How Serious Is U.S. Ed. Productivity Collapse

A commenter at Joanne Jacobs’ edu-blog wonders “how serious this ‘collapse’ is.” I offered the following response:

How serious of a collapse is it? Total k-12 expenditures in this country were about $630 billion two years ago (see Table 25, Digest of Ed Statistics 2008). The efficiency of our education system is less than half what it was in 1971 (i.e., we spend more than twice as much to get the same results — see Table 181, same source).

So if we’d managed to ensure that education productivity just stagnated, we’d be saving over $300 billion EVERY YEAR. If we’d actually seen productivity improvements in education such as we’ve seen in other fields, we’d be saving at least that much money and enjoying higher student achievement at the same time.

My guess is that most people would consider saving $3 trillion per decade and more fully realizing children’s intellectual potential are both very important.

Another commenter observes that spending has of necessity increased due to the combination of rising salaries and a failure to deploy new technologies to lower costs. This is true to a point, but the total employee/student ratio in public schools has also grown dramatically over the same period. A few years ago I calculated that taxpayers would save more than $100 billion annually if the public schools just went back to the employee/student ratio of 1970. And the savings are still massive even if you account for a roughly 10% increase in teachers for expanded special education services.

Ultimately, though, you have to ask WHY public schools have failed to use technology to lower costs as virtually every other field has successfully done. The answer is that doing so is difficult and so won’t happen without the freedom and powerful systemtic incentives to MAKE it happen. The only system of freedoms and incentives that makes productivity growth the norm is the free enterprise system.