Education Myths

Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Education Myths, writes on one of the most widely accepted education myths, school spending:

This is the most widely held myth about education in America–and the one most directly at odds with the available evidence. Few people are aware that our education spending per pupil has been growing steadily for 50 years. At the end of World War II, public schools in the United States spent a total of $1,214 per student in inflation-adjusted 2002 dollars. By the middle of the 1950s that figure had roughly doubled to $2,345. By 1972 it had almost doubled again, reaching $4,479. And since then, it has doubled a third time, climbing to $8,745 in 2002.

Since the early 1970s, when the federal government launched a standardized exam called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it has been possible to measure student outcomes in a reliable, objective way. Over that period, inflation-adjusted spending per pupil doubled. So if more money produces better results in schools, we would expect to see significant improvements in test scores during this period. That didn’t happen. For twelfth-grade students, who represent the end product of the education system, NAEP scores in math, science, and reading have all remained flat over the past 30 years. And the high school graduation rate hasn’t budged. Increased spending did not yield more learning.

This big-picture evidence is strongly confirmed by academic research. Though you’d never know it from the tenor of most education debates, the vast majority of studies have found no sustained positive relationship between spending and classroom results. Economist Eric Hanushek of Stanford University examined every solid study on spending and outcomes–a total of 163 research papers–and concluded that extra resources are more likely to be squandered than to have a productive effect.

The full article has more to say along with many other myths like teacher pay, the myth of insurmountable problems, class size, and the certification myth, among others, see here.

Link via Coyote Blog.

15 Responses to “Education Myths”


  • What makes this particular excerpt unconvincing is that no reason is given to explain why more spending should not result in better educated children. In other words, most people’s default opinion (and mine) is that our children will be taught better if we are willing to pay for better schools, teachers, equiptment, etc. This seems like a reasonable assumption. If its wrong, then I need someone to explain why its wrong.

    Now if the explanation is that schools and/or school administrators will waste most of the extra money we give them, then we won’t find that argument convincing – simply because we would take that to be an indication that school spending needs to be reformed, not that we need to spend less.

  • That is easy: government bureaucracy.

    Economist Arnold Kling writes, “As I pointed out long ago, one of the miracles of public education is that the school system charges more than $10,000 per student, puts 25 students in the classroom, and still pays teachers (far) less than $100,000 per year. The secret for doing this is to pad the school system (and the teacher’s union) with non-teaching staff”.

  • And so, if I understand your position correctly –

    You would agree that if the eduaction system could be corrected in such a way that less teaching staff (as a percentage) were employed, then more money would indeed improve education. Is that right?

    I just want to make sure I’m getting this right.

  • No – I would agree that it would help decrease costs and improve education somewhat.

    The main problem with education, as I said above, is the (monopoly that is) government bureaucracy.

  • You’ve lost me.

    Spending more on education neither increases, nor decreases government bureaucracy. That being the case, it seems reasonable to assume that increasing spending would improve education (since its bureaucracy-agnostic). Right?

  • If bureaucracy is the main problem throwing more money at it will not improve it – remember, you are not addressing the main problem (bureaucracy).

  • Larry, your assumption is bogus. Throwing money at schools grows the bureaucracies; after all, it gives them more to “manage”. But little of it gets to the teachers. Oddly, this is as much the fault of the teacher unions as anything: they insist that every teacher at a given seniority rank must be paid the same, regardless of subject.

    Therefore, there’s little incentive for math and science graduates to consider teaching if they’re going to be paid the same as an english lit major who got an ed school certification.

    I’m a fan of smashing the whole damn thing and voucherizing the system. Let schools sink or swim on their merits, and be shut down if they’re incompetently managed.

  • I’m going to try and make this simpler by removing public schools from the discussion ok? Let’s just talk about private schools for a second. No unions. No government.

    Now, my assumption is that there exists some level of bureaucracy and waste in every private school. And I also believe (generally) that if I am willing to pay for a more expensive private school, my child will get a better education. I assume we are in agreement so far. Right?

