What I've Learned So Far Trying to Figure Out the Quality of US Education

"What's wrong with the US education system?" This is something I hear a lot, and we probably all do. The second thing we probably hear about education is that we should spend a lot more on it. Finland, which is looked at as probably a gold standard of education, gets a lot of attention from those trying to reform. You might have seen this gem on social media at some point:

Let's see how these claims all stand up. I'm going to assume that literally no teacher in Finland is such a jerk (or so weirdly obsessed with the United States) that they would say anything like, "the opposite of what America does," so I'll dismiss that out of hand.

US Education Spending

First: is the US under-investing in education? We can look at this two ways: across nations and across time. If we look across nations, the US spends more than anyone except Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway--all of which have much higher costs of living than the US. So in some measure, the US actually invests as much as any country in its education: this is reflected by the US matching top spenders in terms of GDP--about 6.5%, which is actually a whole lot more than it spends on its military forces (about 4%).

Temporally, the US has increased spending significantly over the past 30 and 35 year periods. Federal spending on education has increased about 117% (inflation-adjusted) in the past 30 years,  and the total spend on K-12 education per student has almost doubled since 1970.

We'll look at test scores a bit lower, but in short: the US has been pumping a whole bunch of money into education: more than almost anyone else, and at an increasing clip. 

On Our Charming Finnish Teachers

So, according to CATO (and I checked the sources), Finnish teachers actually make substantially less than US teachers. The average American teacher with 15 years makes about $45k, and the average Finnish teacher makes $37.5k. Finland provides medical care for free, but the US education system also provides health insurance, so most US teachers are only paying a few thousand bucks out of pocket... and Finland's cost of living is about 30% higher. So that's just bunk. In short, "just pay teachers more" might not be a panacea. (On the "like doctors" note, it turns out doctors in Finland earn about half what US doctors do, which makes the gap between them smaller, but it's still a factor of about 2.)

That said, there seems to be the sense that in Finland, teaching is a highly respected profession. The acceptance rate for applicants is only 10%, from which we could surmise that they're getting consistently very high-quality applicants

US Education Performance

For all the money we're spending, how's our performance doing? There are generally two ways this is frequently measured: one is the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which measures US students, and the other is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compares lots of countries to each other. 

In the PISA, the US stands at the middle of the pack among OECD countries in Science and Reading, and a little bit below average in Math. Its scores have dropped a bit over the past 10 years, where other countries have been eking upwards. The US Secretary of Education said that the US education system is "stagnating."

What about the NAEP? It's just been dead flat, with the exception of 9 year olds doing better at math (but then leveling off as they get older). The chart below shows 1971-2012, but things haven't gotten better since then. In fact, scores dropped in 2015, across the board


In the big picture, things aren't looking good. There have been some wins, including bringing some of the lowest-performing young students up a bit, but at the end of the day, US students graduate high school without better performance than they used to. You can read the full report here

Note that these pretty flat trends have occurred over many, many tweaks to the US education system, both nationally (1984's A Nation at Risk, 1994's Goals 2000, 2001's No Child Left Behind, and 2009's Common Core) and at the state-level. 

High Performers Overseas

A lot of folks point to other differences in Finland to explain their higher IPSA scores, like lots of recess, low homework, and very little standardized testing. But Finland is also consistently beaten across-the-board (reading, science, and math) by Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and sometimes Estonia and Korea, which have... well, pretty much the opposite style: high pressure, tons of homework, lots of testing, very little recess. 


A lot of people call the US system inefficient: we spend a lot of money and we don't get much in the way of results. From the top-level metrics, this seems to be the case. 

But of course the picture is a lot more complex. A Rutgers University professor named Bruce D. Baker worked with a PhD Student named Mark Weber to try to figure out what's going on, and their conclusions are really interesting. The full report is here, but here's a snippet of what they say: 

"typical presentations of data purporting to show the inefficiency of U.S. schools are so lacking in methodological rigor as to be of little if any value in our public debate or policymaking process. This is the case for several reasons, including the fact that the U.S. student population is more disadvantaged than are their peers in other nations..."
"...Baker and Weber put forth an accessible, evidence-based discussion of the difficulties inherent in comparing educational efficiency between nations, difficulties that should be heeded far more often than they are in our public discourse."

Basically, according to these guys, we have no bloody idea what's going on, except that some students are highly disadvantaged going into the system. Would jumping ship and changing our system in a radical way (Finland on one end, Japan on the other) improve outcomes? Be careful before jumping to that conclusion.

What if it's Not the Education System?

Perhaps the US's problem is poverty? Maybe that has an impact, but the US's 14% poverty rate is comparable to Japan's 16%, Finland's 18% (betcha that's a surprise!), South Korea's 15%, and Estonia's 17.5% (though their definition of poverty is a lot laxer than the other 4 countries we're looking at). Some of these countries, like Finland, have a very strong social safety net, but others that are beating the US don't.

A conservative argument that's picking up steam is that the rise of single-parent households makes life for children really hard--not only are they more often in poverty, but their long-term performance versus their peers is way worse: they're far more likely to go to jail, have emotional or behavioral problems, and drop out of high school. 

About 40% of US kids are born out of wedlock. In Finland, that number's about the same. In Estonia, it's closer to 60%

So as much as all of these factors--education spending, schooling style, poverty, and parenting--all likely contribute to a child's education outcome, none of them seem to be a "magic bullet." Statistically, the US is very similar to countries that are kicking its butt in education. 

So in short, I don't have an answer. But the point of this article is to tell you that you probably don't, either. We'll be interviewing a teacher on the front lines in San Francisco for our next podcast episode, but we'd love to hear from more teachers about what's going on--especially if it's a fact-heavy report or if you're interesting in writing a guest post. So reach out to us in comments and we'll get talking, and we'll be back to tackle education again.

Learning More

We talk at length about this in our podcast, "Education in America, Pt. I," with Pt. II coming out soon!


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.