NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Dollars And Scholars

May 23, 1996

The U.S. trails other industrialized countries in teaching reading skills, despite the fact that we spend far more per-pupil than they. Experts say this leaves us with the booby prize in the efficiency department.

Surveys show that the preschool language mastery of American children has increased steadily and substantially over the years. But once children begin formal schooling, U.S. students actually make the least reading progress among students in 16 industrialized countries.

The latest data come from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:

  • U.S. students do comparatively well in reading when they are nine years old -- but fall behind by the time they are 14.
  • Comparing scores for nine and 14 year-olds in 16 industrialized countries studied, average progress amounted to a score of 159.5.
  • U.S. students' progress was only 124.9 points -- 78 percent of average and dead last among the 16 nations.

Yet the U.S. spends the most per child in public primary school of the 13 nations in the study for which cost data are available.

  • In contrast to the average gain of 42.9 points per $1,000 pupils spending in the 13 countries, the U.S. gained only 22.3 points -- less than half as much.
  • The three countries that spent more than $4,500 per pupil -- Belgium, Sweden and the U.S. -- also had poor or mediocre reading progress.
  • Except for Denmark, the countries that gained more than 160 points spent $3,000 or less per pupil.

Those who have studied the matter say that the problem lies in the way we compensate teachers. Here, they are not paid for performance, but according to their degrees and years of experience -- neither of which consistently correlates with student gains.

Superintendents, administrators and principals are paid according to the numbers and salaries of those who report to them. Experts say these policies are incentives only to multiply the number of administrative staff, and to hire and retain teachers irrespective of merit.

Nothing short of changing this structure fundamentally -- probably through school vouchers and other forms of privatization -- will generate the efficiency gains needed to bring U.S. schools up to world standards.

Source: Herbert J. Walberg (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Joseph L. Bast (Heartland Institute), "The World's Least Efficient Schools," Investor's Business Daily, May 23, 1996


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