What Determines a “Quality Education”? (by Guest Blogger Basil McKeon)

pencilsIt’s easy to think that the United States doesn’t spend enough on education: looking around at the state of our schools, inequality among demographics, and our dated curriculum one can quickly assess that our school system does not receive enough funding. While spending more money couldn’t hurt, is it the biggest determinant of quality education?

Japan is perhaps the best example to show us that no, it is not. Japan spends roughly .5% of their GDP on education, compared to the US’s almost 1.0% (these numbers fluctuate when counting public & private expenditures, up to 3.5% and 5.0%, respectively.) It can be difficult to find exact numbers on a country’s educational expenditures, but comparing relative data reveals the same trend — that money is not the entire story. In fact, the US spends the most per-pupil K-12 than any other country, second only to Switzerland by a small margin, according to an OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2013 study.

Japan, Korea, Australia, Germany, and Poland all spend less on education but outperform American students on national tests. Conversely, France, Portugal, Ireland, and Austria spend more than the US but perform worse on national tests. (Expenditures are in terms of percentage of GDP, and test scores are averaged across disciplines.) Other countries, like Finland and China, spend much more on education, and outperform heavily on national tests. China does not officially release its figures, but from third-party estimates spends almost 4% of their GDP on education, and simply dominates the charts of national test scores.

Recently I came across this data and presented it to a class at Portland State University, and  then asked the class what this data could reflect in terms of money vs performance. From our readings, we learned that teacher quality was the single biggest factor when gauging student outcomes. So, quite simply, more money means access to better teachers here in America. Our class determined, because of our national testing system, that good teachers are moving out of the public sector in favor of private sector jobs because they have more autonomy in the classroom.

The US spends a lot per-pupil, but arguably does not invest in equitable, and quality, teacher training, and also expects teachers to follow stringent curricula based on tests and not life skills. Other countries follow a more “discipline-based” learning style that focuses on developing life skills like research, critical thinking, assessment and collaboration, whereas much of the US’s curriculum focuses on memorization-and-recall, with multiple-choice testing platforms replacing essay-based answers.

While I personally think that the US could spend more on education, global data suggests that quality education is less about money and more about curriculum.

Readers, what are your thoughts on this?


20 thoughts on “What Determines a “Quality Education”? (by Guest Blogger Basil McKeon)

  1. Interesting post. I feel is important to give each student the best in education with teachers who are fully invested in teaching. I agree with given US teachers the opportunity and the funds to focus more on life skills such as critical thinking, assessment and collaboration because I feel this would be a method that students can actually relate to and they will actually use in their lifetime.

    • I totally agree Genie. Most of my K-12 life, especially once I got into high school, I kept asking myself “why am I learning this?” I never believed that anything that we were memorizing was going to be necessary in the future? I was severely unmotivated to learn because I felt that I was wasting my time. Life is short, so why am I doing leaning useless stuff? It wasn’t until I got into college that I was seeing the applications of some of the things I was suppose to have learned. But do to me seeing the information as worthless, I had forgotten most of what I had memorized and had to re-learn it again. This is especially true with math. If we could incorporate more of that real world application into our classrooms I’m sure more kids would be motivated to learn. They can picture how this information will be useful later on.

      • Genie and Geraldine, you guys wrote great responses! Like you mentioned Rose, I always thought what I learned in school was very pointless and not beneficial. We learned how to pass tests, but we never learned anything to help us pass life’s tests and challeneges. There is so much that american students are missing out on when it comes to the standards, curriculum and techniques of public schools. I loved what you wrote about math! I think everyone can relate to this issue. It is pounded in our head over and over; trigonometry problems, algebraic equations and soltions, but I can actually say that there are so many people that do not know how to do simple divison without a calculator or how to add tax, or tip a waitress. Simple life math problems are left out of math classes in american schools. And it is sad to think how hard teachers are pressured to get their students to pass tests, they do not get to teach and bond with their students. They cannot become the teachers they want to be and students cannot be the motivated students that they should be because of all of all the boundires, rules, regulations, and “standards.”
        Danielle Rawlins

      • I agree with you Rose. I wish I would have learned about “Mexican-American History” and Chicano Studies when I was in high school and not wait until I was at a university and pay for these classes to learn about what is my heritage and ethnicity.

