Commentary: Should Uncle Sam Pour More Bucks Into Schools?

Ready, class? Sharpen your No.2 pencils and answer a few simple questions about the state of public education in America.

Reducing class size will:

a. Improve children's test scores

b. Have no effect on performance

c. Both of the above

Students' test scores:

a. Have risen over the past 20 years

b. Rank low internationally

c. Both of the above

The U.S. economy's world-beating performance:

a. Has nothing to do with test scores

b. May fade as overseas students excel

c. Both of the above

If you answered "c" to all three questions, congratulations! You have a handle on how difficult it is to evaluate America's educational system. Dozens of academic papers have been written on the subject of class size, and studies have been conducted from Connecticut to Tennessee. Yet little consensus has been reached. Experts disagree about whether the glass is half empty or half full. Wags look at how America's high-tech and information industries have led a productivity and growth revival that is the envy of the world and wonder: If we're so dumb, how come we're so rich?

Given this degree of clarity, it hardly seems time to ramp up education spending. Yet President Clinton wants the Education Dept., always a small player in the funding of elementary and secondary-school education, to spend an additional $2.2 billion in fiscal year 1999 on initiatives such as reducing class size for grades 1 to 3 and promoting technology in the classroom. Republicans are threatening to hack away at the request.

There are good reasons to question more spending. Over the past 30 years, spending per student--the bulk of it locally financed--has more than doubled in real terms, to a nationwide average of $6,500, helping to push the pupil-teacher ratio down from 24 to a shade over 17. Meanwhile, after improving in the 1960s, national assessments of reading, writing, mathematics, and science plunged in the '70s and early '80s, only to recover slightly in recent years. And on recently released international tests, U.S. 12th-graders fared poorly against many Northern European and East Asian students.

So the payoff from that spending appears piddling, and pouring yet more money into education would seem like folly. Yet it's not that simple. There are long lags between the time reforms are adopted and results are detected. And it's often in the workplace, not in exam rooms, that the payoff becomes clear. Students who hit the books and buoyed their math scores in the 1960s are in their 40s, managing corporations. They completed more schooling and were more likely to go on to college than the previous generation, and now are earning a higher return on their efforts.

That trend toward more years of schooling is catching on. In Europe, a university education is no longer just for the elite, and students are well-prepared in secondary schools. That's what makes the international test results troubling: In 10 to 20 years, those students now outperforming U.S. kids could give their nations' businesses a big edge in the global sweepstakes.

Or maybe not. Maybe those intangibles of American success, such as creativity, openness, and flexibility, will make the difference. But why gamble? Why not try to raise scores?

Improvements have to happen, of course, at the local level. But the feds can help in championing change, especially by sponsoring well-designed experiments to learn which reforms truly work. Rather than finance a nationwide reduction in class size as President Clinton has proposed, the Education Dept. should fund more and better tests of the impact of smaller class size. Or, as Princeton University economist Alan B. Krueger suggests, other "incremental reforms," such as a longer school year, after-hours programs, and summer programs could be tried and studied. These initiatives needn't be as costly as the current budget requests. But they could play a big part in leveraging meaningful reform at the grass roots.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE