During the debate, Bob Schieffer asked a question that opened with the premise: “the U.S. spends more per capita than any other country on education; yet, by every international measurement, in math and science competence, from kindergarten through the 12th grade, we trail most of the countries of the world.” That didn’t sound true to me, but I figured maybe CBS checked the accuracy of this kind of thing before putting their anchor out there to say it. Nope! Turns out it’s just not true. You rarely actually get a survey of educational attainment that measures all countries, but Kevin Carey points to the 2004 PISA test as an example of a more accurate assessment: “Of the 45 countries ranked in the eighth-grade survey, the United States was 15th in math and 9th in science; among 25 countries in the fourth-grade rankings, it was 12th in math and 6th in science.” And of course tests like that tend not to include countries like, say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other very poor states that the US has no problem besting.
But maybe Schieffer was right on the spending side? Well, no, not really. To get the US to come out number one, you have to look at all spending including higher education spending. But including things like multi-million dollar salaries for college football coaches isn’t a very enlightening comparison. If you limit the analysis to primary and secondary education, you’ll see that, yes, some countries spend more than we do.
And of course to get super-technical about it, one reason we spend a lot on education is that we’re a rich country so relative to other, poorer countries (i.e., almost every country), we spend more on everything. In percent of GDP terms, many countries invest more in education than we do while we, in turn, spend more on health care and the military than most countries do.