      • Things we learn always seem to be easier to remember when we actually use it in real life and apply it to something useful. Otherwise, it gets lost with all the other information we are expected to memorize. Like some of you have mentioned, easy math like calculating tips or doing division without a calculator has become foreign to many of our students. And I agree that it is not how much we spend on our curricula; it’s how we use it and evaluate its effects. As discussed in Basil’s post, although the U.S. spends more per pupil than any other country, we are still lagging behind in national tests.

    • Genie, I agree with you. I have read a lot lately about how important it is for teachers to have a sensitivity and a cultural understanding of the students in their classrooms. When they don’t, it is really difficult for them to teach all the children in their classrooms successfully — in a way that those children will relate. It isn’t that all these kids aren’t smart, its that everyone comes from different families, backgrounds, cultures, etc and human beings simply process information differently. If teachers were trained to recognize that and teach to children’s strengths, we would benefit as a country.

      • I share the disappointment with the K-12 curriculum that you all have mentioned. Much of what we learned seemed arbitrary without real-world application or understanding. K-12 is supposed to prepare adolescents for citizenship, yet we learn nothing about filling out W2’s or W4’s, filing tax returns, taking out loans, or making big purchases like vehicles or real estate. These are things that everyone has to do, it would be nice to be educated about their processes!

        When I finally enrolled into community college, I thought, “This is the level that high school should have been at.” I felt that my community college experience was simply catching me up to where I should have been.

  2. Nice post, I suggest looking at some of the new testing being developed like PARCC, which is supposed to be more focused on explanations and human scored essays– there was a nice piece on NPR about it.

    Also, I think that amount of money is not as much the issue, but rather HOW it is spent, I’ve read figures before about millions of dollars going to programs without any evaluation of efficacy.

    • PARCC sounds like a logical progression in formal testing. Hopefully it’s the 2.0 that we need. It sounds like it is being developed as a response to No Child Left Behind — hopefully it helps!

  3. When comparing the US to different countries, it looks like money is not the answer to the problem (like you said). Maybe the money we are spending on education (but obviously not making any difference) could go towards the teachers education. I have not looked into how difficult becoming a teacher in the other countries you talked about, but I have a feeling it is completely different. Along with that, I think a curriculum change is in need. I think the way we test students is out dated.

    • Megan, like mentioned in the article and your post, money is definitely not the problem! It is sad that the answer is so obvious to see and yet it is ignored. Like the saying goes “money does not buy happiness,” and I think it also means, money does not buy good education and smart students. I liked your idea of money going to teacher education! I think an educated teacher is more useful than a new computer or calculator! We read all these statistics, facts, and real experiences about how the school system is not working and how it is failing out teachers and students but how many more articles need to be written for there to be a change? What else can we do to produce effective change? The curriculum is definitely not working, the money is not being put to good use, schools are failing along with their students. When is the change going to actually happen?
      Danielle Rawlins

      • Danielle,
        Nicely put about the articles. I feel this is true with a lot of issues going on today. We write and write and write about all the issues we are having, and people complain like its helping the issue. I feel like some people think there will be an easy fix to the problem… I wish there were!

      • Danielle,
        While I agree that money isn’t everything, I also don’t necessarily agree with you about money ‘definitely’ not being the problem. It is a problem. Part of the issue with not having enough money for education is that we don’t have enough to pay or train our teachers, either — so that’s kind of a money issue right there. In addition, the schools that really do have a lot of money (private schools, schools in rich neighborhoods) have the money to bring teachers bak instead of cutting them, and are able to competitively hire the best teachers available, as well as provide all the calculators and computers their kids need. While it definitely isn’t everything, lack of funding is definitely a problem.

