You've heard the expression, "you get what you pay for"? The fact that better products and services usually cost more than inferior ones has conditioned us to assume that the same pattern holds true for anything, including education. Increasing our expenditures on public schooling has thus been seen as a promising way to improve its quality since the birth of the institution some 150 years ago. Though it's difficult to trace spending patterns that far back, we do have more recent statistics. What those figures show is that we now spend roughly five times more per pupil per year than we did in 1950, in real, inflation-adjusted dollars.
Many factors have contributed to this rise. Children now spend more days in school per year, schools offer a wider variety of programs, school buildings are larger and more expensive, there are many more teachers, administrators and non-teaching staff per student than there once were, salaries have grown, and, in recent decades, the number of students classified as learning disabled (and hence eligible for special services) has skyrocketed.
Yet this tremendous growth in the apparatus of public schooling, and the corresponding dramatic rise in its cost, has not ended a history of stagnation and decline in academic achievement during the last three-quarters of a century. Yes, a motivated researcher can find five- or 15-year spans during which scores on a particular test went up or stayed the same. But when the most reliable measures of student achievement trends are taken together, they point at best to stagnation, and at worst to a steady deterioration of scholastic achievement over the past 70 years. The most alarming evidence of a decline has been in the most important skill of all: reading. This finding is sadly consistent with the already cited International Adult Literacy Survey, in which nearly one in four Americans ages 16 to 25 scored at or below the Survey's lowest level of literacy.
The accuracy of this picture is corroborated by numerous other research findings and examples at the state and district levels. Over the years, many studies have compared how well students in higher-spending public schools performed compared to their peers in lower-spending schools. The overall conclusion has been that higher spending is not significantly associated with higher achievement. Even researchers initially skeptical of this conclusion have found it to be true: Higher public school spending generally does not help children learn more.
Indeed, some of the most troubled, lowest performing districts in the country are also among those spending the most money. Baltimore, Hartford and Washington, D.C., for example, all spend upwards of $9,000 per pupil annually (the national average is about $7,000), yet are plagued by poor test scores and decaying facilities. Between the late 1980s and the late 1990s, Kansas City, Missouri became the highest spending district in the country, adding well over $1 billion to its existing budget in obedience to a court-ordered reform plan. Despite this unprecedented infusion of funds, overall student achievement did not improve, and the judge responsible for the order eventually rescinded it, acknowledging its failure.
Nor is the United States alone in this problem. Recent research on the performance of education systems in the 29 nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds a similar consistent pattern of declining educational productivity.
Please understand that this is not to say that higher spending is never helpful. There certainly are cases where additional public school expenditures have yielded benefits. The conclusion that we are forced to draw from the evidence is only that these cases are the exceptions, and that they are outweighed by the more numerous cases in which more money did not equal more learning. However much we would like to believe that we could transform our schools just by digging a little deeper into our pockets, this notion simply does not stand up to scrutiny.
It has often been noted that our public school system is not able to make consistently effective use of the funds it receives. When many districts around the country are unable even to maintain their buildings in a reasonable state of repair despite adequate funding, it should come as no surprise that greater funding has not improved the far more difficult task of student learning. If we hope to improve our educational outcomes with higher spending, we will first have to change the system in such a way that we can be assured the money will be spent wisely.