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Middle of the pack

October 2, 2012 12:10 am



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.

What about the role of spending in forging competitiveness? To try to answer that, the authors looked at educational funding hikes in the 41 states between 1990 and 2009 and found only a weak link. For example, Maryland, the fastest-gaining state, spent much more money per pupil than most states; Florida, the "silver medalist," much less; and Delaware, the third-fastest gainer, about the average amount. (Virginia was No. 10 in test-score gains for the 20-year period even though its per-pupil spending was a tad below average.)


If government funding isn't the silver bullet to accelerate academic achievement, what is? That particular ordnance is probably nonexistent. But Messrs. Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann make this commonsensical suggestion: Study and emulate the nation's top-performing states as much as possible.

"If all U.S. states," they write, "could increase their performance at the same rate as the highest-growth states--Maryland, Florida, Delaware, and Massachusetts--the U.S. improvement rate would be lifted by 1.5 percentage points annually above the current trend line." Over 20 years, such gains would put America near the head of the pack.

While political and civic leaders in the states struggle to improve academic outcomes, parents, grandparents, and guardians of schoolchildren must also do their level best to augment formal learning, standing firm against the seductions of peers and popular culture. It is meaningful, surely, that scholastic performance tends to fall off among older children as these influences gain precedence in their lives.

But the fight--by politicians, business leaders, parents, and others--is worth blood, sweat, and tears. Only a third of U.S. students graduate from high school ready for college or a sustainable career. And the social centrifuge separating the well-skilled and affluent from the poorly skilled and ill-paid is spinning ever faster.

But this isn't just a matter of individual unblossomed lives. Professor Hanushek and his colleagues begin the Education Next article with a warning from a Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored task force co-chaired by former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "[The U.S.] will not be able to keep pace--much less lead--globally unless it moves to fix the problems it has allowed to fester for too long."


Further evidence that Virginia is doing more things right in pubic education than most states: While SAT scores dropped this year nationally in all three academic subsections, Virginia test-takers posted a 3-point gain in math, tied last year's score in writing, and dropped 1 point in critical reading.

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