The U.S. experienced an explosion in K-12 costs over the same period that we suffered from higher health inflation, but while the health cost explosion was exacerbated by our aging demographics, the education cost explosion was hidden by them: K-12 enrollments fell through the 1970s and 80s as the baby-boom generation aged, but the reduction in enrollments was largely offset by fast growth in per-pupil spending. But the broad story is the same as in the health-care sector: fast growth in unit costs without corresponding improvement in quality.
When the subject is health care, liberals have drawn the right lessons from the last 40 years of cost growth, understanding that more money doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes. They should apply that same lesson to education: In a cost-bloated sector with poor quality improvement, we should be figuring out how to spend money better, instead of spending more of it.
The recent results of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test given to 15 – year-old students across the OECD, find that the United States was, once again, in the middle of the pack in reading and science and a bit below the international average in math.
These results are particularly stunning given how much more we spend than other countries. We spend more than many better achieving countries spend – the United States spends a third more than Finland, a country that consistently ranks near the top in science, reading and math testing.
With all this you could conclude that education spending should be cut, but I don’t. Education (or the lack of it) is clearly at the root of many problems. We should be willing to have world class spending on education, but how do we get world class results?
My feeling is that some way to encourage more competition and experimentation at the state and local level is key. This suggests that the Presidents new initiative for pre-schools may have potential, but I don’t think the federal government should spearhead this. James Heckman, a Noble prize winner, who provides research that supports the President’s program, notes how an attempt to create a program to utilize his research failed:
“Our esteemed Governor [Rod] Blagojevich came down to the University of Chicago and we lectured him [on our Perry research] and he got a program approved,” Heckman says. “But it had the low quality of a political program–everyone gets a little bit of something. But we knew from the data that it would have no effect, or even a negative effect. The danger is to spread yourself too thin.”
It’s hard not to think that the Obama plan will be the same on a national level.