Education and the Best Laid Plans

In the comments to a recent post a regular commenter pointed out an interesting graph of the relationship between increased real expenditure in education and students’ test scores. It probably won’t surprise you that there isn’t one. Test scores have plateaued while real spending per student and overall have skyrocketed.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The first reason is that today we have something more nearly resembling universal education than ever before. Seventy, sixty, or even fifty years ago, we didn’t even attempt to educate quite a number of prospective students. They were warehoused. They were simply invisible. Today we do attempt to educate them and it’s very, very expensive. Their presence still isn’t reflected in the test scores because they don’t take the tests but their presence is reflected in increased spending.

Seventy years ago in many cases the education of African American or Hispanic students was perfunctory at best. The state today of the education of all of our students can be and is hotly debated but in my view the strides that have been made in extending education to all of our children are enormous, phenomenal. That this change isn’t reflected in the overall test scores may be an artifact of the process by which students are tested or it may even represent a triumph.

However, the third and, probably, the most significant reason is Gammon’s Law, about which I posted in one of my earliest posts here at The Glittering Eye. In a bureaucratic system, increase in expenditure will be matched by fall in production.

Gammon’s Law isn’t observed only in education. We’re seeing it in healthcare as well, where outputs per input have been falling for decades. That that is the case goes a long way to explaining why healthcare costs are rising everywhere, not just in the United States.

That isn’t to say that we aren’t seeing advances in healthcare. We are. But the costs are rising very, very sharply.

10 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    I will answer Andy here if it is ok. I do not honestly know how to put that all together as I have never seen anyone publish on it. But,I think Dave hits a lot of it. We have also added lots of special education spending also. Health care costs have gone up, and they are more effectively passed on than in private industry. Some of that increase will represent some real increase in wages. We now require teachers to maintain continuing education credits in some states. If this includes pensions, that may be a factor, but I am not knowledgeable about teacher pensions from before 1970 and what percent were unionized.

    On the test score side, my view is that family structure and culture are the primary determinants in achievement. Schools are secondary. The kids in South Korea study very many more hours than our kids. Throwing lots of money at high school kids when they dont have the family support/pressure to study and succeed makes little sense. We do need to do some to maintain the illusion of a meritocracy. Top test scores in high school do not necessarily guarantee success either.

    “Kim Seung-gi, a Korean-American education scholar, found in her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University that from 1985 to 2007 56%, or 784 out of 1,400, Korean students at 14 top American universities including Harvard University dropped out.”


  • Andy Link

    I’m very involved in the elementary school two of my kids attend. I’m on the PTO board, I know all the teachers and staff, a lot of the kids etc. This is a pretty average middle-class school that performs above average by the State’s measure but is not considered at the top tier.

    I know this extra spending and staff are not going toward teachers. It’s also not going to technology – the PTO replaced the schools computers this year, which were primarily original iMacs (yes, they were that old). A lot of money is spent on curriculum and other programs teachers use. I haven’t done much research on this topic, but it seems there is a vibrant “educational-industrial-complex” out there developing commercial products aimed at the educators. Some of these are very expensive. It used to be that teachers developed curriculum, but now there are so many mandated requirements that it’s simply easier to buy a ready-made curriculum that already meets whatever standard is required.

    Other than that, I’m not sure where the money goes. Pensions is obviously part of it, but at my school, at least, there isn’t a lot of extra staff. In addition to the teachers and principle, there’s a secretary, a couple of janitors and a couple of specialist educators. I’m not sure about the district level.

    Anyway, as a parent, this topic is a big concern for me.

  • steve Link

    I agree it is an important topic. Part of the issue is starting at 1970 when we did not have computers and there was little special ed. Still, as you point out, that does not seem like enough to account for all of it.

    We have been very involved with our son’s school. We travel with the speech and debate team to other schools in our area. I see buildings that are far from luxurious. In fact, a lot of the schools look run down. Staffing does not seem fat, but I am only visiting.

    After thinking about it, I am surprised that I cannot recall anyone breaking down where the extra spending goes. Given that this is not an unusual topic and I read way too many blogs, it is surprising I have not come across an answer. Rumor has it that CATO has economists. I am surprised that they did not break it down when they posted those charts. Will have to read up on it.


  • PD Shaw Link

    To my eye, that looks like about 5% increase in costs each year; that just looks like wage inflation in an area where salaries for teachers were historically low to begin with and where labor-saving machinery has not been introduced.

    Aside from that I think education is partly a positional good, which means its value is relative. People don’t know what makes a good education. (I don’t think the people at CATO do, they just think a market device will discover it) They look for attributes, which highly correlate to spending, which assure them that the education is at least as productive as other schools.

    I wish the chart would include non-governmental spending on children, because I think parents spend more on their kids out-of-pocket at a similar rates of increase since 1970. If parents had more money, I think the statistics show, they would spend more on their children.

  • Michael Reynolds Link

    If you consider that we’ve had more special needs kids mainstreamed, and more non-native English speakers introduced, a flatline may not be as abject a failure as it seems to be.

    But not to climb on my favorite hobby horse here, but we don’t have the vaguest idea how to educate kids or how to assess that education. That’s not a knock on teachers. I just don’t think school has a direct cause-effect relationship with education.

    I make a nice living writing fiction in a very competitive area. I have a tenth grade education.

    My 13 year-old could start work tomorrow at any web development company in the country. He has a 6th grade education. We allowed him to bail on 7th grade at a private “gifted” because they were actively impeding his education.

    My daughter struggled with dyslexia and was being written off until we brought her to Lindamood-Bell where — for 100 dollars an hour, four hours a day — they advanced her two years in two months. School didn’t do it, massive intervention did.

    School does not equal education. I don’t think school really causes education to occur. I’m not sure any causal relationship exists. I think school is where we park children until they hit 18. So I’m not really surprised that spending more on schools has no noticeable effect on education. Just like I wouldn’t be surprised if spending more money on biological research failed to cause better cell phone service.

  • Andy Link
  • steve Link

    Was biological research and cell phone a pun?


  • Michael Reynolds Link


    Um. . . yes. Yes it was. Planned it all along. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

  • Amusing, the link for the wikipedia page for gammon’s law is to my OTB post on it, and I learned of it from Dave.

  • Dr Max Gammon Link

    Andy,Steve, Dave,
    Belated thanks for drawing my attention to editor HJ Mitchell’s deletion of the Wikipedia Gammon’s Law page.
    ‘Gammon WAS a doctor’ is only the first of Mitchell’s egregious errors – I still AM. As for my ‘notability’; well, I suppose that few of my British colleagues have been honoured to give evidence on Health Care, in person, to the US Congress* or to be guest speaker at US Army Medical Department conferences at their HQ in San Antonio and in the Pentagon.
    As for my academic publications, apart from Google references, see for example. ‘Growth of Bureaucracy in the NHS’. Journal of Management in Medicine, Vol.3 1988-89.
    Finally Mitchell’s assertion that ‘His (Gammon’s) “law” has neither been shown to be empirically true, valid generally, or proven in any way.’ could only have been made by a benighted administroid – for my definition of a genuine administrator see my ADF teleconference note (Google).
    *Committee on Ways and Means, September 1975

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