    Further, it is my belief that if the school has more money, the waste and bureaucracy will increase proportionally to the amount of increased funding. Are we still in agreement?

    So…

    Since bureaucracy and waste are proportionally constant, I see no reason why increased spending will not result in a better education (along with increased waste and bureaucracy). Right?

    OK, so if increased spending works for a private school, why should it not work for a public school?

    I need a better answer than I’ve heard so far.

  • HP,
    I haven’t suggested that we shouldn’t remove bureaucracy, mismanagement, etc. Of course we should. And it may indeed be problem #1, just as you suggest. But that’s a different subject.

    Foobarista,
    Yes, more money will mean more waste. That’s a given. But assuming 100% of the extra money is not wasted (a fair assumption), then it seems reasonable to conclude that the education of the students will improve to some degree. Right?

  • Perhaps an example will better illustrate:

    Springville Middle School gets $1 million dollars a year to spend on 1000 students. But they waste thirty percent of it through inefficiencies and bureaucracy. So each student gets $700 of “real” education during the year.

    Meanwhile, the citizens of Milton City have voted to allocate twice as much – two million dollars – to their Middle School, which also has 1000 students. Milton Middle School also wastes thirty percent of their funding. So each Milton student gets $1400 worth of education during the year – twice as much as Springville students!

    Conclusion: Yes, the waste is awful. But the most reasonable assumption is that the waste neither increases nor decreases proportionally as the funding varies. Which means that (all other factors being equal) increased funding will generally result in better education.

  • Ah, I see what you are saying now – even with a big bureaucracy there should be atleast some improvement, unless all of the money is wasted (something hard to believe).

    I think there are three factors involved here. One is that there is some correlation between more money for education and a better education. Though the overall improvement may be small, more funding can improve individual schools that have been historically underfunded.

    Second, the standardized tests may not measure all of the improvements. For example, if a school in the inner city decides to use some of that money for extracurricular activities, activities that may indeed help some kids stay out gangs and a life of crime, the standardized tests will not show that, though that money was certainly well spent.

    Third, and I think this is the biggest factor, there is a point of diminishing returns, where every extra dollar spent gives you less and less return. Take your analogy above as an example, at lower levels of extra funding you would expect a rise in education. But what happens when the funding is double that? Triple that? At each increase in funding you would expect less education improvement. There is a point where, given the same number of students, a school has reached nearly all it could given its level of bureaucracy. I think we have reached that with our education system.

    See here.

  • One would have to define “improvement”. Note that diminishing returns can and definitely do become negative; that is, more money actually degrades the quality of service if it isn’t spent wisely. This would happen if the bureaucracy gets so large and unwieldy that it gets in the way of teaching.

    Private schools are excellent examples: they rarely have any organization beyond the school campus level, except possibly some light organization for Catholic schools. Public schools have vast bureaucracies that aren’t even on the school campus – it is hard to see how these add to the quality of teaching.

    When I was a kid in the 1970s, my high school had as many office staff as teachers. My brother’s Catholic high school only had five non-teaching employees, and was about the same size. Also, my school had a vast district office, ironically filling a closed school campus that was converted into the district office.

  • Foobarista,
    I’m not buying it. It can’t possibly be true that more money only leads to more inefficiency. Some percentage of that extra money must be used wisely – even if its a small percentage.

    HP,
    I’m willing to accept your third point that it may be true that as an enterprise grows, the level of waste increases. From your first point, it sounds like you’re willing to agree that it would be impossible for the level of waste to ever reach 100% – and, therefore, some (perhaps limited) improvement in education is indeed gained with extra funding.

    It sounds like we’ve reached a true rarity in on-line political discussions – a consensus. Wow. 🙂

  • LaurenceB, you may want to read _The Mythical Man Month_ to see how bureaucratic bloat can cause productivity in organizations to turn negative, and sometimes fairly quickly.

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