by Peter Franklin
Friday, 27
August 2021
Chart
07:00

More money doesn’t make better schools

Even socialists now reject the connection between expenditure and quality
by Peter Franklin

Freddie deBoer is a full-on socialist and also a former teacher. He’s therefore the last person you’d expect to doubt the effectiveness of more spending on schools. 

And yet he’s looked at the data and is hard-pressed to find a link between educational expenditure and educational outcomes. For instance, take a look at the country comparisons in this chart:


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Average learning outcome by total education expenditure per capita. Credit: Our World in Data

As you can see, the poorest countries that can afford the least do worst — as one might expect. However, after a certain level of expenditure any extra funding makes little difference to country outcomes. DeBoer points out that “the USA spends something like 8 times what Vietnam spends per student and performs just about exactly as well.”

Obviously, a given budget goes a lot further in some countries than others — but note that these expenditure figures are adjusted for purchasing power. 

As well as comparing countries, deBoer looks at the impact of the increase in educational spending within one specific country: the United States. As a share of GDP, US educational spending has more than doubled since the 1950s: there’s a lot more money sloshing around the education system.

US education expenditure as a share of GDP. Credit: Our World in Data

What’s more, policy-makers have got much better at directing resources towards the most disadvantaged pupils. So, after “throwing money at our achievement gaps for 40 years” have we seen corresponding improvements in outcomes and greater equity between educational cohorts? No, says deBoer, “we’ve burned money on it and gotten nowhere.”

It’s not that extra resources can’t make a difference. At a micro-level we have plenty of evidence that they can. The clearest example is the so-called “2 sigma problem”. This was a 1984 study (whose findings have since been replicated) that randomly assigned pupils one-to-one tutoring. The difference made to outcomes was enormous — two standard deviations’ worth. 

The ‘problem’ with the 2 sigma problem is that we don’t have the resources to scale-up these methods. Nevertheless, it does demonstrate that individual educational outcomes aren’t fixed, and that, in the right circumstances, a difference can be made — even if it isn’t as spectacular at scale as can be achieved with intensive interventions. 

And so the question remains, why doesn’t more spending make a bigger difference at the macro-level? Is the explanation that education systems are wasting their extra resources? Or are factors in the wider world cancelling out the good that schools do with more money? 

These are hard questions. Let’s hope that, one day, we have the ability — and courage — to answer them. 

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago

This has been obvious for years, but the left – seeking always to fan resentment and explain away the failure of the “comprehensive” system – has focussed obsessively on the luxurious conditions of a few elite, private schools as if these, and not the intelligence for which their pupils are selected or the rigorous, old fashioned teaching which they practised until recently, were the secret of their success. The real secrets of teaching success are selection, purpose and discipline. Talent is thereby identified and cultivated intensively, whether this be great or small, academic or vocational; it is assisted by means of distinct lessons in distinct classrooms for distinct groups of pupil. The only reason this has been overthrown is the intrusion into academic life of a malignant socialism, defeated in broader political and industrial battles. It has sought to experiment once again with its nurture-not-nature bigotry; and in any case doesn’t care that this results in “sub-optimal outcomes” for education, because the deprivation serves the ends of so-called “equity”.

Richard Hathaway
Richard Hathaway
1 year ago

The problem is our education establishment: in the US teachers are poorly educated and indoctrinated with false assumptions about education. Instead of knowledge based teaching we have child centered education, meaning that the interests of children come first. Many teachers subscribe to the Whole Language philosophy of teaching reading, still very much alive with Blended Literacy, rather than the proven phonics instruction.

The Establishment assumes that students will benefit from pain-free learning with minimal memorization or drills, which particularly harms economically disadvantaged students who come to school with little knowledge of the world and poor vocabularies. In my school district they took globes and maps out of elementary school classrooms because they were….out of date? Our children in the fourth grade can’t name the Continents whereas Montessori School children learn the Continent Song as early as Kindergarten.

The fact that there is constant reform points to the lack of research in education assumptions and methods; educators create systems which they think will work, not on what has proven to work.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Teachers Unions are likely the single greatest force for harming the students.

