More than money, failures of U.S. schools require new strategies

By Demétrio Weber
O Globo, Rio de Janeiro
Friday, December 18, 2009; 1:29 PM

WASHINGTON -- It was shortly before noon on a Tuesday morning, and the students from Ballou High School had spent time at a college information fair. Now, with their teachers distracted, they had slipped outside and were headed down the street -- until a police car rolled up on the sidewalk and the officer told them to turn around. They did.

For the officer, mission accomplished. But not so for anyone else. From President Obama to education authorities at the state and municipal levels, the still-unmet challenge is how to make school more attractive and compel students to learn more.

The United States spends more money per student than nearly every other developed country in the world, yet it has come to learn that money alone is not enough. Students are behind their Asian and European counterparts, according to leading global assessments.

Between 2000 and 2006, the United States fell from 21st place to 35th place in math on the exam given by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which represents 30 of the largest free-market democracies in the developed world.

During the same period, the country fell from 16th place to 29th place in science. In both instances, its scores were below the average of the countries that belong to the group. A technical glitch prevented the U.S. reading scores from being measured.

"It's not that their kids are any smarter than ours," Obama told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March, referring to nations that fare better. "It's that they are being smarter about how to educate their children."

The federal government in the United States, like its counterpart in Brazil, plays only a supporting role in primary and secondary education, leaving the larger task to state governments and to local school districts, some of which can include more than one municipal jurisdiction.

The U.S. Department of Education, the equivalent of Brazil's Ministry of Education, has a budget this year of $62.6 billion, slightly more than 11 percent of the $543 billion expected to be spent by all levels of government in elementary, middle and high school education. Taking into account private spending and postsecondary education, the department estimates that spending nationwide on education will total $1 trillion.

Like Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Obama proposed a spending package that would help public education take a much-dreamed-of leap in quality, saying he wanted to make about $100 billion available in a call to arms to compensate for the loss of revenue resulting from the country's financial crisis.

He hoped states would follow the federal government's lead and noted that another program, "The Race to the Top," would allocate an additional $4.35 billion to states with projects that addressed objectives set by the federal government.

The OECD calculated that the United States spent $10,821 per student in 2006 on secondary education in public and private schools. Among 26 countries with data available for public and private school expenditures, OECD's Education at a Glance 2009 report found only one that spent more than the United States: Norway, with $11,435.

"While money is important, money is no guarantee for success in education," Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the OECD and the coordinator of the standardized test, said in an e-mail interview. "You also need to take into account that, while spending is high on average in the United States, there is very large regional and local variation in educational spending, because spending on schools is linked to the wealth of the communities in which these are located."

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