The Agenda

Educational Productivity

One reason I enjoy reading Dana Goldstein is that our worldviews are almost perfectly at odds, yet she clearly has a keen understanding of the U.S. education landscape. In a recent post, Dana makes the following observation:


As this NAEP chart demonstrates, math performance among high school seniors has remained basically static since 1973. That’s not a good thing; of course we should be improving! But it’s not the crisis of declining performance Obama (and the media) often make it out to be.

This is, in part, the point Nick Lemann made in his New Yorker column on “the overblown crisis in American education.” It’s important to note that the major problem with American education is the problem of class and race inequality. As Linda Darling Hammond writes in The Flat World and Education, “students in the highest-achieving states and districts in the United States do as well as those in high-achieving nations elsewhere.” Indeed, American white, Asian, and multiracial children perform better than the OECD average in reading, science, math, and problem solving. It is black and Hispanic kids that are falling behind.

This is a point I tried to make — rather more clumsily — in this post:


If the United States had the same level of family disruption, would children perform as well as the Finns? The answer is seems to be yes. Consider thefollowing findings from the OECD’s PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) in 2006:

On the combined science literacy scale in the United States, Black (non-Hispanic) students (409) and Hispanic students (439) scored lower, on average, than White (non-Hispanic) students (523), Asian (non-Hispanic) students (499), and students of more than one race (non-Hispanic) (501). Hispanic students, in turn, scored higher than Black (non-Hispanic) students, while White (non-Hispanic) students scored higher than Asian (non-Hispanic) students.

Non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. experience far lower rates of family disruption than their counterparts, so let’s use this as a crude proxy. At a score of 523, white U.S. students are behind the Finns at 563 on the science scale, as well as a number of other countries including laissez-faire Hong Kong and Estonia. But they are comfortably in the first-tier, well ahead of Liechtenstein, Korea, Germany, the UK, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Austria.

But Dana and draw different conclusions. I don’t think that these results suggest that our system isn’t broken. Rather, I think it’s extraordinary that increases in educational productivity have been so low for non-Hispanic white and Asian students despite dramatic productivity gains in retail and other sectors that had long been seen as victims of Baumol’s cost disease. We’ve steadily increased funding since 1973, yet we have very little to show for it:

As economists Jack E. Triplett and Barry Bosworth wrote in 2002, this happened in the late 1990s in the service sector. As retail firms embraced the use of information technology, they found they could do more with less. Walmart was an essential driver of this retail revolution, replacing small, inefficient mom-and-pops with a sprawling and sophisticated logistical infrastructure that rivals that of the U.S. military. Inevitably, Walmart forced all of its competitors and all of its suppliers to improve their productivity, lest they be wiped out. Triplett and Bosworth even declared that Baumol’s cost disease had been cured. Unfortunately, the productivity boom in retail has slowed down, as all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Further productivity increases will likely prove more expensive, and more difficult, to achieve. 

Because educational productivity has been so stagnant for so long, increasing productivity in education is well within our reach, provided we have the political will. The first step is simply explaining to cost-conscious voters why education is so expensive. But the next steps are harder, for they involve taking on the education cartel.

There’s more here, but for NR subscribers only.


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