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World and I


Dollars in the Classroom

June 01, 2004

By Greg Forster, Jay P. Greene

Politicians and the media have long had a misplaced obsession with levels of school spending. The truth is that America’s schools aren’t the desperately underfunded financial basket cases they’re always portrayed as being. What’s more, the evidence indicates that the system’s major problems can’t be solved with more resources.

Education spending per pupil has been climbing steeply for 60 years. In 1945--46, public primary and secondary schools spent $1,214 per pupil in inflation-adjusted 2001 dollars. Ten years later, that figure had roughly doubled to $2,345. It roughly doubled again in another 16 years, reaching $4,479 in 1971--72. And 30 years later, it had doubled a third time, climbing to $8,745 in 2001--02.

It’s difficult for us to know what the exact effects of this increase in spending were before the 1970s because there were no standardized tests given to truly representative samples of students at that time. This leaves us with no reliable way to gauge how the performance of the school system responded as new dollars came flowing in. College entrance exams were given, of course, but they are taken only by the very brightest students, so they don’t give us an accurate picture of the whole system.

Starting in the 1970s, we can measure the effectiveness of increased school spending because that’s when the federal government began administering the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a basic skills test given to a nationally representative sample of students. Sometimes called the “Nation’s Report Card,” it’s a highly reliable measurement of student performance.

The results of these exams are startling. During a period when per-pupil education spending doubled from $4,479 to $8,745, student performance has been flat. Twelfth-grade test scores, which represent the final results of the K-12 education system, haven’t budged. The average reading score was 285 in 1971 and 288 in 1999 (the latest year from which comparison-compatible scores are available); the average math score was 304 in 1973 and 308 in 1999; and the average science score was 290 in 1977 and 295 in 1999. On a scale of 500 points, these are trivial differences.

High school graduation rates, the other major indicator of the school system’s final outcomes, are also flat. In 1971--72, high school graduates made up 76 percent of the 17-year-old population (the age-group that is the field’s standard of comparison), while in 1999--2000 they made up 70 percent. Early estimates for 2000--01 and 2001--02 indicate that the rate may have gone back up to 72 percent. That leaves it essentially unchanged from the level it had been at 30 years earlier.

How can it be possible that we are spending twice as much money (in constant dollars) on our students and seeing no change in their performance? Where is all the money going, and why isn’t it producing improvement?

One place the money is going is to costly additional services that schools now provide. Schools have health, nutrition, and safety programs, dropout retention efforts, and a host of other projects that simply weren’t offered, or weren’t offered on nearly the same scale, in 1971. Today, schools offer students not only subsidized lunch but subsidized breakfast. The latest addition in the past five years has been an explosion of antibullying initiatives. Programs to teach English to immigrant children have also expanded significantly since 1971.

These new or expanded programs were originally implemented largely on the strength of arguments that they would improve student learning. How can students learn, the reasoning went, if they are hungry, sick, in danger, tempted to drop out, or unable to speak English?

But over time, these programs have come to be seen more as ends in themselves than as educational support services. Serving breakfast and running health clinics are viewed in much the same way as heating and plumbing--just part of the overhead. So even though these programs have failed to raise student achievement, they are in no danger of being reformed.

Another major source of additional spending that hasn’t improved student learning has been the growth of school bureaucracy. Schools now hire substantially more administrative staff members per student than they did in 1971. As with supplemental services, the expansion of administrative staff is widely accepted as an overhead expense. There is no general expectation that spending more on school administration will lead to better-administered (and therefore better-performing) schools; this lack of expectations is confirmed by flat test scores.

Finally, another major source of additional spending that hasn’t improved student learning has been the hiring of many more teachers to do much less work. The number of students for every teacher in public schools has shrunk from 22.3 in 1971 to 15.9 in 2001. That’s about a 40 percent increase in the number of teachers relative to the student population. But the average number of students taught per day by each secondary public school teacher dropped from 134 in 1971 to 97 in 1996. That’s a 28 percent decrease in each teacher’s classroom burden. These lower work levels have not been reflected in teachers’ annual salaries, which have grown at about the rate of inflation in that time. So schools are now getting the same total output from a much larger number of workers who each work less but make the same income as before.

When it comes to schools, there’s no subject where popular perceptions diverge from reality as decisively as they do for the effects of spending. Most people are inclined to believe the National Education Association’s claim that “our students are hurting from budget deficits and cutbacks every day.” But the reality is that, far from having been cut back, education spending has gone dramatically upward while school performance has been--if such a thing is possible--dramatically flat.

Original Source:



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