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Public Education is Doomed Part I

By Dr. David Ayers
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #5, 1994.

What do the numbers say?
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Dr. David Ayers

We Crunch the Numbers

A year of elementary public school already costs more than a year of college. We simply can't afford to keep paying such outrageous amounts forever for second-class education, especially when other countries with more severe problems than ours produce better educational results for far less money.

Grade School Costs More Than College?
School Staff Has Grown Tremendously
"Underpaid Teachers"?
Do High Costs = High Test Scores?
Underfunded Private Schools Do Better
The Slovenia Miracle
Sources for this Article

For many--especially most media pundits and academics--a country's "commitment to education" is measured primarily by how many state dollars and services we devote to public schools. The most popular of these measurements are public expenditures per student, teacher salaries, teacher-pupil ratios, and the number of school services such as free lunch programs, psychological counseling, and health clinics. Each new schoolyard shooting or dip in the SATs brings howls of recrimination--not that there is something wrong with the public school system itself, but that we are a country "more concerned with providing B-1 bombers than quality education." The fact that home schools and private schools provide quality education without all that state "help" mysteriously escapes them. No--lack of spending, insufficient personnel, and old-fashioned programs are to blame for our pedagogical failings. Or so they say.

If their ideas are true, these pundits ought to be supremely happy. Why? Because American public education is spending money and growing fat with programs and personnel at an enormous rate. And this growth dramatically exceeds inflation and population growth.

In terms of dollars spent, when we look at how much American education pays for each child today compared to what was spent per student in times past, in dollar figures that have been adjusted for inflation, we see an amazing increase in what it costs us to put a child through public school. Based on constant 1992 dollars, America's total expenditure per student for one year of public elementary and secondary school went from $876 in 1930 to $6,043 in 1993. Starting in 1930, after accounting for rises in costs due to inflation, spending per student almost tripled in the first 30 years, then almost tripled again! This is hardly the "dismal decline in spending" described by our friends in the educational establishment. Imagine somebody doing cart wheels uphill--that's public school spending in the United States!

Grade School Costs More Than College?

To put this in perspective, consider that public expenditures per student in colleges and universities in 1930 averaged $1,281--considerably greater than for elementary and secondary schools. In 1960, this spending was still higher than public schools! But by 1990, that cost was $4,682--$1,333 less than elementary and secondary public education. Average per student costs for tuition, room, and board for one year at a public university was $5,337 in 1991. In other words, you would spend less to send your child to a major public university--including housing, clothes, and food--than the government spends to send one pupil to the average public school.

Another measurement of the cost of a college education--total expenditures in higher education--includes not only government funding and tuition, but all private spending, the money needed to maintain huge libraries, research facilities, physical plants, and "big name" professors. It also includes all types of higher education--from small colleges to Harvard, Princeton and Yale. In the 1989-90 school year, that average figure per student was $7,799. Seem like a lot? Try any elementary school in Boston. In 1990-91, the people's expenditures per student for the public schools in that city climbed almost as high--to $7,656. Harvard isn't the only school in Massachusetts that's exorbitantly expensive!

School Staff Has Grown Tremendously

This is just as true for the growth of the school staff. One looks here in vain for proof that would support the constant charges of neglect. Let's be fair, and look at rates rather than raw numbers. Of course, this eliminates any expansion of staff that could be attributable just to growth in the student population. What do we find? Full-time public school staff rose from 5.2 per 100 students in 1950 to 10.9 in 1991--more than double. Teachers went from 3.6 per 100 students to 5.8 per 100 during this time period. But the real explosion has been in the "other" categories. This is that army of "support staff" which probes, prods, and adjusts your bewildered child. Buttressed more by a growing number of inquisitive psychologists, guidance counselors, and health clinic workers than by librarians and friendly custodians, that figure rose from 1.2 per 100 students in 1950 to 3.3 per 100 in 1991: almost triple. This is a lot to pay to undermine your family. And administrators doubled, from 0.1 to 0.2 per 100 students. They need lots of captains, I suppose, for all of these privates!

