Opinion: Daily Journal

Is U.S. Education Worth $675 Billion?

The National Education Association recently released “Rankings of the States 2015 and Estimates of School Statistics 2016.” “Rankings and Estimates” is a useful publication for its per pupil expenditure and teacher pay rankings. For example, North Carolina is ranked 41st in teacher pay this year, an improvement of one spot since last year and six spots since 2014.

But take a step back from North Carolina and consider the massive size and scope of the nation’s public education enterprise and the relatively disappointing academic results it produces.

NEA researchers estimate that the United States will spend just under $675 billon on public education this school year. To put that figure in perspective, public school spending alone is roughly equal to the gross domestic product of Switzerland, the 20th-largest economy in the world.

Of course, the United States educates nearly 50 million children, which is around six times the total population of Switzerland, so one would expect that taxpayers would need to make a significantly larger investment in public schools. Yet, the national average expenditure in the United States is around $12,000 per student, which, coincidentally, joins Switzerland as the fourth-highest in the world.

Even the Swiss would agree that that is some serious cheddar. Unfortunately, it does not mean that the United States is the academic big cheese.

In “Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-20 Countries: 2015,” the National Center for Education Statistics compared education input and output measures in the United States with those in Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and other Group of 20 countries. The report is the most current summary of the performance of students on major international assessments.

In fourth-grade reading, students in the United States fared well. Seventeen percent of students reached an advanced level on international tests, eclipsing Canada, Germany, and several others. Mathematics performance is a different story. While 13 percent of U.S. fourth-grade students reached the advanced level, 39 percent of South Korean students and 30 percent of Japanese students hit that mark. Science performance among fourth-graders in the United States was competitive with Japan and Russia, but no nation outperformed academic powerhouse South Korea.

By eighth grade, Pacific Rim nations begin pulling away from the pack. Nearly half of eighth-grade students in South Korea and 27 percent of Japanese eighth-graders scored at the advanced level in math. That compared to only 7 percent in the United States. In science, the gap between the United States and other G-20 nations was not as large. Even so, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and England all had higher percentages of eighth-grade students who scored in the upper achievement tiers on international science assessments.

Proficiency levels in reading, mathematics, and science literacy among 15-year-old students suggests that the academic deceleration that begins in middle school continues into high school. Indeed, reading performance in the United States lags significantly behind Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Although 9 percent of U.S. high schoolers scored at the top two achievement levels on international math assessments, 24 percent of Japanese and 31 percent of South Korean 15-year-olds attained top scores. Australian, German, and Canadian students were not far behind.

Over the next year, international testing programs will release updated results from math, science, and reading assessments. Those reports will provide insight into whether the near-universal adoption of the Common Core State Standards in reading and math has improved the nation’s international competitiveness. Yet, even if the United States closes the performance gap with top-performing nations, we will have done so at a great and largely unsustainable cost.

Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.