U.S. Schools: Low Achievement at High Cost

Published October 1, 1998

Compared to schools in more than twenty other economically advanced countries, schools in the United States are the least productive, according to a report from the Washington, DC-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

The report asks and addresses the question: How much educational value do schools add as children pass through them, and at what cost?

Based on an analysis of data published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the July 1998 report, Spending More While Learning Less, finds US schools consistently near the top in spending but last or nearly last in student achievement.

“The longer American students are in school, the further they fall behind students in other lands,” notes the report’s author, Herbert J. Walberg, who is research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chairman of The Heartland Institute. “Yet per-pupil expenditures on US schools are among the world’s highest,” he adds.

Among Walberg’s key findings:

  • US schools ranked last or second to last in five comparisons of students’ progress in reading, science, and mathematics through eighth grade;
  • US schools fell further behind those in other countries between eighth grade and the final year of secondary school;
  • US schools ranked last in mathematics attainment and second to last in science;
  • Per-pupil spending on US primary and secondary schools was third highest among more than 20 advanced countries;
  • The superior achievement of comparable countries is not the result of higher dropout rates or student selectivity. On average, fewer secondary school students in the United States remain in school than in comparable countries.

The reading progress of US students between the ages of 9 and 14 was only 78 percent of the international average, the lowest of all OECD countries. The mathematics gains made by US students between fourth and eighth grade was only 73 percent of the international average, also the lowest of all OECD countries. Yet with per-pupil spending of $6,680, US elementary schools spent 54 percent more than the $4,335 international average, the third highest of all countries.

Most reports comparing student achievement across countries have focused on the final level that students achieve at the end of secondary school. Walberg takes a different approach, comparing the gains in student achievement during their school years: the “value added” by schooling. Walberg’s approach thus avoids a problem that typically confounds comparative research: the fact that differing home environments and pre-school experiences mean children in various countries start school at differing levels of readiness.

Walberg’s analysis draws on data from the 1995, 1996, and 1997 editions of the annual report, Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators, as well as data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Noting that it was the 1995 edition of the OECD publication that pioneered the use of value-added indicators, Walberg points out that such measures are particularly important for policy analysis because they allow predictions of final achievement levels.

“Policies that do not add sufficient value may be revised,” explains Walberg, noting that the effect of primary and secondary schools may be separately evaluated by measuring the progress of students while they are enrolled at each level.

Walberg’s analysis clearly implies that, rather than spending even more money on education to improve student achievement–as many educators demand–the first priority of US schools should be to improve significantly the return on the substantial investment taxpayers already are making in education.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].