New report shows innovation is key in education reform, not spending

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The results are in for one of the most important global rankings in education — and the scores for the United States aren’t good.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a test completed by more than 500,000 15-year-old students in 72 countries every three years in order to measure how each country’s education system is stacking up globally. Students work through two hours of problems related to “science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy” and their scores are analyzed to determine where each country is falling short in education.

Among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States sits in the middle of the pack, performing around the OECD average in science and reading and below average in math.

One-in-five U.S. 15-year-olds are rated as “low performers” in science, which is twice as many low performers as in countries high on the rankings such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

While the United States has made improvements in narrowing the educational gap for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, overall performance of U.S. students is clearly lagging.

According to the report, Germany and Hong Kong are good case studies for the United States to learn from, as these countries’ students are similarly diverse yet have been able to consistently achieve higher PISA scores.


The report suggests several possible solutions, including improving teaching styles and extending school hours.

“How teachers teach science is more strongly associated with science performance and students’ expectations of working in a science-related occupation than the material and human resources of science departments, including the qualifications of teachers or the kinds of extracurricular science activities offered to students,” according to the report.

Though higher education spending is generally correlated with higher scores, this effect diminishes considerably after a certain point. “For example, Estonia, which spends about USD 66,000 per student, and Chinese Taipei, which spends around USD 46,000 per student, perform above Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland — all of which spend more than double this amount (more than USD 132,000 per student).”

The Economist displays this point perfectly in the graph below. For countries that spend below $50,000 (purchasing-power parity, 2013 dollars) per student, increasing education spending can make a substantial difference. After $50,000 however, the effect is barely noticeable. Whether countries spend $50,000 per student (Russia) or close to $200,000 (Luxembourg), test scores no longer correlate well with spending after they cross the $50,000 threshold.

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This is especially relevant in the United States, where the left’s normal response to education reform is to demand more funding for public schools. Yet, inflation-adjusted education spending has almost quadrupled in the last 40 years, and test scores have stayed flat (or even declined slightly).

So if spending more money isn’t working, shouldn’t we try something new?

That’s the view of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s newly appointed Secretary of Education. DeVos is a controversial figure in education circles due to her unwavering support of charter schools, which are unafraid to experiment with new teaching styles, governance structures and school policies.

The evidence shows that we need to innovate in education. The current model is not working. And even though some charter schools have found groundbreaking success in trying new approaches to teaching and school organization, they are often blocked by state governments who face enormous pressure from teachers’ unions. Politicians like to claim that they are blocking charter schools in order to help low-income, disadvantaged students — and yet, it is those students that want access to charters the most.

Numerous studies have shown that charter schools have the most impact on reducing the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap. “Charter schools are controversial. But are they good for education? Rigorous research suggests that the answer is yes for an important, underserved group: low-income, nonwhite students in urban areas,” said Susan Dynarski, an education professor, in the New York Times.

The ever-increasing trend of education spending and the stagnant trend of mediocre test scores should tell us that the current way of doing things just isn’t good enough. It’s time to give charters a chance and let the power of innovative thinking give opportunity to the students who need it most.

Daniel Huizinga is a columnist for Opportunity Lives covering business and politics. Follow him on Twitter @HuizingaDaniel.