Not much to show for the money

Money doesn’t buy better schools, argues Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. John Kerry is proposing spending an extra $200 billion on education over 10 years. George W. Bush brags about enacting a 49 percent increase in K-12 spending and a 75 percent increase in special-education funding. “Between 2001 and 2004 federal education appropriations nearly doubled, from $29.4 billion to $55.7 billion,” Hess writes.

Conservatives have permitted the debate to proceed on the dubious assumption that Americans are shortchanging our schools and that promising new dollars is de rigeur for those who would promote serious school reform. The current debate has obscured the fact that, by any reasonable standard, American schools are exceptionally well funded.

The truth is that, between 1960 and 2000, after-inflation education spending more than tripled.

There hasn’t been much pay-off. The U.S. spends more per student than other developed countries, yet U.S. students are just average on international comparisons.

U.S. schools have hired many more non-teachers with the extra money. They’ve also hired more teachers to decrease class sizes and reduce teacher workloads.

For decades, we have poured money into shrinking class sizes and reducing teacher workloads. Between 1960 and 2000, the ratio of teachers to students fell from one teacher for every 26 students to one for every 16.1 students, meaning that today’s teachers instruct only about 60 percent as many students as teachers did 40 years ago. Meanwhile, the amount of time teachers spend with students each day has actually shrunk, from an average of 4.5 hours in 1980 to 3.9 hours in 1998.

. . . Additional personnel have soaked up dollars that could have rewarded accomplished practitioners, been invested in technology, or used for effective professional development.

“New spending inevitably yields new initiatives tossed atop old inefficiencies,” Hess writes.

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  1. Steve in Broomfield says:

    Is the NEA really so powerful that we cannot enact change in the face of overwhelming evidence that our current system needs revision? Is it simply that public education is a government institution, and thus doomed to be inefficient? To the teachers defense, it is very difficult to teach kids when their parents have abdicated all responsibility for their education.

    Does anyone have a suggestion for a good “1st step” to reform?

  2. superdestroyer says:

    One issue I have seen pointed out here and point out to others. All the school district that complain about not having enough funds have minority contractor set aside program. The City of Balitmore Schools (the worst system in the State of Maryland) have a program where they pay well above market rates for light bulbs and other supplies just because the seller has the correct color of skin.

    As long as school systems see themselves as social engineers instead of academic educator, nothing can be done to fix them.

  3. Tim from Texas says:

    The approach must be tight fisted. We spend too much on education. We are floored way too many times by false-remedy/apprroaches-sucker-punches.
    How do we get sucker punched? Well, simple, we’re not paying due attention. We are also sucked into biting on the old sales spiel of: “We must have this for the children, why it the latest and best thing. Don’t you think your dhildren would benefit from this. Don’t you want the best for your children.” This is the absolute absurdity we allow to continue. My answer to this spiel is this. Prove beyond no uncertain terms it’s the best, then we’ll talk about price.

    As to those institutions, any institution for that matter, well, they are made by us, therfore, they can be changed and or brought down by us. They were not made by God, or if you prefer, not made by nature. The waves of the ocean can’t be pushed back, but institutions certainly can.

    To continue with a list of absurd situations and things we have fallen for was my intention here, but my night business is calling, just when I thought I had time for this.

  4. John from OK says:

    We can start by letting people know the nationwide average per pupil spending is about $10,000. Most people do not know this.

  5. Tim from Texas says:

    1. Class size: There is proof that a class size of 15 or less would be the best. Let’s face it. We aren’t willing to pay for that. Now, it has been argued, and proven,it is said, that problems have a tendency to mount when the class size reaches the upper 40s in size. But I have never been able to find any proof much less credible proof that a class of 20 is better in any respects than a class of 40. Quite the contrary, there is good argument for classes the size of 40. For one thing a class of 40 is a better sample for grading reasons. The way students work and classroom tests are graded has alot to do with the clinging to the small class size. The manner and amount the students are graded is absurd and counter productive. Ah, but that’s another story. Also for this reason, the better sampling, in many respects they become easier to manage.

