The Inefficiency of Education Spending

One of the great criticisms (i.e., oft voiced) of our education system is that spending (per student) has shot up over the past 30-40 years, but test scores have barely budged. While the degree of the spending increase is usually overstated, and test scores have grown more than critics give credit for*, the criticism actually is true. 

(*Obviously, there is no clear standard for how much scores should increase, but the real issue there in the cherry picking of one test that has shown the least increase. This exaggerates the lack of increase in test scores, as not adjusting spending for inflation exaggerates spending increases.)

However, this criticism entirely misses the mark. In fact, the moral mission of education requires our system to get less efficient over time. 

Though there have been occasional technological break throughs that have greatly increased the efficiency of education (e.g., books), education has always been a very labor-intensive task. While technology can lower the cost of information dissemination, that has long been the easiest element of schooling. So much of the work of schools entails diagnosing errors and holes in students' thinking through examination of their work and what they say, leading to individualized  explanations and scaffolding to support their learning. Of course, monitoring and maintaining student engagement and motivation is similarly individualized. And this says nothing of the basic daily childcare role our schools. 

There's no reason to expect efficiency gains in these areas, despite our ever-improving technology. But that does not explain increasing costs. Increasing teachers wages in amid a growing economy and standard of living is, of course, a portion of it. But there is something much deeper pushing against increasing efficiency in schooling. 

Our schools -- everyone's schools -- historically have not attended to all students equally. We have long tolerated or even encouraged some kinds of students to drop out. Heck, back in the day we did nothing to encourage them to enroll in the first place.

Who have we focused on? Children best prepared to learn. The smartest students. Students from the most stable and supportive families and communities. Students most readily able to learn, who need the least support from their schools. The cheapest students to educate.

But for most educators, the moral mission of our schools is to educate all students. All

That means that we need to put greater efforts into reaching students who need more support from their schools, students who are more expensive to educate. These can include students with physical, emotional, mental and/or learning disabilities. These can include students whose parents lack even high school degrees. Students from families less able to support their children's educational pursuits. Students from families whose social and economic conditions are more likely to impede than to support school work and learning.

In the last two decades -- under Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama -- there has been incredible federal pressure on schools to pay attention to lower-performing students. Schools have been judged by their success at bringing up those students, rather than being able to claim success merely by focusing on students already doing well in school. 

The moral mission of our public schools requires them to target the more difficult (and expensive) to educate students. Success in our public schools comes when we make greater efforts to reach these students, to close achievement gaps, and bring up every student to the level they need to be successful in their further education and/or work, after high school. 

Of course we want to get better at reaching all students. Of course we would like to find ways to reach all students that are less resource intensive -- in large part because as  we free of up resources from some students, we can do a better job of reaching other students. But we have so far to go in the mission of reaching all students that and efficiency gains will -- and morally ought to be -- used to do still better with students whose performance we judge lacking. 

Unlike so much of the world -- unlike the world of commerce and profit motives -- the moral missions of our public schools requires educators to seek out what others might call the worst customers, or the least profitable customers. Charter and other private schools can target their marketing and counsel out students they find too challenging to educate, but public school success is often defined as doing well with precisely those students. 

Complaints about long term declines in school efficiency are not only misguided, but actually immoral.