To get a good picture of the incredible expansion in the number of public school personnel, look at it this way. Think of a "pie" composed of all school staff. The "slice" that are actual classroom teachers declined from 70.3 percent in 1956, to 53.3 percent in 1991, so that about 47 percent of school staff today are not even teachers. But in spite of this, enough teachers have been added anyway that their numbers have doubled relative to the number of students. Our public school students are surrounded on every side by a growing horde of teachers and "support staff" of every kind--more than 1 for every 10 kids. Johnny is not getting neglected at school--he's getting smothered. And that "personnel pie" keeps getting bigger.

"Underpaid Teachers"?

The teacher-pupil ratio is often cited as a "bottom-line" measurement of educational excellence. In 1955, there were 30.2 students for each teacher in the public elementary schools, and 20.9 for each teacher in the secondary schools. By 1980, there were 20.3 students per teacher in the elementary schools, and 16.8 in the secondary schools. In 1992, the ranks of teachers had swelled even further, and there were an average of 19 and 14.6 students per teacher in the elementary and secondary schools, respectively. For all public schools combined, the teacher-pupil ratio dropped from 26.9 to 17.2. So why is everyone worried about "educational neglect"?

The problem of the so-called "underpaid teacher" is as laughable as the idea that there aren't enough. In inflation-adjusted, 1992 dollars, the average public school teacher's salary went from $23,850 in 1960 to $34,934 in 1992. Just think--an average salary of about $35,000 for nine to ten months work. In New England, teacher salaries rose an incredible 43.6 percent in the 1980s. Compare this to the difficulty so many other American workers have merely trying to keep up with the cost of living.

Some parts of the country pay teachers less than others, and in some subjects, such as math and science, public schools have difficulty competing with private industry for qualified people. But overall, the idea that low public school teacher salaries are a legitimate national concern, or a chronic problem which somehow cripples the education of our children, is utterly ridiculous. I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to start a soup kitchen to feed my local public school teachers!

Those who claim that the only valid measures of concern for education are money, programs, and paid "professionals" whine year after year that Americans don't "care" about public education. Yet by their yardstick, we are positively fanatical about it. We pump money and personnel into our local schools like Midwesterners tossed sandbags at the 1993 Mississippi floods. But has it done any good?

If we look at trends in SAT scores over the past twenty five years or so, we see a frightening picture indeed. For schools overall, in 1967, verbal averages were 466, and math averages 492. By 1978, when cost per student had climbed by over $1,000 after inflation, the verbal score had dropped by 37 points to 429, and the math scores had declined by 25 points to 468. In 1980, SAT scores for verbal and math scores had dropped further to 424 and 466, respectively. Since then, there has been some recovery only in math--in 1991, verbal scores were down to 422, while math had "gained" to 474--still 18 points below the 1967 values.

Do High Costs = High Test Scores?

Since the 1970s, another test has been used to measure progress of American students--the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Results here are only a little less dismal than the SATs. The trend seems to be for some rise in scores over time for younger students in most NAEP tests, but little improvement in the bottom line; namely, what students know after finishing twelve years of school. And they do not measure against the benchmark established up through the 1960s, since they are fairly recent tests.

In the science portion of the NAEP, nine- and thirteen-year-olds in public schools increased their average scores from 1977 to 1990. This change was hardly earthshaking considering the money spent--about 9 or 10 points. Well, let's be thankful for small blessings! But for seventeen-year-olds, scores were 288 in 1977, and only 289 in 1990--literally no gain. In all fairness, perhaps as the younger ones move through the system the graduation scores will increase--but I wouldn't hold my breath. And even in the best cases, if the past is any indication results will be meager relative to investment.

Similar trends prevailed in writing. On the NAEP, from 1984 (when they started giving this exam) to 1990, scores went up for public-schooled fourth graders, but down by 9 points for eighth graders, and remained constant for eleventh graders. Considering how important it is to be able to write clearly, in college and in life, we ought to be shocked by these scores. Talk to one of your local junior college professors about the quality of the papers he gets from his students. If he's like most, he'll either tell you how horrible they are; or worse, that he has no idea anymore because he has been forced by their deficiencies to abandon written work entirely in favor of "multiple choice madness"! Sad.

