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Middle of the pack
American education gains-but doesn't

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Date published: 10/2/2012

FROM a well-running car to a winning sports team, most good things in life require money. That's certainly true for quality education. Thus, to catch up with nations whose kids are outperforming U.S. students, American government--local, state, and federal--increased per-pupil spending 35 percent in constant dollars from 1990 to 2009. However.

Higher spending isn't a surefire guarantee of better results. If it were, the New York Yankees would win the World Series every year. Likewise K-12 education, for two reasons: (1) Money may be unwisely spent, enlarging an educational bureaucracy or paying weak teachers instead of recruiting and retaining fine ones; and (2) even conscientious spending may have a small impact when the education system itself needs a redesign.

A new study, summarized in the fall edition of the journal Education Now, adds credence to this observation. Looking at math, reading, and science test scores among fourth- and eighth-graders in 41 states and 49 countries between 1995 and 2009, the study's authors find that while U.S. students were making clear academic gains during the period, so were those in most of the other countries. After shaking out the data, they conclude, dismally, that the relative position of U.S. students in the international rankings remains unchanged.

"Compared to gains made by students in other countries, progress within the United States is middling, not stellar. While 24 countries trail the U.S. rate of improvement, another 24 countries appear to be improving at a faster rate. Nor is the U.S. progress sufficiently rapid to allow it to catch up with the leaders of the industrialized world"--so write Eric Hanushek of Stanford, Paul Peterson of Harvard, and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich.

If this were an Olympic race called the 15-Year Marathon, in other words, the U.S. would fail to qualify for the finals. It would be consigned to watching from the stands as Hong Kong, Germany, Brazil, and several other nations strode for the gold.


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