Jul 31, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

Excellent post. I wonder how many of the critics of public education actually have children either in or who have gone through public schools K-12? Our experience was uniformly positive and both went on to graduate college with honors and go on to post-graduate education. The key is adequate financing for resources, good teachers, and small classes. Unfortunately, lots of excellent teachers are leaving the profession and that is where the crisis is right now.

The big issue is with the Title One schools that serve low income students (usually but not exclusively, those of color). Trying to understand why these students do not achieve at the same success rates is multi-factorial but whether it is family environment or something else has been difficult to tease out.

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Thanks for this post. Very helpful data.

I always thought the issue with our k-12 education was high dispersion of results. That our distribution curve would show a much larger left tail than other countries. If true, then our top 80% might actually be close to number one, while our bottom 20% would be far behind.

Do comparative statistics like that exist?

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Jul 31, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

Kevin Drum keeps pounding away at this. Median American primary and secondary education are okay. But kids of color don't do very well. And there is no excuse for that.

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I read somewhere a while back (possibly Matt Yglesias) that while Texas does worse than Massachusetts in various scholastic competencies overall, when you break down the data at a racial level, children of race <X> in TX score better than children of race <X> in MA; for white, Black, Asian and Hispanic.

I wonder if this is also true at a national level - I mean, we know that Asian children score incredibly well on tests in general, and Black and Hispanic children generally do not, and it seems fair that when we compare the exceptionally racially diverse US to the much less diverse countries of Asia and Europe, that we at least consider the impact that the racial disparities have on our relative ranking. I have a suspicion that if you break down the data by racial category, the children in the US are at, or near the top, for every race.

We should be working to identify ways to make education better for Black and Hispanic children in the US. We also should not be shy about pointing out our successes, either.

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Jul 31, 2022·edited Jul 31, 2022

I think we could do better on the parts of a school that aren’t the curriculum. There’s no reason for any school in the country to have mold on the walls, or to offer non-nutritious food. Adding air purifiers to classrooms would probably be good too.

The IRA bill does take a step forward here with funding for EV school buses, which is nice to see.

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Two important arguments this doesn't address:

1. the argument that US education spending has increased drastically over time and in the aggregate we haven't gotten better outcomes for it, e.g. at the beginning of this classic Scott Alexander post: https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/02/09/considerations-on-cost-disease/. This is compatible with a few well- and hopefully-studied interventions succeeding in improving outcomes, much as it can simultaneously be true that the Perry and Abecedarian preschools worked great but most state preschool subsidies don't do much good. And it should lead us to be skeptical by default of the modal proposed spending increase.

2. the Bryan Caplan argument that even for K-12 the social return to education spending is low in terms of real productivity impact, even if it raises test scores.

Both of these are totally consistent with the US doing reasonably well compared to other rich nations and not spending an outlier amount: the claim (which I think Caplan at least would heartily endorse) would be that all the other rich nations are wasting their money too and suffer from the same cost disease. It's worth looking at whether the trajectory of education spending over time is similar in other rich countries and how that correlates, or doesn't, to whatever we can measure about their outcomes.

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I am surprised you didn't frame it: Massachusetts is already a top performing educational system, let's impose reforms to get export Massachusetts education to all US states.


Second, the US system educates a lot of children of immigrants that "lower" scores through composition effects. Yet immigrant education is a dramatic improvement for the world and a sign of educational success. Note, when decomposed the US does quite well again, especially Massachusetts!

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"We spend about $13,000 per student (at purchasing power parity), while the average is around $10,000. Not a huge difference."

Isn't 30% more a big difference, especially for average-to-below-average results? That's a meaningful chunk of GDP, wasted!

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Any studies showing what we spend on sports - playgrounds, stadiums and coaches etc in k-12 vs other countries?

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Some things:

- Broken down by group, Americans outperform nearly everyone. As in American whites outperform Europe, blacks outperform Africa, Asians outperform E. Asia. Indeed, America’s somewhat mediocre ranking positions have everything to do with demographic composition and very little to do with actual inadequacies in the system.

- The notion “spending more money works” is very controversial, at the very least. As far as I know, there is a limited consensus that very few things work and they work less well the richer you get. African countries that start spending more money from a low base see some improvement, while Vietnam and Luxembourg get the same results despite the latter spending at least 2x the money. No, two papers don’t mean a thing, I can get you something from The Lancet approving of homeopathy.