    Since anywhere from 68 to 85 percent of districts outlay goes to teacher salaries, less teachers save money. I don’t believe teachers are paid too much. I want to say that for sure. There are just too many. If larger classes were to come about it would free up money to attract the best-seasoned-master-teachers and provide monies for more entense training and evaluation for those who are kept after the class size adjustment.

  6. Bitching about the failures of American schooling goes back at least to the 1930s. Somehow, despite failed and failing schools for over 70 years, the United States has developed knowledge, technology,and an economic engine unparalleled in the world.

    It’s a truism of education critics that no matter the accomplishments of the schools the bar is raised and then the the new “failings” become the focus.

    This “money doesn’t make a difference” argument is especially disingenuous. Of course, doubling a superintendent’s salary will not improve student learning. But I don’t see much conservative interest in what really helps kids learn (primarily well-trained, engaged teachers with on-going support for continuous improvement). The only question a school should answer is the one framed so eloquently by the incumbent president: “Is they learning?”

    Rather the major conservative moves have been those like Proposition 13 in California which made the state legislature the main school board, something they are unqualified to do, and these recent efforts Hess cites to develop federal control over local schools in the name of “accountability.” Forget about testing all the kids all the time. Take half the money in NCLB to provide regular, on-going staff development for all the teachers in a school. Then pay teachers according to the way our rhetoric says we value them.

    I’ve been teaching in a public community college for 40 years. In 1965, I earned $7800 for the year. Now, my yearly salary is $82,000. I have students who earn that much in industry after 5 years. Elementary teachers are still paid at levels that assume it’s a nice second job for a married woman whose husband earns the real money. Americans understand very clearly that if they want quality in a car, they will pay for it. Somehow, we don’t think that applies to schools.

  7. Tim from Texas,

    Are you reading the same article I am? You post that the best class size is 15. The article is that the average class size is now 16. Seems to be pretty close to my way of reasoning.

    The NEA here in my city (New York) has gotten itself into the position where only 35% of the budget and 35% of the employees are teachers. Most of the rest are highly paid executives. How is that helping the schools? There is something wrong with the picture when more employees are executives than actual teachers. If we actually looked at where the money is going and did something about reallocating it, then we could maybe pay the teachers a good wage and still cover the class size at close to the ideal of 15.

    Too many of the executives are the best of the teachers we did have. Why not do something about getting them back where we really need them?

    Too many of the teachers know all about how to teach but know very little of what to teach. I would rather have a teacher who was a little less skillful and who really knew the subject matter. Something really needs to be done to get a better balance in this area. There are a lot of people who might be interested in teaching and who are extremely knowledgeable in their subject area. They do not have all the educational credits but they may actually have a really good feeling for how to get the subject across. After all in industry a lot of the time is spent on teaching others how to do something. Plug in that experience and take advantage of resources we are currently losing.

  8. I would rather have a teacher who was a little less skillful and who really knew the subject matter.

    I would argue that to be a skilled teacher, one MUST know the subject matter inside and out. Knowing general pedagogy is all well and good, and qualifies one to be a substitute teacher. However, to be a good teacher, one has to have command of the subject(s) he teaches.

    *A good teacher will be able to answer most questions asked without having to look it up in the textbook.

    *A good teacher can use his command of the subject to go beyond the textbook, which is a must for a quality education. Along with that, a good teacher will know enough about his subject to know when the textbook is wrong.

    *A good teacher will know the subject matter well enough to know which topics should be presented in what order, and why. Along with that, a good teacher will know what key knowledge and skills must be mastered by students before moving ahead.

    *A good teacher will know enough about the subject matter to formulate effective exams which demonstrate student achievement and readiness for advancement.

    These are just a few way of the myriad ways in which skilled teaching is based upon subject knowledge. I hope you can see that the two are not opposites, rather that they go hand in hand to create an effective teacher.

  9. Mike in Texas says:

    Dick wrote:

    The article is that the average class size is now 16.

    Average class size is one of those misleading statistics that can be easily manipulated. If you want the ratio to be lower you just count all of your librarians, special ed teachers, PE teachers, principals, supts. etc until you get the number you desire.

