Friday, April 8, 2011

What's really wrong with education in America

Whenever the economy turns sour and the government goes looking for things to cut, education in America is always a top target.  Many Americans think that we spend more money on education than the rest of the world, and get poorer results.  Therefore, the conventional thinking is that we should cut the spending and “fix” the schools to improve performance.  The truth is that education in America does cost more and generally gets the same or poorer results.  But teacher's salaries are not the problem, America already pays its teachers far less than other Western countries.  Here is the data on what’s really going on.


First up is spending.  In the most recent year that data is available (2007), spending on primary/secondary education in America was 3.8% of GDP.  For comparison, the UK spent 3.3% and Australia spent 3.0%.  So America is indeed spending more, 15% more than the UK and 27% more than Australia.  However, 14% of America’s population is enrolled in public primary/secondary education, while 13% of the UK’s and 15% of Australia’s population is enrolled.  So, after taking that into account, spending on education in America is actually only 8% more than the UK but 35% more than Australia per student. (Source: UNESCO Institute of Statistics)

What are we getting in results for our spending on education in America?  The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15-years olds on common skills such as reading, math, and science.  American students had an average score of 500 in reading, 487 in math, and 502 in science, while the UK scored 494, 492, and 514 and Australia scored 515, 514, and 527 respectively.  Taking all subjects together, American students performed essentially the same as the UK, and 4.3% worse than Australia.


Compiled from multiple sources

Teachers salaries are the number one issue whenever people talk about education in America right now, as many people associate America’s large education budget on extravagant teacher's salaries.  Contrary to media reports from Wisconsin, teachers salaries are not the reason America spends so much on education compared to the rest of the world.  Teacher salaries in America start at $23K to $37K (depending on state/location) and average out at $32K to $55K.  Compare that with the UK, which starts teachers out at $31K to $38K (after converting British pounds to American dollars using today’s exchange rate), and average out at $50K to $60K.  Australia is similar to America in that is has different pay ranges in each territory.  In Victoria (Australia), teachers start out at $51K and average out around $61K (note that Australian dollars are very close to American dollars at today's exchange rate).  In summary, America pays its teachers 13% less than the UK to start, and 21% less on average. Compared to Australia, America pays its teachers 41% less to start and 29% less on average.

Performance and spending on education in America is roughly on par with the UK, but with lower teacher salaries.  America over-spends and under-performs significantly when compared to Australia while vastly under-paying its teachers.

Education in America costs too much money for the results it is achieving.  However, teacher salaries are clearly not the problem.  If anything, teacher salaries in America should be increased.  Where then is all the money going?  What are other countries, specifically Australia, doing to more efficient in their educational expenses?  Unfortunately, the system of education in America as well as Australia and other countries is not a unified federal program.  Every state (or territory) manages its own educational system, with only general guidance from the federal government.  Additionally, large numbers of private schools also serve to skew the data on students in the public schools.  Many Americans see this as a good thing, generally preferring state level control over federal control.  However, it makes data gathering, analysis, and recommendations for improvement very difficult, as every state in America has different results due to different factors.  The same is true for what works well in Australia.  Every territory has different policies contributing to different results for different reasons.

So there is no easy answer on how to fix education in America.  Distributed state-level programs make the problem that much harder to understand and solve.  One thing is clear however, and that is teachers salaries do not need to be cut to solve our spending problems.

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