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This is one of those broad issues with a *lot* of different moving parts, a lot of different metrics/measurements you could use, and the vast majority of people both within and outside the country having very strong opinions, because most adults in developed countries received some non-home-based education.

I have to say that, given my own definitions on this issue, my own observations of what is important in a good education, and my observations of what people outside the US think ... the US does actually have a very crappy education system. Why? First, I can't speak to math, so I won't. I have my own weird reason for being bad at it, so I know I can't generalize.

But I can talk about reading and knowledge acquisition.

The vast majority of US school districts use a balanced literacy approach to (not do) reading instruction. Balanced literacy is rebranded/slightly retooled whole language, an approach that is not supported by cognitive science research. Additionally, there is pervasive ideological opposition to teaching facts to schoolchildren under the age of 10, because these facts are deemed "developmentally inappropriate" and "oppressive". The dominance of this ideology means that ordinary classroom teachers will say things like "I have my own science" to support their classroom practices. As a result, by the US's *own* nationally standardized reading comprehension tests, no more than 40% of students read at grade level. And those scores have been flat for literal *decades*, ever since the widespread adoption of whole language in the 1950s.

Since the US is so dominated by the anti-knowledge-teaching ideology, we don't even have exams that directly test for general knowledge acquisition in our students. But everyone knows about those civics and geography tests that are done on teens every so often that show that they don't know the three branches of government or that New Mexico is part of the US?

Like... somehow white liberals never connect the dots and realize that those results mean the US educational system is bad. That is what a failing education system looks like. Children are supposed to leave the system with more knowledge than they had when they entered, and that is not happening.

This is so obvious a point that it's an article of faith among people in other developed countries. YouTube is full of mocking, gotcha videos where Brits and Australians go up to American adults on the streets of US cities and ask them basic general knowledge questions. The results are embarrassingly bad. Like, you wonder how these adults function, bad. If some ranking system says the US has a slightly better system than the UK using whatever metric it uses, but these videos are still being made? I'm skeptical the US actually has a good system. And it stands to reason that if kids aren't taught knowledge, they will age into being these adults.

Connect the dots: a good education system would not produce adults who lack basic knowledge.

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There's another fact that makes your point here substantially stronger, which is that our scores improve dramatically if you disaggregate them by race:


What you will find is that the US is only a tiny bit worse at educating asians than the best asian countries, better at educating "whites" than the best "white" countries, and of course much better at educating blacks and hispanics than their respective countries. So, when properly demographically adjusted, it's obvious that the US isn't just middle of the pack, but top tier in its educational performance.

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Dozens of studies have shown that randomly placing students into schools of very differently perceived quality has no impact whatsoever on different performance


All educational effects are downstream of intrinsic ability differences and perceived effects are ~100% the result of hidden selection effects

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Jul 31, 2022·edited Jul 31, 2022

Here in Republican land, the opposition to increased school spending comes down to three major factors:

1) reflexive opposition to increased taxes and/or more govt.

2) cultural concerns about godless heathen liberals trying to indoctrinate our kids.

3) racial dynamics where we are basically forced to pour much/most of the additional spending into majority-black schools.

1 is boring and there probably isn't much we can do about it. Getting the message out that each $1 of educational spending results in >$1 of benefit long-term may win over a tiny % of these people, but that's about it.

2 is more interesting, I think, but I don't see how to overcome it except maybe allowing school choice vouchers or whatever. Which Dems would never support.

3 is a local issue due to consent decrees from the 60s and 70s, so it's not really important from a national perspective.

I still like seeing the data, and maybe if word got out widely, it would have an effect in the purple-ish suburban areas. But that's probably the extent of it, w.r.t. persuading people that greater education spending is worthwhile.

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Parents know how much extra $ goes into fundraising, school supplies and other out of pocket costs like pre-K, after-school, tutoring, academic enrichment that probably aren't counted. Some teachers probably incur meaningful spend out of their pocket as well. Looking only at official spend figures is like judging a company's financial performance with only EBITDA or its many derivatives.

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I am not sure of the comparison, but vs. most developed countries, I’d suspect the US education system has a much wider range of spending per student due to our local funding model. Also hard to look at education in isolation of the differences in the social safety net. We ask schools to do a lot more than educate. Most of the data I have looked at suggests academic achievement is highly correlated to family income.

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