Monday, July 28, 2014

Education: The Failure of Growth

International comparisons of educational spending and outcomes reveal the same familiar pattern that we saw in the previous post about health care. Greater expenditures produce better outcomes at lower levels of spending, but the benefits disappear after spending reaches a level that is much lower than what we spend in the United States.

Here is a graph of educational spending and achievement. The measurement uses the PISA test, which is the best data for international comparisons of educational achievement.

We can see that spending more per pupil on education does not increase achievement after spending reaches Australia's level. The United States spends more than twice as much as Australia, but has lower achievement.

In the case of health care, there was a very obvious reason why the United States had worse outcomes than other high-spending nations: we have the highest rate of obesity of any developed nation.

In the case of education, the reason is not as obvious. A couple of reasons seem plausible.

One possible explanation is lack of family time. Our economy requires many parents to work two full-time jobs, leaving them with little time for their children.  More children than ever are cared for by state agencies or are latchkey children who return to empty homes after school.  According to the Census Bureau, one-third of school-age children are home alone during at least part of the week.

A second possible explanation is excessive use of media. According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the amount of time that eight-to-eighteen-year old children spend with media increased from 6 hours 21 minutes per day in 2004 to 7 hours and 38 minutes in 2009. In 45% of all homes, the television is on most of the time, even when no one is watching it, and 71% of children have their own televisions in their bedrooms. The overuse of media is a direct distraction from learning: Almost half of all children watch television while doing their homework.

Media addiction works against academic achievement. This study found that 47% of the children who are heavy media users (spending more than 16 hours per day with media) get fair or poor grades, compared with only 23% of children who are light media users (spending 3 hours a day or less with media). Minority students are affected most: black and Hispanic students spend about four and a half hours more per day with media than white students.

It is astounding that heavy users are defined as those who spend more than 16 hours a day with media. There are only 24 hours in the day, so if you spent 8 hours sleeping, 16 hours with media would take up all your waking hours. Yet heavy users manage to spend more time than this. 

When it comes to education, we have reached a point where economic growth no longer brings significant benefits: we can see from the graph that there is little or no benefit to spending more than half of what the United States spends. At the same time, our consumer society works against education, by leaving parents with too little time for their children and by turning children into passive consumers of entertainment who have trouble making the effort that is needed to learn.