New Research Report: Are U.S. Schools Inefficient?

At one point or another we’ve all heard some version of the following talking points: 1) “Spending on U.S. education has doubled or triped over the past few decades, but performance has remained basically flat; or 2) “The U.S. spends more on education than virtually any other nation and yet still gets worse results.” If you pay attention, you will hear one or both of these statements frequently, coming from everyone from corporate CEOs to presidential candidates.

The purpose of both of these statements is to argue that U.S. education is inefficient - that is, gets very little bang for the buck – and that spending more money will not help.

Now, granted, these sorts of pseudo-empirical talking points almost always omit important nuances yet, in some cases, they can still provide important information. But, putting aside the actual relative efficiency of U.S. schools, these particular statements about U.S. education spending and performance are so rife with oversimplification that they fail to provide much if any useful insight into U.S. educational efficiency or policy that affects it. Our new report, written by Rutgers University Professor Bruce D. Baker and Rutgers Ph.D. student Mark Weber, explains why and how this is the case. Baker and Weber’s approach is first to discuss why the typical presentations of spending and outcome data, particularly those comparing nations, are wholly unsuitable for the purpose of evaluating U.S. educational efficiency vis-à-vis that of other nations. They then go on to present a more refined analysis of the data by adjusting for student characteristics, inputs such as class size, and other factors. Their conclusions will most likely be unsatisfying for all “sides” of the education debate.

Baker and Weber show, first of all, that assessing educational efficiency of nations in a manner that is sufficiently rigorous and comparable is an extraordinarily difficult endeavor.

For example, simple comparisons of U.S. per pupil spending with that of other OECD nations do not account for the breadth of services provided through the education system, such as teacher health and retirement benefits, which many other nations provide outside of their education systems. Similarly, U.S. schools serve a higher poverty student population than do their counterparts elsewhere. For these and other reasons, the unadjusted comparisons that dominate the discourse about international education comparisons are of little value, and are more likely than not to be misleading.

The good news, however, is that cautious, appropriate use of the data can provide important, policy relevant insight. For instance, Baker and Weber show that the gap between U.S. teachers’ wages and other U.S. workers of comparable age and education is large compared to this discrepancy in other nations’, and that this cannot be explained by smaller classes (classes in the U.S. are average or large compared to other nations’). These low U.S. teacher wages (relative to other professions) makes it more difficult to recruit and retain a high quality teacher workforce, and may make attempts to do so more expensive.

In any case, what Baker and Weber offer is an accessible, empirical discussion of the difficulties inherent in comparing educational efficiency between nations, difficulties that should be heeded far more often than they are in our public discourse.

You can download and read the full report here.

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