Education system return on investment – not good

An almost terrifying report released in April, McKinsey & Company, a very diversified consulting firm, reported kids were falling further behind the longer they stayed in the United States education system. The report compared four specific areas including comparisons to other countries, race differences, economic differences and geographic differences.

My interest immediately got me thinking about economic differences since data shows areas with a higher median family income have kids that do better in school. It’s not the student to teacher ratio, teacher benefits or dollars spent per student. I found it interesting that this report mostly avoided the cost spent per child.

The full report is 24 pages and a suggested read. Walter Williams had an article this week and quotes from the study.

[T]he longer American children are in school, the worse they perform compared to their international peers. In recent cross-country comparisons of fourth grade reading, math, and science, US students scored in the top quarter or top half of advanced nations. By age 15 these rankings drop to the bottom half. In other words, American students are farthest behind just as they are about to enter higher education or the workforce.

The racial gap is significant and a huge concern, but that can be directly attributed to the economic gap. Williams goes on to remind us about the failure of government involvement in education.

The teaching establishment and politicians have hoodwinked taxpayers into believing that more money is needed to improve education. The Washington, D.C., school budget is about the nation’s costliest, spending about $15,000 per pupil. Its student/teacher ratio, at 15.2 to 1, is lower than the nation’s average. Yet student achievement is just about the lowest in the nation. What’s so callous about the Washington situation is about 1,700 children in kindergarten through 12th grade receive the $7,500 annual scholarships in order to escape rotten D.C. public schools, and four times as many apply for the scholarships, yet Congress, beholden to the education establishment, will end funding the school voucher program.

The following is one of the reasons I enjoy reading Prof. Williams’ stuff and hope to thank him in person some day. He’s so right on the money here, with my emphasis in bold.

Any long-term solution to our education problems requires the decentralization that can come from competition. Centralization has been massive. In 1930, there were 119,000 school districts across the U.S; today, there are less than 15,000. Control has moved from local communities to the school district, to the state, and to the federal government. Public education has become a highly centralized government-backed monopoly and we shouldn’t be surprised by the results. It’s a no-brainer that the areas of our lives with the greatest innovation, tailoring of services to individual wants and falling prices are the areas where there is ruthless competition such as computers, food, telephone and clothing industries, and delivery companies such as UPS, Federal Express and electronic bill payments that have begun to undermine the postal monopoly in first-class mail.

One note about dollars spent per student. Although the study does not got into how much is spent per student, they do discuss how much is spent per “point” for the Program for International Assessment (PISA) test on page 9. I’ll just leave you with this graph and another pointer to the report. Click on the graph for a larger version.


Posted in

Steve McGough

Steve's a part-time conservative blogger. Steve grew up in Connecticut and has lived in Washington, D.C. and the Bahamas. He resides in Connecticut, where he’s comfortable six months of the year.


  1. Dimsdale on June 3, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    It really comes down to how the students value education, and that comes directly from the parents.  Poor families, say, in India (not on that list for some reason), can produce hard working, educationally successful children, while rich children (anywhere) can, and frequently do, produce lazy children who think the world (or more precisely, mommy and daddy) owes them a living (see Paris Hilton).  Some think playing basketball or some other sport will get them a multimillion dollar contract on Easy Street.  Too bad there are too few addresses on Easy Street… (you have better odds of winning the lottery than being a professional sports player).

    Prof. Williams is right: centralized, monopolistic public education is almost an anathema to excellence in teaching/learning.  Competition, in anything, produces a better product (throw Darwinism at the skeptics: it is genetic capitalism!).  That is, in part, why parochial schools are, one average, so much better than their public counterparts.  The other part is, as I said above, due to the fact that the parents value education, and are not going to let their children vegetate in the government schools.  The parochial schools spend a fraction of the cost needed for public schools, but get results, because the concentrate on the subjects that matter, and have high expectations from the students, as do their parents.

    Do we even need to bring up homeschooling?

    As for vouchers: isn't it telling that choice is a "right" when talking about abortions, but choice is taken out of the hands of D.C. parents that simply want their wanted children to succeed?  Arguments against vouchers are lame and self serving on the part of the teacher's unions.

  2. Steve McGough on June 3, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Maybe it's a mind-set? I think these kids never get the "yes you can" message when it comes to good grades and attending college. No matter what the income, if the parent drives the kid to be his or her best, my guess is they do succeed.

