2003 September 16 Tuesday
An International Education Spending Study Is Misleading

The US spends more per student for education.

Among more than 25 industrialized nations, no country spends more public and private money to educate each student than the United States, according to an annual review by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But American 15-year-olds scored in the middle of the pack in math, reading and science in 2000, and the nation's high-school graduation rate was below the world average in 2001.

Why is this misleading? Think about it. Salaries make up most of the costs of operating schools. The physical structure and the books and other materials do not cost as much as teachers, janitorial staff, administrators, and all the others who work in schools and in assorted higher level offices that manage the schools. Well, countries that have higher per capita incomes are going to have generally higher salaries. Therefore, to get the same level of talent it will cost more in a country that is wealthier per person. So this study managed to show that the US has a higher per capita income than assorted other countries. The countries that came closest to the US in per student schools spending (e.g. Switzerland and Germany) also are closer to the US in per capita income. The countries that spend around $3000 per student (e.g. Mexico and Poland) have much lower living standards.

What would be more useful would be to rank countries by a ratio of spending per student divided by per capita income. Such an analysis might turn up some insights.

What else is dumb about these international student spending rankings? Well, among the countries listed in the analysis were Denmark with a population of 5.3 million and Slovakia with 5.4 million. Together those two countries have less than a third the number of people in California (about 33 million give or take a few millon illegal aliens who, btw, mostly have less than high school educations). Given that the US does not have a single educational system why compare all the US with such small countries? Why not break out the US into various parts and compare them to assorted similar sized places elsewhere? Why not include comparisons of just how much the various states differ in average per pupil spending and how much the various states differ in educational performance? Are there US states that surpass Denmark, Norway, and Austria in the performance of their students? I'm guessing probably this is so. It would be interesting to know that and to know the suspected reasons why before trying to draw conclusions from international comparisons of per student spending.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 September 16 07:31 PM  Education

robert said at March 13, 2005 8:16 AM:

If we can't compare dollars spent per student, we are admitting that we pay too much for our education compared to other nations. It seems that our ranking on spending and the lack of results shows we do not get a good value, nor do Switzerland and Germany. Facts are facts, if we continue as we have been we will either be passed by developing countries our need to import their talent.

Vince said at May 24, 2005 2:08 PM:

Robert misses the point. We are indeed not admitting that we pay too much for our education compared to other nations. We merely compensate the personnel necessary to do so more fairly than in other nations.

jim said at October 1, 2005 11:16 PM:

Do you guys live in a cave?

Try doing some reading OUTSIDE this box.


Jason Throbs said at September 12, 2006 10:01 AM:

The point about America's relatively high spending is directyed towards those who:

1. compare American education results unfavorably with other countries

and then say

2. America's relatively poor stadning is due to a lack of money - or "spending" on education.

If you compare total educational expenditures (from national, state and local governments), America spends a lot more than most, but doesn't necessarily yield better resluts. That said, some of the claims about the relative success of other countriesare suspicious as well. Japan, for instance, has now and has always had plenty of poor performing schools. A kind of Spartan myth developed about Japanese education during its economic hey day in the 1980's, but one doesn't hear much about their system from policy wonks these days. In general, most developed countries produce a well educated elite, and the US is no exception to that rule. The money used "educating" the non-elite has significantly low returns, but it is spent in a spirit consistent with egalitarian traditions that are less pronounced in other countires.

Heywood Jablome said at September 12, 2006 10:05 AM:

I take issue with my thrubs characterization of Japanese education. Try spending centuries under communism before you diss their system dude! They've overcome a lot more than us any day.

Ed Dykes said at April 19, 2009 4:33 PM:

What??? Since when did the Japanese spend centuries under communism? Marx didn't develop communism until the latter part of the 19th century!! No nation was communist until Russia starting in 1918.

Michael Bloodworth said at August 9, 2009 11:47 AM:

I think Heywood is fooling around with us here, Ed, that name cannot possibly be real.

nit picker said at July 4, 2010 10:38 PM:

I really shouldn't be posting 4 years after the fact but this came up in a google search i made and i don't want anyone to be misled.

Mr. Throbs was wrong in his belief that the post was directed towards those who say "America's relatively poor stadning is due to a lack of money - or "spending" on education."

This is almost a 180 degree interpretation of what was actually intended. The article states that America spends more than any other country on education and yet achieves average results. With simply those ideas in mind one can draw the conclusion that America is behind for reasons other than money spent.

However, as the article points out that is not actually the case. The idea presented by Mr. Parker is to analyze the situation in terms of purchasing power parity rather than strictly in dollars spent. He believes that such a comparison would show that America really doesn't out spend other nations. With that thought in mind it suddenly becomes plausible that more funding is indeed a solution to the education conundrum worth considering.

So, instead of targeting those who believe more money needs to be spent, the author is targeting those who believe that enough money is already being spent.

The one conclusion i have drawn from these comments is that the education system needs to focus on critical reading and/or economics more heavily.

Randall Parker said at July 5, 2010 2:32 PM:

nit picker,

We can compare US states in terms of teacher salaries and spending per student. See how much differences in dollars spent make a difference. It is noteworthy on that score that California has terrible educational outcomes yet it has the highest teacher salaries.

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