The rising cost of K-12 education

The schools used to get a massive implicit subsidy in the form of women and African-Americans who couldn’t get good non-teaching jobs due to employment discrimination. That’s gone. To maintain quality is going to cost more money.

One argument often raised for moving toward privatization of K-12 education is that massive increases in real-dollar spending per pupil over the past forty years don’t seem to have done much for pupil performance

Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber points up one important countervailing force: the loss of the massive implicit subsidy to K-12 education from denying well-educated women other career opportunities. The people who could be doing a better job of teaching our kids than the current crop of K-12 teachers are practicing law instead.

In the U.S., the civil rights revolution deprived the schools of a another captive group of superb teachers: those who previously couldn’t get other professional-class jobs due to their race.

Another similar effect was the passing of the Depression generation. If you graduated from college in 1935, schoolteaching, with its guaranteed salary, looked like a great profession. (Mr. Bernhardt, who taught me trig and calculus, worked on the side as a consulting mathematician to one of the aerospace companies.) Those folks mostly retired around 1970, by which time smart college graduates had much better options.

Add all of this to Baumol’s “cost disease” (the natural tendency of labor-intensive services with limited room for productivity gains to face rising relative prices) and it’s not hard to see why school budgets have had to run hard just to stay in place.

That’s not all that’s been going on, of course, and it’s no reason not to try hard to do better. Indeed, it strongly suggests that the teacher-standing-in-front-of-the-classroom model is doomed, and we’re going to have take a serious crack at applying videogame technology to instruction. But the notion that we’ve been pouring more and more money into our public schools and not getting much for it can’t be taken at face value. The real-dollar cost of K-12 education at any given quality level is irreversibly higher now than it was forty years ago. If we want high-quality teachers, we’re going to have to pay them real money.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

6 thoughts on “The rising cost of K-12 education”

  1. Take a look at German schools. Teachers get close to $100k a year. And the students come out literate and numerate. It can be done. The French do pretty well, too, and they spend less.

  2. You're right that "That's not all that's been going on, of course,…"
    While I would hesitate to compare myself to your teacher, Mr. Bernhardt, I'd say there's a good chance I could teach math about as well. I've consulted in related areas, I've practiced law, and I've even tutored a few kids in math gratis.
    The reasons I won't teach in a public school are multifold. The teachers unions have brought about completely irrelevant licensure requirements. Teachers are not empowered to maintain discipline in their classrooms, yet they are required to enforce bizarre "zero tolerance" rules or lose their jobs. Teachers are expected to pass all students. Teachers who encourage brilliant students are castigated for everything from racial prejudice to political incorrectness. The list iis almost endless.
    I've considered teaching in a private school as a retirement career. But you'd have to hold a gun to my head to get me to teach in a public school.

  3. If we want high-quality teachers, we're going to have to pay them real money.
    Maybe. One piece of evidence to the contrary, I think, would be the large supply of adjuncts for entry-level classes and community college teachers. Teaching remedial community-college math, and teaching high-school math, are pretty much teaching the same material; at least here in VA, community college teachers make only about 75% of what high school teachers do; but CC jobs are hard to get and there are many good candidates.
    I think classroom control issues and licensing requirements discourage more teachers than the pay scale.
    I would also observe that a significant part of the increased cost of K-12 education has been a higher ratio of administrators to teachers, rather than increased teacher pay.

  4. If you want to make a comparison, why not compare public school costs to, say, Catholic school costs? The same sorts of issues apply there, and in addition the declining number of members of religious groups has meant a concomitant decline in the number of very nearly free teachers. Have costs increased as much in Catholic schools as they've increased in public schools?
    I do think there's a lot of wisdom to questioning the traditional model. If we're going to pour money into technology–and we have been and seem committed to–we should expect either some pedagogical gains or some efficiency gains. So far, we haven't seen either.

  5. If we want high-quality teachers, we're going to have to pay them real money.
    Says who? I forget where I saw this, but someone pointed out that in Berkeley, California, you have bright graduate students teaching calculus to 18-year-olds for $20,000 a year less than high school teachers get for teaching 18-year-olds across the street (and doing quite a bit worse of a job). Maybe that's true; maybe that's not; but it seems intuitively right to me, knowing how poorly adjuncts and graduate assistants are paid in universities generally. If that's right, then obviously you don't have to pay bright people $100,000 a year to get them to teach calculus. You have to give them prestige, and you should probably try to ensure that they don't have to put up with bullshit (i.e., meaningless certification requirements).

  6. One issue with the cost of education (and, for that matter, health care as well) that always flies under the radar is that it is essentially a handicraft industry. It is simply not possible to effectively increase productivity as in other industries. The brain doesn't have an accelerator you can step on and technology is of limited value in stepping up the learning rate. As with everything else, if you want it handmade you need to pay more — a lot more.

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