Campus Scenes

Lower Education Blues

Because they compete for students, America's colleges do fine in global comparisons. Not so our elementary schools, which tolerate no competition.

By 9.12.08

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With another school year just under way, parents understandably wonder how well their children are advancing. Perhaps parents' real concern should be whether their children are actually falling behind. From a comparative viewpoint, they clearly are. America spends the most on education and gets less than virtually any developed nation. The failure of America's "lower education" system bears witness to competition's absence. Without fundamental reform, future generations will pay an increasing cost for this absence.

The National Center for Education Statistics compared 15 year-old public school students in several countries in several subject areas. Released in 2006, their study of 2003 results (their latest figures) shows the U.S. below the OECD average in math (483 to 500) and science (491 to 500) and just slightly above average (495 to 494) in reading. Only five nations scored below the U.S. in all these categories -- Greece, Italy, Portugal, Mexico, and Turkey.

Perhaps these results would be understandable, if not acceptable, if the U.S. spent less on education, but the reverse is true. The U.S. spent $8,900 per pupil. France spent $7,200; the U.K. $6,800; Japan, $6,800; and Germany, $6,500. As recently as the last school year, the U.S. spent $9,969 per pupil and $489 billion nationwide on elementary and secondary public education.

The difference between America's higher education and "lower education" -- its elementary and secondary systems -- is dramatic. While "lower ed" under-performs other developed countries', graduates from those systems flock to America's higher education institutions. This may convince some that everything equalizes over the long-term -- what's lost in the beginning is recouped at the end. Such thought is as shortsighted as it is wrong.

This is especially true for lower income students. Many such students begin the education race behind the starting line. It is little surprise that too many never reach the finish line at all. This slow start virtually requires additional education will be needed by those least able to afford it, or its absence. For lower income families, a self-replicating cycle threatens.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN America's primary and secondary public schools and its higher education system has been noted before; however, the defining difference of competition is too often overlooked. The performance gap is instead attributed to other factors -- colleges and universities' large endowments and that these institutions attract only the most motivated and talented students (while public primary and secondary schools take all comers).

Yet, the fact remains that on a global basis, U.S. higher education out-performs while U.S. elementary and secondary public education under-performs. Why? Competition. Competition is not the result of our higher education excellence, it is the cause. Students do not simply compete to get in, they do so because colleges compete with each other.

Competition is the very thing from which our primary and secondary public schools have so assiduously insulated themselves. America's "lower education" is literally locked in place. While American colleges attract students on a global level, our primary and secondary public schools trap students at the local level.

Thoroughly unportable, elementary and secondary public school students are forced to attend where they live -- unable to go across town, let alone across country. College students go wherever they wish (grades permitting). Because of it, colleges strive to attract dollars and students wherever they are -- locally, nationally, and internationally. Lower education neither wants nor needs students from beyond its local area. It defines a monopoly: many buyers facing a single supplier.

In contrast, the absence of competition drives out resources. Competition attracts them because, whether money or students, they know they will be rewarded in a competitive system. Of course American colleges excel. Students are willing to pay more to go to the better ones and colleges in turn are willing to make the investment to attract them -- ironically both are able to do so because federal education aid at the college level is completely portable.

THE OBVIOUS SOLUTION is to raise our "lower education" system as much as possible. To do this, our public schools must compete as much as possible and to do that, federal aid needs to be as portable as possible. Despite the laudable reforms of No Child Left Behind, portable federal school aid at the elementary and secondary level remains the exception, not the rule.

While our "lower education" system may imagine itself insulated from competition, America itself is not. To compete globally, we must start at the beginning. One look at the global competition dynamic explains why. Undeveloped nations compensate for worse education with lower wage and operating costs. Developed nations can compete, but only with higher productivity, which requires greater education. Where then is America's advantage? If it cannot compete with undeveloped nations' lower wages and is falling behind its developed competitors in the basic educational skills for the majority of its workforce, it finds itself in a particularly unattractive position. As the school year begins, perhaps what is most in need of education is our "lower education" system itself.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.