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American Education's Diminishing Returns

By Bill Costello - September 16, 2010 6:00 AM

Seal of the United States Department of Education

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American spending on public education, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled over the last three decades. What did taxpayers get for their money? The average math and reading scores of American 17-year-olds have not improved since the early 1970s according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend assessment.

Twice the money. Zero progress.

Yet students in other countries have been improving their test scores. The Program for International Student Assessment 2006 measured the math and science literacy of 15-year-olds in 29 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The results? American students placed in the bottom quarter in math and in the bottom third in science.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "We are lagging the rest of the world, and we are lagging it in pretty substantial ways."

The current public education system is not preparing Americans to succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy. In the U.S., this will lead to growing unemployment rates, a decline in Gross Domestic Product, unsustainable levels of national debt, and reduced military capability.

U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the single biggest threat to national security is the national debt. The estimated $600 billion in interest on the national debt in 2012 that American taxpayers will have to pay is "one year's worth of defense budget," Mullin said. He predicted that the defense budget will eventually be cut to facilitate the "wave of debt."

In addition to endangering the U.S.'s economic and national security, low educational attainment also imposes societal and personal costs. Societal costs include higher unemployment, higher crime, lower income tax revenues, and higher social welfare payments. Personal costs include lower lifetime earnings and life expectancy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, estimated lifetime earnings are about $1.2 million for high school graduates and $2.1 million for college graduates. Also, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that life expectancy increases when educational attainment increases.

Those who argue that the solution is more money for public schools have had three decades to test their theory. Increased spending has not led to improvement. American test scores have remained flat since the early 1970s even though per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, went from $4,489 in 1970-1971 to $10,041 in 2006-2007--an increase of 124 percent.

American per-pupil spending in 2006 was 41 percent higher than the OECD average of $7,283, and yet American students still placed in the bottom quarter in math and in the bottom third in science among OECD countries.

Clearly, increasing spending further is unlikely to improve test scores. "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" is how Einstein defined "insanity." So now that we know what doesn't work, what should we do?

Television reporter John Stossel argued in his ABC News special report "Stupid in America: How We Cheat Our Kids" that the U.S. public education system is a government monopoly, and monopolies usually fail their customers. Stossel concluded that competition and choice can improve education just as it improves everything else.

Without the pressure to compete, monopolies have little incentive to serve customers better. When the U.S. Postal Service was a monopoly, it couldn't deliver packages overnight. But when it had to compete with FedEx and others, then suddenly it could deliver overnight. Competition spurs competitors to innovate and perform better.

Because attempts to achieve substantial reform within the current U.S. public education system have failed for decades, it's time to end the monopoly and develop alternative, competitive systems that give parents the freedom to choose the schools their kids attend regardless of where they live and how much money they make.

School choice empowers parents to remove their kids from failing schools and place them in successful schools. And it gradually forces public schools to improve or risk losing students to better schools.

Embracing policies that give families the freedom to choose the schools their kids attend would not require more money from taxpayers. Instead, it would require the improvement of resource allocation. For example, resources could be more effectively allocated by allowing parents to use their kids' share of public education funding to choose the best schools for their kids.

There is, of course, strong resistance to school choice from the defenders of the status quo in education whose livelihoods are threatened by alternatives that focus on the best interest of kids instead of adults. The preservation of self-interests is to be expected, but how is it affecting the nation?

America has barely been treading water in terms of domestic and international test scores for three decades despite the fact that spending on public education, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled.

Where will we be three decades from now?

This article was first published in The American Thinker.

Bill Costello, M.Ed., is the president of U.S.-based Making Minds Matter, LLC and the author of "Awaken Your Birdbrain: Using Creativity to Get What You Want." He can be reached at



Competition brings out the best as the author has rightly acknowledge. Now given a private investor to make an investment in education, does it makes a sound investment decision to invest in a less competitive institution?

Private investments can be better targeted to countries where better scores are emerging. No investments can counter a yearn to excell which is simply lacking in US.

There are a significant percentage of US students who "yearn to excel". Put them together in classrooms with teachers who want them to excel and have the skills to help them and great things can happen.

However, mix them in classrooms with the unmotivated with a broad range of skills, with teachers who are there for the paycheck, and mediocre things happen, unless parents are willing and able to supplement their learning at home and keep them challenged.

Classrooms with students spanning the entire normal distribution curve, combined with teaching to the lowest common denominator, produces predictable results. Throwing money at the problem will not solve it.

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