Deconstructing the Myth of American Public Schooling Inefficiency

In this report, Rutgers University Professor Bruce D. Baker and Rutgers Ph.D. student Mark Weber address the common myth that U.S. public schools are inefficient - that is, spend way more money than do other nations and get worse results. They begin with a discussion of the typical presentations of data on U.S. educational efficiency, particularly those comparing the U.S. with other nations, as well as a discussion of key concepts, approaches, and research in the evaluation of educational efficiency. 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.

Baker and Weber conclude, first and foremost, that the typical presentations of data purporting to show the inefficiency of U.S. schools are so lacking in methodological rigor as to be of little if any value in our public debate or policymaking process. This is the case for several reasons, including the fact that the U.S. student population is more disadvantaged than are their peers in other nations, and that different nations spend education money on different things (e.g., U.S. teacher receive health care and retirement benefits through their jobs, which, in other nations, are provided outside the education system). Baker and Weber also argue that collecting data that would allow an acceptably accurate empirical comparison of nations would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

This does not, however, mean that existing data and methods are useless. Quite the contrary, in fact. Baker and Weber show how responsible, cautious analysis can in fact yield useful policy conclusions. For example, they find that per pupil spending in the U.S., which many proclaim to be relatively high based on simple comparisons, is actually rather in line with the spending of other OECD nations with similar GDP. They also show that the discrepancy between U.S. teachers' wages and those of other workers with similar age and education is quite large compared to that gap in other nations, and that these lagging wages are not a result of class size, as classes in the U.S. are average or even large compared to those in other countries.

Overall, then, Baker and Weber put forth an accessible, evidence-based 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 read or download the full report below. Reporters with questions or inquiries can contact Professor Baker directly.

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