    If you want to really know what the ratio is, walk around a school and count the number of students per classroom. That is where the number needs to be 15 to 1.

  10. Bluemount says:

    Adrian, I agree, are you a teacher? A person who has personal command is demostrating the value of correct discipline. Teaching children to unlearn bad teaching is worse than ignorance. Especially when children are experiencing reduced adult interaction. If you don’t teach a child to master a subject correctly, it is not possible for a child to develope a passionate academic ideal.
    We have also lost a creative arena for self-expression that grows due to the restless human spirit. Prior to the day’s of radio, musicians learned by jam sessions, cultural and family heritage. Even some well educated musicians were inspired by the creative irregularities of non-institutional training. Likewise some of our greatest inventors were not formally schooled, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t trained.
    Institutions have a value in producing a controlled, disciplined environment. If they fail to do they are of no value at all. I believe our greatest mistake is believing an institution produces more than that. On the contrary, highly controlled, uncreative environments become impersonal and easily subject to corruption (regardless of the purpose of the institution). Making education into an institution that controls parents and sucks up family resource, robs children of the smallest classroom in the world (their family).
    There needs to be creative arena’s for children and families. A place for children to feel central to existance, infinitely important and desparately loved. When this need clashes with society, institutions become a vessel of rage and cage. Yes the discipline is essential to existance, but an institution must be our servant.
    The waves of the ocean can’t be pushed back, but institutions certainly can.

  11. Tim from Texas says:

    True class size at the schools I’ve visited, and I have visited many around the country, of course not all, is ranging from 22 to 28. Now, if the class size we’re 16 or less the evidence of it would be unmistakeably easy to recognize.

    Now to the amount of administrators from counselors all the way up to superintendents, yes, there are far too many, not to to mention bogus positions created for those administrators who have been demoted up and sideways because they were doing such a bad job that it could’nt be hidden, or they we’re buddies of the system.

    This is another way we have been sucker punched because we were not looking. Now,for another way to make the point here is this. There are more school administrators in the state of New York than in Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Niederland, Norway, Sweden, Poland, and Austria combined.

  12. “Bitching about the failures of American schooling goes back at least to the 1930s. Somehow, despite failed and failing schools for over 70 years, the United States has developed knowledge, technology,and an economic engine unparalleled in the world.”

    We’ve been attracting quality people for centuries and giving them an environment where they’re rewarded handsomely for production, success, and useful innovation; they generally succeed in spite of the school system.

    If that weren’t so, a high school diploma would be worth more in the marketplace, and people wouldn’t have to live off their parents until their early to mid 20’s while they get their real education.

    “It’s a truism of education critics that no matter the accomplishments of the schools the bar is raised and then the the new “failings” become the focus.”

    What bar is raised? The market value of the diploma has been trending steadily downward for years.

    “The only question a school should answer is the one framed so eloquently by the incumbent president: “Is they learning?” ”

    And yet somehow “testing kids all the time” is not the way to discover the answer to that question? What do you suggest instead? Telepathy? And paying teachers more is a good idea (although school districts keep passing bonds and raising taxes, and somehow the teachers never get paid what they should be getting paid, and all that money winds up…. somewhere else.), but you also need a way to selectively reward good teachers and get rid of bad teachers. That’s how other industries get quality work from their staff.

  13. Two points.

    1) All the talk about class size is generally disingenuous- it is similar to saying that the way to cure disease is surgery as opposed to medicine- the fact is, in some situations class size is important, in other cases it is is not. I went all the way through public schools in classes sized at least 35 students, and everyone learned. Why? Parents cared, and teachers were able to discipline and control the classes as needed. Today, things are a bit more challenging for a variety of sociological and political reasons. Some ages of students and types of courses should have ratios of 1:1, 10:1, others can be 200:1 for lectures as long as there are the right support elements available (yes, that means non-teacher “security” assistants, retired professionals as part-time coaches, etc.) There is no reason whatever why high schools should not teach classes with objective criteria more as colleges do, with helping & support labs accessible for those who need a little bit of extra assistance and explanation. All of this says that we need to get out of the cookie-cutter mindset and focus on outcomes, not input. Inane arguments about on-size-fits-all inputs like teacher-student ratios as a single number for K-12 are a waste of time.