    How can we measure that? Look at the successful and they may point to a parent, grandparent, older sibling, or teacher who rode their ass excessively as a main motivator.

  3. rush on June 3, 2009 at 3:36 pm


    You sound like a liberal.Your exact words"the rich frequently produce lazy kids"

    Whats with your angst with the rich and if what you say is true than we would

    not want anyone in this country to strike it rich because it will make their children

    lazy,your words not mine.C'mon Dims get back on board.Capitalism will always

    rule the day.

    • Dimsdale on June 4, 2009 at 12:16 pm

      I will forget that you said that! 😉  That being said, I have seen far too many students at BU, BC, BU Med, and a few med schools and state schools that just plain don't really care about their education, particularly when Daddy has a nice job waiting for them. There are exceptions of course, but you can really see the difference at community colleges: the students are older, paying for it themselves, and working, raising familiese etc. as well as going to school.  They far outclass regular college students in study habits and test performance.

      Skeptical is right on all counts.  And yes, the teacher's unions suck out loud.  I am in one, so I know.

  4. Linda Mae on June 3, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Years ago I high school students on an exchange program with Germany.  I was amazed at their system.  I think it may be more the norm throughout Europe. After 4th grade, students took exams – in blue books which stayed with the school system.  At that point they became divided.  Some went to the hauptschule – work related strand usually in partnership with a company – until age 16.  We visited with executives with the Ford Company which discussed how they tailored their program to provide basic skills as well as job related ones. Others went to the realeschule – an 11th grade program which sounded like what we once called the general program in American high schools.  Students were supposed to be able to enter one of many professions covered. The most academic students attended the gymnasium – a 12 year program which prepared students for university.  At first I was very upset by the system.  After 3 years of the 3 – week exchange program, I changed my mind.  I thought the division at such an early age to be so unfair.  Then, I reexamined what we did in the States.  We changed our high school structure and provided more academic subjects.   Then we told students who were struggling because they were concrete learners – not abstract learners – that they were somehow "broken," and needed  remediation.  We completely insulted their learning styles and the fact that book learning was not what they could do.  Many of these kids had IQ's which were high – they just prefered to work with their hands.

    I have not seen very much change in our academic system  There are apprentice programs looking for students but we seem to push everyone to "college."  It was wonderful to bring representatives from trades into our Grade 8 Career Day to make kids aware of their options.  I still think we need to do more.  As my 8th graders were trying to select courses, I used to emphasize the need to learn skills which would allow them to earn a living and support a family. 

    Europe gives tests to a very select group.  We give the tests to a very diverse ability group.  Of course, we will do less than they since all of our kids haven't had the same math courses, etc.  You cannot compare apples to oranges and then declare that the oranges are not red enough.  If you included students from all 3 strands of students in Germany and tested them against our kids, then I believe you'd find the results equal. Sorry it's long.

  5. skepticalcynic on June 4, 2009 at 5:11 am

    Blame whoever or whatever you want to blame, just lay off the teachers.  The whole answer to doing better in school BEGINS and ENDS with ……PARENTS.  If they take an interest and drive their kids, the kids get the most from school. 

    Take a teacher out of Hartford, where I guess all the teachers suck because the grades are so poor, and move them to Glastonbury and BAM! A miracle!  This same teacher now has kids who are attentive, learn and succeed!  It must be the AIR!!! Bottle it, sell it!!!  Check out what percentage of parents (or should I say PARENT) attend parent teacher conferences in Hartford and check out the numbers for these same conferences in more affluent towns.  The numbers will blow your mind.  A kids grows up in a home where education is REALLY valued (not just lip service) and the school district, the teacher, the books, the sports, the EVERYTHING ELSE amounts to NOTHING more than icing on the cake.

    And Linda while I agree that FAR FAR too much is made of making sure you go to college or you suck, letting the government decide which path your kids takes is a bit scary.  I'm not saying that focasing on a kids strengths is a crappy thing,  its just that you are starting down a slippery slope.

    • Linda Mae on June 4, 2009 at 5:55 pm

      I agree about the government but remember the results of testing determines the route students take.  There were no "remedial" classes because good kids who were not book learners did less than those who were academic learners.

      CMT testing did wonders for improving writing skills.  Suddenly, the skills needed to write effectively were covered by all.  If Bush did anything right, it was that he called for a Commission on the Teaching of Math in the US.  It was a 2 year study.  I loved the results.  It slammed the Nat. Council of Teachers of Math:  kids need to learn their basic math facts before they can do well on the higher order skills.  The Singapore math curriculum is absolutely beautiful to review.  I learned about it from a home school parent.

