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US education compared to other countries
The United Kingdom increased education spending 32 percent from 2008 to 2014, according to the OECD. Photo of children at a primary school in London: © Dave Thompson/PA Wire via ZUMA Press

The world’s developed nations are placing a big bet on education investments, wagering that highly educated populaces will be needed to fill tomorrow’s jobs, drive healthy economies and generate enough tax receipts to support government services.

Bucking that trend is the United States.

U.S. spending on elementary and high school education declined 3 percent from 2010 to 2014 even as its economy prospered and its student population grew slightly by 1 percent, boiling down to a 4 percent decrease in spending per student. That’s according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report of education indicators, released last week.

Over this same 2010 to 2014 period, education spending, on average, rose 5 percent per student across the 35 countries in the OECD. In some countries it rose at a much higher rate. For example, between 2008 and 2014, education spending rose 76 percent in Turkey, 36 percent in Israel, 32 percent in the United Kingdom and 27 percent in Portugal. For some countries, it’s been a difficult financial sacrifice as their economies stalled after the 2008 financial crisis. To boost education budgets, other areas were slashed. Meanwhile, U.S. local, state and federal governments chose to cut funding for the schoolhouse.

“Overall (U.S.) education spending has been cut quite severely in the last few years,”said Andreas Schleicher, who heads the OECD directorate that issued the report.  “That clearly puts constraints on the environment you have for learning.”

How lower spending constrains learning is subtle. Schleicher has pointed out for years that there isn’t a clear relationship between money spent and student outcomes. Some countries that spend far less than the United States on education consistently outshine this country on international tests.

And even with the decline in spending, the United States still spends more per student than most countries. The United States spent $11,319 per elementary school student in 2014, compared with the OECD average of $8,733, and $12,995 educating each high school student, compared with an average of $10,106 per student across the OECD.

The way that high-performing countries achieve more with less money is by spending it differently than the United States does. For example, larger class sizes are common in Asia, with more resources instead spent on improving teaching quality. During the period of U.S. budget cuts to education, there weren’t major changes to how the money was allocated.

“If you simply cut spending with your existing spending choices, you will end with less for less,” said Schleicher, citing school districts in Oklahoma that cut the number of school days to four from five each week.

One big way that the U.S. education system differs from others is in asking teachers to carry a heavy teaching load. U.S. teachers teach close to 1,000 hours a year, compared with 600 hours in Japan and 550 hours in Korea. In these countries, teachers might specialize in one course, such as Algebra I, and teach it only a few periods a day. The rest of their work week is spent on other activities, such as preparing lessons or giving feedback to students.

“In the U.S., teachers have less time for professional development, teacher collaboration, lesson preparation, working with students individually,” said Schleicher. “In other countries, teachers have a lot of time to watch each other’s lessons, design lessons and evaluate lessons.”

By contrast, the U.S. system spends a lot of resources on keeping class sizes relatively small, and hiring more teachers for them.

The OECD’s data echoes what the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington D.C. has been tracking. It found that education spending for elementary and high school students had fallen for several years in a row from 2009 to 2013, due to a combination of federal, state and local budget cuts. Spending rose a smidgen during the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, but, after adjusting for inflation, it is still well below the 2009 peak.

Last week’s U.S. Census report showed that middle class incomes are rising. One could argue that the economy is flourishing just fine with less spending on schools. But education is an 18-year, long-term investment, from preK through college. It could be that we won’t see our economic prospects smashed from this divestment for many years down the road.

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Letters to the Editor

7 Letters

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  1. Another way that the US differs from every other country I’ve heard of is that we believe every single person has a right to the highest level of education that person can achieve. We don’t test out students when they are 14, 15, 16 and set some of them on a vocational track that will never allow them to access a college education. We try to educate all of our students with disabilities to the highest level they would like to achieve.
    I get very tired of being compared to “China” on the PISA and other international tests. There is no “China”; only Singapore and Hong Kong are listed. Only 3 universities in China will admit blind students (Economist 7/13/13). How many other countries assume blind students won’t make it to college?

  2. Seems to me, a good amount of U.S. education dollars are spent on social emotional programs in order to access the students need of coping skills and other behavioral issues. I don’t know if other more successful countries do the same. (I’ve never heard a “tiger mom” whine about hurt feelings or unfair treatment.?)

    Advancing technology including distance learning will essentially force out the old school teacher. A new age Master teacher, student observation and related interventions will replace the more costly yet union backed old school teacher.

    Other countries seem aware that education is a priority above all other expenses, and for the greater economic benefit for all. Moreover, that education is a life long learning experience, not limited to 18 years of age.

    Brick and mortar school buildings are expensive to build and maintain. Thus, soon will reach the extent of purpose. At best, such buildings could be used for community health centers, after school programs, family meals and other social services. (i.e. a safe place to cuddle when over stressed.)

    There is so much to say but in a nut-shell: Education spending is not about how much, but rather how, where and who’s doing the spending. The education private/public partnerships are at the wheel.

  3. This is a good point. I’m disappointed to see, however, no mention of the main way in which education spending in the United States differs from many other nations: school budgets include all employee health care. In most other countries with which we’re compared, that is a cost that is carried by the government. It is impossible to have a true comparison of spending without removing that cost from US budgets.

  4. The US is invested in keeping class size small? That’s rich. I’ve been teaching English at a Los Angeles public high school for 22 years. Currently, my senior composition class has 40 students. I know other teachers with 45. And we see these numbers year after year.

  5. The incumbent, flawed 20th Century, Factory Based, one size fits all teaching paradigm, is what the US educators value the most, because it works for them, even when they know that it doesn’t work for their students. Until this cancer is eliminated and replaced with research based, best practices, 21st century, differentiated learning, methodology, we will continue to miss the forest from the trees. As a direct result we will maintain mediocrity in student success, the education gap and those results of the education gap (unemployment, underemployment, crime, substance abuse, poverty, incarceration). When you habitually focus on all the wrong things, you never fix the core problem

  6. Great article! As others have mentioned, the reality is that the US spends far less on education compared to other countries. The figures we have also include benefits, of which the US has the most expensive in the world – and gets the least use of, go figure. If you factor these costs into the equation, the US spends far less on education that most countries. By that measure we are doing decent, actually. However, we could do WAY better if we wanted to.

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