    2) There is one way in which the talk about spending more on education is relevant. The overriding need of our entire system is competition. That can only occur if the money follows the student, as with vouchers or tuition tax credits. That can only be accomplished politically if you establish hard standards for the fundamentals, and show the willingness to spend the money needed to get there, but most important, to eliminate the easy excuse of the “not enough money” whine preventing reform. That is, you can’t cut funds, as so many conservatives and libertarians propose, and thus suggest to the world that your education reform program is a budget control measure rather than true reform. That is why Bush’s NCLB (standards) plus increased funding (cancel out excuses) is an essential step. The “inputs” crowd (NEA’s sclerotic leaders along with the Colleges of Education at the nation’s universities) will always complain that whatever you spend is not enough, but you can at least get the general public to understand reality when you point out that you spent 50% more in 3 years, how much is enough, will anything ever be for these non-achieving burueaucrats?

    The last thing you MUST do, as a moral issue, is attach the money to the child, and do on a means-tested basis. The upper and upper middle class already have choice, the poor do not, and that is overwhelmingly inner-city students of color. The exact way to get there is the Washington DC voucher program- provide choice to poor kids, and shut the others up with added money so that the choice element is enabled. That terrifies the status quo, because it will work, and once the dike starts to crack it keeps opening up.

    My position locally in Minnesota is that I crusade against every local or state school funding increase, period, unless it is for school choice or specific standards enforcement. When competition is a reality, I will then vote to increase my own (empty-nester) taxes happily to maximize the results of market-based education.

  14. Steve in Broomfield says:

    In response to the above replies, I would like to comment on teachers salaries and “good” teaching in the classroom. John L. writes that if we want “quality”, then we will pay for it. He is referring to the low average salary of teachers in relation to jobs in the private marketplace. John, I think most people would be willing to pay higher salaries to teachers if it would result in a higher quality of education. However, there is no mechanism to distinguish between good and bad teachers. The teachers union has made it so all teachers get paid the same, regardless of skill. Therefore, people are reluctant to pay more money to teachers who couldn’t even teach a fish to swim.

    This problem goes back to teacher certification, which is just a bit more difficult than getting a credit card. I’ve been certified and was appalled during the process that one could fail the 8th grade math portion of the CAT test 3 times and still become a teacher.

    So the first step is to find a way to increase the standards for teacher qualification. The next is to find a fair way to evaluate performance.

    Regarding what makes a good teacher, I don’t agree that it is only about subject knowledge. Equally important is the ability to communicate effectively, which requires some insight into the mind of a child. How many of us know a Phd who seems to have a problem communicating with the average person at a non-Phd level?

  15. Hess wants to pay skilled teachers more money; he thinks teachers’ salaries aren’t competitive because money has gone into hiring more people instead of rewarding effective teachers.

    There’s evidence that kindergarten and first grade students learn more in very small classes (14 to 17 students or less); small probably makes a difference in writing classes since it allows teachers to assign more writing and have time to grade it. However, most teachers don’t change the way they teach as class sizes decline from 35 to 20, so there’s not much change in results.

    “Average class size” is misleading. As someone said, it includes all personnel who might be teaching, even though many aren’t classroom teachers. If the average is 16, the real average probably is in the mid-20s. And there may be some classes with 39 students, special ed classes with 10.

  16. While waiting on the sidelines at my son’s soccer practice this week, I talked to a women who was one of the strongest supporters and helpers of our public schools. She decided that she had no choice but to put her son into a private school. The public school could not or would not deal with specific issues she raised. They tried to get her to keep her son there, but they could or would not make any changes. Some of the problems had to do with contractural issues, such as bumping due to Reductions in Force(RIF), which set off a chain reaction of seniority bumping throughout the schools. (This really, really(!) pissed off a lot of parents.) Also, the teachers at the end of the bumping chain had to be given some sort of position if they had tenure. Same overhead and fewer students means higher cost per student.

