhetoric can easily trigger a cycle of action followed by indifference -- a cycle that is often easily harnessed by demagogues and interest groups. To combat this cycle, I want to note some ways the U.S. is doing well on education, and suggest that the real ways we’re doing badly are complex.
I didn’t get to do an exhaustive review of the literature on education comparisons, but I think this study is one of the most recent and comprehensive studies on international educational factors. Here are some highlights: The first thing to note is that a lot of countries (France, UK, Germany, Russia) are getting older in average population age, so their school systems have to educate fewer kids. The U.S. on the other hand is still dealing with an increase in school age children. How are we dealing with this growth? Basically, not so badly. Kids in the U.S. are pretty good at reading (at least at the young age this study was conducted) and middle of the road at math. It’s true, we are further down in science, but we’re ahead of France (I guess that’s not a very big victory) and we’re not that far behind the countries that are ahead of us.
What’s more interesting though is that the U.S. does very well in terms of how experienced our teachers are and how much we pay them. Starting salaries in the U.S. for teachers are very large compared to other countries (we’re only behind Germany). Also, the U.S. spends a pretty high amount of its GDP on education which translates into a lot of money per student.
So, is education in as bad a shape as healthcare? Doesn’t seem like it. We spend more than other countries but costs aren’t going up. Unfortunately, achievement isn’t really going up, but it’s steady and it’s no worse than other developed countries.
What I think is interesting is that again, the U.S. faces an efficiency problem. We spend a good deal of money on education and our teachers seem to be experienced, well-paid, and qualified. So what’s the deal? Could it be that the hype is right, and that teacher unions are fighting for high salaries? I don’t know, but this data matches that story.
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