  4. Basil,

    You’re post is correct on so many levels. I actually came across an article written by Sean Williams, “You’ll Never Guess What Americans Consider the Least Concerning U.S. Problem”, where education was ranked last at 5% in terms of the most important problem facing the United States. We can see that the priority of finding solutions to our broken educational system will be much harder if Americans do not feel this is the most important issue. In fact, as Williams stated, “…you improve education and you essentially eradicate HALF of the problems in this country” (July 28, 2013). We need to invest more into our educational institutions to help many of these students who struggle to graduate or move on to higher learning. If we can begin to realize that this should be a much larger priority that could help solve many of our issues today, perhaps many of the problems we face can be resolved with simple investments into each of our school districts.


    • David, the article you found was really interesting. This sort of goes back to my belief that the education problem in this country just isn’t talked about as much. We talk about the economy, we talk about civil rights, but we don’t talk about how much education impacts all those other things. I think if we did, education wouldn’t be so far down the list of important issues in this country.

    • As the maxim states: recognizing the problem is the first step to fixing it. It’s sad to think that Americans don’t associate our other problems (like economy) with education.

      If I had to point the blame in any one direction, it would be mass media. I think zealous and patriotic ideologies float around so pervasively that many do not stop and wonder how things could be different, because they are told (and believe) that we are still a great nation, when the reality is that we are beginning to fall behind because our democratic system is broken and does not support the citizenry.

  5. It’s so funny that we spend all this money on the education for our students yet it is only sub par compared to other countries.
    We need to put more effort and care into the quality of education for our students. They are out future and they need to be properly equipped in order to help make the world a better place or it will just go to turmoil.
    It’s scary because in my opinion it already is since we seem to not care enough about the quality of education our kids are receiving……We are ruining their lives! And our future lives!
    What’s sad is that teachers do not seem to care either. I’ve read many articles on the carelessness of teachers in Oregon..how easy they make it for students to drop out and are not pushing them hard enough. Thennnnn…why did they become educators? Wrong profession for them if they aren’t willing to actually do their job wel..

    • America is a large country with powerful diplomatic ability. We are masters of industry with Silicon Valley and our Defense Department. That said, America is leading by example whether we want to admit that or not, because other less-developed nations follow our lead by wanting to maximize profits, e.g. Brazil deforesting the Amazon because they want to provide land for cattle because of the money involved. The problem with eliminating the Amazon rainforest is that it filters a majority of the planet’s air pollutants and such action will impact the entire world.

      It would seem that proper education — education that promotes awareness — is the first step to addressing these issues. Our future people need to understand that global collapse is a possibility if we do not change.

  6. I recently did some research on this issue, as well. At first glance, you’d think “Oh, the schools just need more money,” would fix the quality of education in the US. While money would certainly benefit some schools, its teacher training that leaves us dragging behind.

    What I found was that a couple countries who are excelling in education have given the job of teaching a lot of prestige and power. Finland, for example, only hires teachers from the top 1/3 of college graduates. They’re the brightest, most innovative college grads. In addition, the country pays them better and rigorously trains them. This makes teaching a job that people actually want to have. In a study of US college grads, when comparing teaching to careers they actually wanted to have, it fell short in all the topic that were important to young students graduating: being able to move up, salary, having support in the workplace, etc.

    • I did not know that about Finland, but given their standing on national test scores I am not surprised.

      There are definitely not enough incentives for teachers in this country, and with student debt rising the way it is, becoming a teacher is a losing prospect. Although I have heard of debt forgiveness if one teaches for 7 years at a public institution, maybe that is incentive enough now?

      The good news is that our universities still rank among the best in the world. Other countries send their young minds to the US for the education. This tells me that, at least at the top of academic life, we have some of the brightest in the world. Unfortunately for the future of this nation as a whole, having bright minds at the top does little to educate the K-12 majority.

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