The NAEP scores in reading, show dismal trends also. Between 1980 and 1990 they dropped for most public school students. Nine- and thirteen-year-olds went down slightly, while seventeen-year-olds gained 5 points; again, not much in light of the "investments" made.

Trends in NAEP math scores are a little better--among public school students, from 1978 to 1990 they increased 12 points for nine-year-olds, 6 for thirteen-year-olds, and 4 for seventeen-year-olds. But this is still only a minimal rise for those with eleven to twelve years of school.

What is clear is this. First, public education is not producing results that justify the skyrocketing costs--with scores remaining the same or dropping during the same time periods in which after-inflation costs have tripped, and in which staff sizes and teacher salaries have also increased dramatically. Let's face it--most employees with records like that don't get steady raises and three months vacation!

Second, our public schools, besides being grossly morally deficient (an issue for another time), are not preparing students with the skills they need to serve their own interests, or those of our nation as a whole, in a time of increasing international competition and rapid scientific advancement. Our kids are not going to keep up if this continues, and we will witness more of the trends we already see in some occupations--having to fill labor shortages by importing competent help from other countries, while our own citizens languish in unemployment lines. Ever notice how many first-generation immigrants and non-citizens teach the "hard" classes in modern US universities?

The inadequacy of our public schools is seen most dramatically in contrast to the educational outcomes enjoyed by students in other schools which spend far less in money and personnel. These are the private institutions in this country, and the school systems of many other developed countries.

Underfunded Private Schools Do Better

Look at the kind of factors our academic elites hold dear. This should lead them to predict disaster for private schools, which are generally much smaller in administration and support staff, have less facilities and programs, and much lower teacher salaries. In fact, in 1991, when public school teachers averaged $33,578, private school teachers could expect to make only $21,673. This is less, in constant dollars, than public school teachers made thirty years earlier! As a result, private schools often have more than their share of inexperienced, young teachers.

Yet private school students generally outscore public ones in every category and age group. In 1991, when public school SAT averages were 419 in verbal and 473 in math, the scores in independent private schools were 470 and 524, respectively; in religious private schools, 437 and 472. On NAEP tests in 1990, in reading, writing, math, and science, in every age group, kids from private schools outscored their public school counterparts. The difference ran from a low of 9 points (the science test for thirteen year olds, and the math test for nine-year-olds), to a high of 22 points (the reading test for seventeen-year-olds). Among seventeen-year-olds, there was a 19 point gap in science, about 17 points in writing, and 14 in math.

Some of this private-public difference can be explained as a phenomena know as "cream-skinning"--private schools attract better students with less problems outside of school. But the point is clear. Children can be well educated without the bloated bureaucracies, fat salaries, and elaborate social programs provided by public schools.

The Slovenia Miracle

Problems commonly cited by public schools to justify both their failure and high spending, such as poverty, ethnic mix, and foreign languages spoken by students, are not a valid excuse for their difficulties. That fact, and the unbelievable waste that public education has become in this country, becomes most clear in international comparisons.

In international assessments of reading scores, done with fourteen-year-olds, the US did pretty well. In 1990, of 31 countries Americans scored better than 14 of them, about the same as 16, and only worse than one (Finland). However, in the areas of math and science, in tests conducted among thirteen-year-olds, our country was close to the worst of a one group of 14 nations tested in 1991.

In math, the only nation America outscored was Jordan, and in science only Jordan and Ireland. We were outscored by two countries full of poverty--including one with a large number of Palestinian refugees! In the math test, Americans averaged 55 percent correct, as opposed to 73 percent for Koreans and Taiwanese, 71 percent for Swiss and 70 percent for students of the former Soviet Union. Our scores were 2 points below Slovenia's and equal to Spain's. In science, the US average was 67 percent correct, versus 78 percent for top-ranking Korea, 76 percent for Taiwan, 74 percent for Switzerland, and 73 percent for Hungary. Worse, other competitor-countries known for their high-quality education such as Japan and Germany were not even included in these math and science comparisons. One wonders what would have happened if they were. (We were beaten by Slovenia?!!)

