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Topic: The Least Efficient Schools
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
The Least Efficient Schools
Posted: Aug 4, 1998 6:12 PM
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From Belleville (IL) News-Democrat, Friday, June 26, 1998, p. 4A

The Least Efficient Schools

By Chester E. Finn Jr. and Herbert J. Walberg

It's a pity American kids aren't as good at math and science as the
education establishment is at making excuses. The establishment's favorite
line is that the schools aren't to blame for poor academic performance;
rather, kids fail because of factors beyond their teachers' control, such
as poverty or deteriorating families. The second-favorite rationalization:
Americans are stingy with their tax dollars and refuse to pay the price for
excellent schools.

No doubt these arguments are comforting to those who make them. But recent
analyses by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
demonstrate that both claims are false. Indeed, the group's data make it
painfully clear that U.S. schools are the least efficient in the industrial
world: This country spends more per pupil than almost any other nation,
yet its year-to-year gains in student academic achievement are among the
smallest. U.S. schools add less value than the schools of other lands, and
do so at greater cost.

Consider reading, the most basic of subjects. Until children start school
around age 6, families, mass media and other non-school factors influence
their initial vocabulary and comprehension. Comparisons that do not
account for these factors would be incomplete. The big question about the
impact of schools, then, is not how much students know at one point in time
but how much progress they make as the years go by.

Thanks to the OECD, it is possible to compare gains made by students
between the ages of 9 and 14 across many nations. It turns out that U.S.
students gain the least; on average, they make just 78 percent of the
progress of students in 15 other lands.

The news is similar in math and science. On the math exams in the Third
International Mathematics and Science Study, U.S. students made the least
progress of 17 OECD nations between the fourth and eighth grades, gaining
just 73 percent as much ground as their foreign counterparts. In science,
U.S. progress ranked second to last, covering 78 percent of the average
gains of the 17 nations.

In all three subjects American students finished further back in the
international pack than they began. Is this because Americans are cheap?
Hardly. The OECD data show U.S. school expenditures to be third highest of
22 countries, lagging behind only Switzerland and Austria. At $5,300 per
student (in the most recent year for which comparable data were available),
U.S. primary schools spent 75 percent more than the international average
of $3,033. U.S. secondary schools expended 54 percent more money than the
international average.

So the United States is near the top in education spending but close to
last in achievement gains. Most people would call this miserably low
productivity -- but that is a concept practically unknown in
education-policy circles. If U.S. schools were a business, they would be
in serious competitive peril and probably headed for bankruptcy.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a
Washington-based education-reform organization. Herbert J. Walberg, who
analyzed the OECD data, is research professor of education and psychology
at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His study is available on-line at Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street
Journal, copyright 1998, Dow Jones & Co. Inc., all rights reserved.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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