  6. Steve McGough on June 4, 2009 at 5:41 am

    I'm not going to lay off teachers and do you know why? Their union (NEA) constantly screams they do not have the funding to hire/keep good teachers. The NEA is not in the business of crying out for more parent involvement, they are about getting higher salaries, enhanced benefits for their membership, and ensuring voucher programs are attacked on a regular basis.

    There are two areas involved… Student results and budget/cost issues. I completely agree that parents must be more involved, but if teachers continue to support NEA actions, they are a target for reform as well.

  7. Steve McGough on June 4, 2009 at 5:43 am

    I forgot to mention my true solution. Get government completely out of the education business.

    • skepticalcynic on June 4, 2009 at 7:38 am

      Youre right steve, NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND was a miserable joke. 

      But, again.  For what good teachers do (and there are good and bad in EVERY profession) Their pay is pedestrian at best.  You want to cut back on administrators, be my guest.  But if I hear that teachers work till 2:30 and have half a year off on more time the sheer stupidity of that arguement will make me puke.  Really see what goes into a teachers day before someone becomes an EXPERT on how hard a teacher works.  Next to a politician or a cop, I have yet to see a profession that has its challenges AND is target for more PC feel good balony programs and all the responsibilities they entail than do teachers.  

    • Steve McGough on June 4, 2009 at 8:03 am

      OK, you'll notice that I highlighted teacher benefits and not just salary. I don't doubt that teachers work damn hard, and you know what, so do I over here in the private sector. But guess what… no where in the private sector (anymore) can someone get the type of retirement benefits that teachers (and most government employees) get. You can say "that's the deal that everyone agreed on" but take a look at General Motors and Chrysler and you'll see exactly what providing unsustainable benefits can do.

      I've been putting off the research for a new article to expose the differences between private sector benefits and public sector benefits. I'll start to work on that as soon as I have the time to do so. I don't have the summer off 😉 (j/k).

    • skepticalcynic on June 4, 2009 at 11:08 am

      Youre probably right Steve.  Teachers bennys are probably better,(I appreciate the insurance, thats for sure, that I will admit)  but it makes up for the pitiful pay they get IF, AND AGAIN, IF they put the effort into running their classes the way they may not be REQUIRED to, but do out of a sense of duty, and pride.  Like any other occupation.

      I'm in the private sector.  My wifes a teacher.  And a good one.  Shes working, AT HOME, till 8 or 9 OCLOCK 5 or 6 days a week.  During her time off she is REQUIRED to continue her education.  Are the bennys good?  The retirement is far far less impressive than cops or fireman (and I think they should be) and far less impressive than I give myself.  I make in apprx ONE DAY what she makes a week.  When she went back to work she  picked teaching NOT because of PAY, BENNIES OR VACATION time.  She picked it simply because she liked the idea of sharing knowledge and she loved the idea that her time off would more or less coincide with the kids time off.

      I don't think we are that far off in thinking about education Steve, its just I see the frustration first hand.

      Theres a ton wrong with education these days, and she and MOST of her teacher friends will admit to it.  But this supposed "killing" they make in salary and bennies is laughable.  The auto industry package is not even in the SAME PLANET as the package teachers get. 

      Its funny how "education" is priceless.  The politicians tell that to us, we tell that to the kids, the world revolves around education and knowledge.  Education is deemed priceless……until teacher compensation comes into the picture.  Then the outrage starts.

      Don't like their union?  I don't blame others.  Unions are like lawyers.  They are all scummy until you have one working for you.  Its life I guess.

    • Steve McGough on June 4, 2009 at 2:37 pm

      Pitiful pay? I think not – especially in Connecticut where teachers average almost $60k.

      Thread drift: Shorter comments please folks! Brevity!

  8. homosapiens on June 5, 2009 at 4:05 am

    Sorry, Steve. I enjoy reading the longer comments. They convey nuance which is so important in this day of headline news nuggets.

The website's content and articles were migrated to a new framework in October 2023. You may see [shortcodes in brackets] that do not make any sense. Please ignore that stuff. We may fix it at some point, but we do not have the time now.

You'll also note comments migrated over may have misplaced question marks and missing spaces. All comments were migrated, but trackbacks may not show.

The site is not broken.