Similar results were discovered in an international comparison of geographic knowledge among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds. Here, of 9 countries Americans scored the lowest by far, with an average of only 6.9 areas correctly identified. Sweden, the high scorer, had an average 11.9; West Germany had 11.2. The closest score to the USA's was Mexico's, which identified an average of 8.2 areas correctly. Just think--we were outscored by a country whose people flood our borders daily in order to escape grinding poverty.

Can these differences really be explained by the kind of variables that public education's apologists use to explain their failure? To blame our poverty rate would be ludicrous--our country is far more prosperous than Korea, the former Soviet Union, Hungary, and Spain, all of which have also had to fight back from economic decimation created by major wars on their own territory in the last several decades. Our ethnic mixture is commonly blamed for poor academic results. But multi-ethnic and officially bilingual Canada outscored the US dramatically. So did the former Soviet Union, which is very diverse ethnically, and has much more serious conflicts between their ethnic groups than we experience here. And of course Israel, which also outscored the US in math and science, is a country which was built almost from "scratch" in the last 45 years by massive immigration from nations all over the world.

Is our problem overpopulation? Highly doubtful: compared to the US's population density of 26 people per square kilometer in 1989, Korea had 428, Japan 326, France 102, Hungary 114, and Spain 77 per square kilometer. The public school systems certainly can't blame "too many people."

What about some of the variables we have been looking at in spending and personnel? Could it be the pupil-teacher ratio? Certainly, France and Canada, which both exceeded the US on math and science tests, have lower ratios than America--1 teacher for every 13.7 and 14.9 students, respectively, compared to the USA's 1 per 17. But Korea has 29.7 students for each teacher. Yet it outscored all of those countries--especially ours--dramatically. Spain, which also outscored us, has 22.3 students per teacher. It seems unlikely that we will close the gap in these tests scores by hiring more teachers!

Is our problem that we don't spend enough? Hardly. In 1989 U.S. dollars, only Switzerland, with $4,845 per pupil, spent more. Spain spent only $938 per student, compared to our $4,083. France spent $2,483. Japan and Germany--major economic competitors known for their excellent education--spent only $2,243 and $2,487 per pupil, respectively.

Moreover, countries which participated in the international assessment were compared in terms of how many of their schools had problems such as text shortages, overcrowding, and inadequate facilities or maintenance. Of course, this is a chronic complaint and excuse of today's educators--especially in the cities. But schools in the US were by far the least likely of all 14 nations to have such difficulties--only 5 percent reporting one or more of these problems. In top-scoring Korea that percentage was 24 percent; Taiwan's was twice the US's at 10 percent, and an unbelievable 72 percent of the former Soviet Union's schools had one or more of those problems.

The teacher unions want us to believe that as a nation we don't "invest" enough in education. The fact is, we are among the top spenders in the world, with very little to show for it. And more of the same old thing is not going to address the deficiencies. One more grant to the NEA or AFT to test some "school reform," one more school tax redistribution scheme--none of it is going to work. It has already been tried.

It's time for American taxpayers and businessmen to wise up. We need to stop pouring good money after bad by feeding the expansion of our sub-standard public schools. And we need to resists the lies and the false guilt-manipulation of those who'll claim they're selfish if they stop doing so. It's time to begin supporting alternatives with proven value not only in providing knowledge, logical capacity, and skills, but in building character as well. Homeschools and private schools are the wave of the future; with far less money than we are spending now they can prepare American kids morally and intellectually for the 21st century.

Sources for this Article

From the National Center for Education Statistics, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, US Department of Education, Washington, DC:

  • Digest of Education Statistics 1992.
  • 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait.
  • Projection of Education Statistics to 2003.
  • The Condition of Education 1993.
  • Trends in Academic Progress: The Nation's Report Card.
  • Youth Indicators 1993.
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