    Another issue had to do with what she called the in-bred rule, where the school credits for seniority only those years that a teacher teaches in our state. When the school had a seventh grade math teacher position open, they couldn’t hire the better candidate from California because they couldn’t count his years of teaching for seniority or for pay. Is this rule used in other states? I find this quite incredible. I try to learn as much as I can about our schools, but this one really surprised me. I wonder what other anti-kids rules there are. Do good teachers really like these rules?

    So, here is this woman who most considered to be the ideal public school parent putting her son in a private school. She then talked about the private school open house she went to and how she was so impressed by the teachers and the curriculum. The cost for this private school is about the same per child as the cost of our public school.

    Anecdotal? You bet! But there are a lot of anecdotes. About 25 percent of our town’s kids go to schools other than the public school. (one of the reasons for the RIF) Many of these parents are the product of public schools, but they say that they cannot get the same education for their kids. That is a lot of latent disagreement with the public schools. The public schools have great PR, but they better watch out. If many of these people overcome their fear of being politically IN-correct (people will label them as elitest and as not being FOR the kids – i.e. public education – that they only care about money), then the public schools will be in deep trouble.

    As the public school monopoly is weighed down with more rules, limitations, and an unwillingness or inability to set and meet high expectations; when parents don’t feel that their child can get the same education they did in public school; and when the enough parents see that the cost per student is exceeding the cost of good private schools, then it will be all over. Some vague ideal of “public schools” is all that is holding it together. I expect that the ultimate change will be driven by the poor neighborhoods, as in the voucher program in Washington D.C.

  17. Someone early in the thread asked for a place to start on effective reform. Here’s my premise: the most important variable in a child’s school experience is the qualty of the teacher, not the space, the stuff or the principal. So focus like a laser on insuring quality teachers in every classroom.

    High pay will attract a wider range of able teachers; equally important is organizing the school in ways that allow teachers to be mutually supportive and to learn continuously. Teachers need to learn from their students and they need to keep up with new knowledge. As soon as a teacher starts to coast, quality goes down.

    What I resist is using the same procedures that are used for quality control in a sheet metal factory or in a fast-food restaurant. Too many reformers want the business model vindicated in schools. Schools are not and never should be a business. Schools are a unique societal institution. They will be most effective if they develop around the quality of the teacher who is best able to ensure a superior learning for each child.

  18. One specific clarification to Steve in Broomfield. Steve says that teachers are all paid the same because of unions. That’s simply not true. Long before any teacher union existed, before any group of teachers negotiated a contract, Boards of Education established salary schedules, paying teachers based on degrees and years of experience.

    The salary schedule was a device of the citizens through their local boards of education, for better or worse.

  19. Chop off everything above the level of the individual school building. Sack the the entire administrative staff, sell off the administration buildings so the land can be put to some productive use and outsource as much of the rest of the work as possible.

    Payroll can be hired done on a competitive bid basis as can janitorial and maintenance services. Same with transportation and food services.

    Put the school’s financial information on the Internet, updated on a daily basis. Privacy safeguards for payroll and donors, of course.

    Testing. The customers, that would be parents, would most likely want to know whether their kid is in a good, bad or ugly school. Whatever the shortcomings of testing, the alternative – nothing – doesn’t tell you more about the schools performance.

    Of course, that’s just the first step. In order to keep the education system from backsliding there’s more that has to be done. But the above would be a good start.


  1. Ed. Money

    We’ve tried to fix our public schools by spending more money. It hasn’t worked….

  2. The Limits of Money

    Frederick M. Hess: The truth is that, between 1960 and 2000, after-inflation education spending more than tripled. Harvard’s Caroline Hoxby has found that real, inflation-adjusted spending grew from $5,900 per pupil in 1982 to more than $9,200 in 2000….

  3. It’s all about the money, part deux

    Check out, “Not much to show for the money,” for a further discussion about K-12 funding. The many comments are also very interesting.