The American education system is in trouble. International assessments reporting that the U.S. is falling behind other developed countries have become so common that we have become almost indifferent. At a time when, in absolute terms, Americans with only a high school education are earning less than their counterparts did thirty years ago, high school graduation rates have actually fallen. The high school graduation rate reached its peak in 1969 at 77 percent — since then, it has declined to 68.8 percent today. If, as many have argued, the U.S. really is moving towards a high-tech service economy, and a bachelor's degree is the new baseline for middle-class living, then we are leaving a growing proportion of the population behind.
Our schools are failing our nation's children. As President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address, we need to fix our education system so that we may "out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world." And like most people, I always assumed that the American education system was failing because nobody cared.
Actually, as it turns out, people do care. Since the 1970s, per pupil spending on education has more than doubled, from $4,328 in 1970 to $9,276 in 2005. The results have been just as dismal as reported above. Not only has the graduation rate fallen, but, by all the assessments available to us — domestic test scores, international scores and reports on incoming college freshmen — American educational attainment flat-lined even as spending doubled.
Maybe the expenditures are just misplaced? In 2001, California began a $1.3 billion per year initiative — 6 percent of the state's direct education budget — to reduce class sizes to below 20 students across the state. Years later, assessments revealed that changing class size did not have a statistically significant effect on test scores at all, and perverse incentives created by the program actually caused test scores across the state to drop.
What about other factors? Neither teachers with master's degrees nor those from competitive colleges had statistically significant impacts on test scores. Reducing class size has also been a dud, even outside of California. As might be expected, all of these factors have greatly increased since the aforementioned 1970s. The pupil-teacher ratio has fallen from 25.8 to 16.0. The percentage of teachers with a master's degree has risen from 23.5 to 56.2 percent and the median number of years of teaching experience has risen from 11 to 15 years.
Even more significantly, in the modern day, per-pupil spending in inner-city schools is often higher than per-pupil spending in suburban schools. The U.S. General Accounting Office has a breakdown of the statistics. Around Chicago, average per-pupil expenditures in the inner city are $4,482, but in the suburbs, schools receive $3,216 per student. In the Boston area, the lowest-spending urban school still spent more per pupil than the highest spending suburban school. And the gap is just as large as ever.
Maybe it is time to accept that more money is not what makes better schools.
So much for my juvenile dreams of making people care. People do care about education — and maybe they care too much, to the extent where they are flushing money down the drain.
Education is such an easy political topic. It is the foundation of our meritocracy, the engine that can propel anyone out of poverty and into the upper class. Indirectly, it is the justification for countless policies that benefit the upper class on the assumption that anyone can become upper class. Everyone, on both sides of the aisle, wants to chip in for education. President George W. Bush created "No Child Left Behind," and in 2007 funded it to the tune of $24.4 billion. Obama rolled out "Race to the Top," offering an additional $5 billion in grants to schools across the country.
In comparison with welfare, Planned Parenthood and taxes on the rich, education is politically benign, which is probably why spending just builds and builds while evidence shows little to no impact.
As austerity measures kick in across the states, maybe it's time to start looking to improve education by spending outside of the classroom. Parents' age, education level and income may have a larger influence on a child's academic performance than we can ever hope to achieve through direct education spending. The political reflex to slash benefits and family planning to protect education may, ironically, not be what is best for America's children.
Michelle Uhrick ‘11 is an international relations and economics concentrator from Connecticut. She can be contacted at email@example.com.