Most teachers are the dregs of the university system, then the Marxist unions take them and fight they system to destabilize it. There has never been such an insane way of education ever designed.

Take below average entry university students with strong left/liberalism, Post Modernist indoctrination, make it 1000% worse at University wile teaching them Teaching Theory rather than actual academic subjects, put Marxist Wreckers of Unions in control of them wile the school Boards are radical Lefties who claw their way to positions of power direct it – and you get this. Education is basically now up to the parents as schools do not educate anymore. Thus any children of poor parents leave school basically anti-social and unemployable.

And this also costs a lot of money.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 year ago

I genuinely do question the value of much of our education system. I had a colleague who’s general knowledge was atrocious, to the extent she wasn’t even aware Scotland was part of the British Isles! However, she was more than capable of performing her job competently.

How much of schooling is applicable to our lives today? I am inclined to believe that the effects of Lockdown on the education system will be less detrimental than predicted, because the majority of workers have no use for a large proportion of what they learnt in the class room.

Perhaps less schooling, not more, would produce a population who were better skilled, less over educated and at a lower cost?

Last edited 1 year ago by Matthew Powell
Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

I have found the same amongst people I know and have met in recent years and yet, despite leaving school at the age of 13, both my father and mother had excellent general knowledge and were very quick with arithmetic. Unfortunately, in recent decades, in tandem with the march of the ‘left’, the dumbing down of education has been reinforced by dumbed down TV and social media output, much of which is cretinous but extremely popular,

Last edited 1 year ago by Glyn Reed
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

The more you spend the more creeps come to get some. I always turn to ‘Little House On the Prairie’, Ingalls-Wilder for the example of a school. I have worked in 3 extremely remote communities in USA that had one room schools where one teacher teaches all grades.

“On December 10, 1882, two months before her 16th birthday, Ingalls accepted her first teaching position” She became a school teacher at 15… and everyone learned to read, write, basic math, and some history. A great set of books, non-fiction, autobiographical account of wagon train settling of the Prairie of North Dakota. Great TV series – children should read them…

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago

What is the money spent on in the UK? I am surprised the expenditure is so high.
I also notice that Kazakhstan has a higher outcome than every European country, except Russia.
Personally I would invest on paying teachers way more and insure their status was enhanced, which would mean less paperwork, but more accountability and performance driven pay (even in the worst schools, so that an improvement from “crap” to “middle of the road” is equally rewarded).
Where I am in Scotland in our primary most teachers are very young, very few are middle-age and I think none is older, which means that you train, but do not retain.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrea X
L Paw
L Paw
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Cannot agree with you. You have noted that Kazakhstan spends on education approx. 1/4 that spent in the UK, adjusted for purchasing power remember. Yet gets much the same learning outcomes.
Fact is we need to move away from training teachers to bring left wing ideology into our schools and colleges.
We should bring in a voucher system for education where the parent takes the voucher = cost of a state education to whichever school, state or private, they choose. If they choose to top up the voucher with their money in the private sector, fine. We would very soon find the worst & most useless schools closed, and raise the standard of our kids education hugely.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
1 year ago

I’ve wide experience in education. I agree that money doesn’t buy you kids who love reading or families that put education first and produce emotionally stable law abiding offspring Have that and results will be better anyway for less- buildings could be as basic as you like and it would’nt matter. That said, it’s bit like the UK spends about $60bn on defence- the same as Russia but they have 47,000 AFVs and we have far far fewer. Unit costs are hard to compare across economies?

Alan T
Alan T
1 year ago

More money doesn’t make better medicine either. Covid is probably caused by a health industry’s, investment into pandemic prevention. Read Ivan Illich.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago

As someone with many Russian and Eastern European work colleagues, I’ll agree with that. It’s got far too complicated. Blackboards and chalk, chairs and table and textbooks passed down through the years don’t cost much. Do you think Russian children are tooling around on phones all day?

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
1 year ago

Amazing how common sense is at last beginning to get a look in.