Republished on VDARE.com on January 27, 2004
Forbes, Nov 21, 1994 v154 n12 p52(3)
WOULD ANY management worth a damn put most of its dollars into its weakest divisions and starve the promising ones of capital? Not and live for long. But that's just what the U.S. is doing in education. (And it's what FORBES columnist Peter Huber thinks we should do with the new learning technology—see p. 210.) The results are easily predictable.
Some 70% of federal spending on elementary and secondary education goes to the disadvantaged and handicapped (see chart right). Adding bilingual and vocational programs takes the share above 80%.
By contrast, the "Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program," the sole federal program focused on brighter children, only began in 1989. Its share of federal elementary and secondary funding: never more than one-tenth of 1%.
Similarly, last year's Department of Education National Excellence report provided an estimate of state and local expenditures aimed at gifted and talented students in 1990: only 2 cents out of every $100. That's not a typo. Two cents out of every $100. And that amount, the report suggested, was probably a high point—subsequent budget crises resulted in spending cuts that fell "unevenly" on gifted and talented programs.
(Note also that when the term "gifted and talented" gets into politicians' paws, it may come out meaning something quite different than when it went in. The Department of Education's official description of the Javits program says "priority is given to identifying students missed by traditional assessment methods [including children who are economically disadvantaged, limited-English proficient, or have disabilities]." Traditional assessment methods almost certainly include IQ tests.)
This shift in national priorities away from the gifted toward what FORBES columnist Huber calls "the least gifted kids" dates back to the 1960s. Previously, for example, the federal aid to education shaken loose by the Sputnik scare during the Eisenhower Administration went primarily to high-IQ science and technology areas.
Of course, spending on "the least gifted kids" may have had some positive results. In an overlooked passage in their new book The Bell Curve authors Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray report what will seem to some a surprise: The average student is probably no worse educated today than he has ever been.
Of course, remember that fewer than half of American 18-year-olds graduated from high school as late as 1940. In the old days today's average student would probably have already escaped from formal education and be out earning a living.
But whatever the new national priority did for the disadvantaged, it does not seem to have helped the gifted very much. Herrnstein and Murray argue that the famous 1963-80 "Great Decline" in college-bound students' SAT scores reflected a real deterioration in education at this relatively selective level. It cannot be explained away by the usual excuses, such as "democratization" of the test-taking pool. Even more significantly, they point out, the proportion of 17-year-olds scoring above 700 also fell sharply (see charts opposite). Suddenly, America's best and brightest decided to stop learning. They had figured out that they didn't have to bother. The curriculum had been "dumbed down" to help the weaker students.
Parent revolt may have caused the education establishment to go through the motions of tightening standards. And this has had an effect in math, where wrong answers cannot be defended as multicultural diversity. Math scores have rebounded, although not all that far beyond the levels of 30 years ago. (Asian immigration is not yet great enough to raise the average much.) Verbal scores, however, remain low.
So the problem appears to be a classic one in economics: Resources are limited—where should they be allocated to get the best return?
However, another amazing thing about America's amazing education system is that resources do not seem to have been particularly limited at all (see chart right). Per-pupil spending has continued its dizzying climb. It reached $5,971 in 1993, up nearly a third in real terms since the Nation At Risk report launched the most recent education scare, in 1983. Similarly, the pupil/teacher ratio is well below 1960s levels and is about as low as it has ever been.
Thus U.S. education has a full-fledged productivity crisis to match its quality crisis: The more we spend, the less we get for the money. The reason, in both cases: the structure of the educational system itself.
For example, the average size of school districts has been growing throughout the century. It seems to have accelerated during the last decade of education reform rhetoric. Of course, larger school districts mean more administration and coordinators of more exotic programs (as well as more building and busing programs for pork-hungry politicians). Possibly those extra teachers spend their time talking to bureaucrats.
Larger school districts also probably mean less local control. And local control matters. This seems to lie behind an astounding finding by Victor Fuchs and Diane Reklis in their recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper Mathematical Achievement in Eighth Grade: Interstate and Racial Differences. They found that success was influenced mainly by home environment. But one school-related variable seemed to count. When the school got a high proportion of its money from the state, scores (wait for it!) fell.