Florida legislators last week fawned over former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee as she addressed House and Senate members. Today, PolitiFact Florida offers its most sincere form of admiration:
We put Rhee in front of the Truth-O-Meter.
Rhee -- who was recently featured on Oprah, appeared on the cover of Newsweek and in the documentary film Waiting for Superman -- came to Tallahassee Feb. 8-9, 2011, to help craft Florida education policy. The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott want to revive proposals to end tenure for teachers and tie teacher pay to student performance, both measures Rhee supports.
During her remarks, Rhee also at least tacitly defended Scott's proposals to cut public education funding as part of his budget proposals for 2011-12 and 2012-13.
"Money does not necessarily correlate with student achievement," Rhee said. "In this country in the last 30 years, we have more than doubled the amount of money we are spending per child…and the results have gotten worse, not better."
Rhee says education spending and student results are moving opposite directions. Is she right?
Let's first look at U.S. education spending.
Education spending statistics are tracked by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. The center has collected and analyzed per-pupil spending since 1919, tracking both the actual per-pupil investment as well as normalizing the expenditures based on the rate of inflation. That allows folks like Rhee, and us, to use the research as a method of comparison.
The most recent calculations are from 2006-2007 and show that the expenditure per pupil enrolled in the fall amounts to $11,674. That is significantly more than what the United States spent per pupil 30 years earlier, when governments spent the equivalent of $6,037 per student.
Rhee is slightly off when she says "more than doubled," but not by much. Per-student elementary and secondary school education spending -- when adjusted for inflation -- increased 93 percent from 1976 to 2006.
For the record, Florida officials say the state spends about $6,900 per student currently. Scott is proposing to shrink per-student funding to about $6,200.
What's been the payback?
What the country has gotten for that investment -- especially over a 30-year period -- is much more difficult to determine because there are few uniform rankings to consider.
We first tried to compare the United States education system to other countries in the world.
The United States and Europe began discussing a way to measure worldwide academic progress in the 1960s. But the talks produced a series of tests measuring different-aged students in different subjects. And none of them appear to be acceptable ways to measure educational progress over 30 years.
The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study measures trends in reading literacy achievement of fourth-grade students. But the test has been administered only in 2001 and 2006. A third test is scheduled for 2011. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study has been around since 1995. And the Programme for International Student Assessment measures 15-year-olds, but wasn't administered until 2000.
The National Center on Education and the Economy tried to normalize the assessments in 2005 by analyzing results from 1995-2003 in math, reading and science. The United States did not make the top 10 countries in any category.
The most recent PISA results, from 2009, were even more sobering.
In reading literacy, 15-year-old American students were average performers and the U.S. showed little improvement in reading since 2000. Overall, the U.S. ranked 14th. In math, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 25th, below average. In science, 17th. Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out that funding wasn't the problem that had American students lagging -- noting that students in Estonia and Poland perform at roughly the same level as those in the U.S., even though Estonia and Poland spend less than half as much per student.
"The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades," Duncan said on Dec. 7, 2010, after the PISA results were announced. "In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America's students are effectively losing ground."
One more troubling statistic. According again to the National Center on Education and the Economy, the United States graduated a higher percentage of its working age adults from high school in the 1970s than any other country in the world. Today, a handful of other countries now best the United States, and many other countries are quickly catching up.
Yet what's critical to note is that none of those statistics explicitly mean American students are performing worse, especially over a period of three decades. They simply mean that students in some other countries are improving more rapidly than U.S. students. Andreas Schleicher, a senior education official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, testified before a U.S. Senate committee that Americans were losing the advantages they gained by massively increasing education enrollments after World War II.
"Two generations ago, South Korea had the economic output of Afghanistan today and was at rank 24 in terms of educational output among today's OECD countries," Schleicher said. "Today it is the top performer in terms of the proportion of successful school leavers, with 96 percent of an age cohort obtaining a high school degree. Similar trends are visible in college education, where the U.S. slipped between 1995 and 2005 from rank 2 to rank 14, not because U.S. college graduation rates declined, but because they rose so much faster in many OECD countries."
Without 30 years of data to analyze education systems around the world, we next looked for ways to compare solely U.S. student performance.
Turns out we had better luck.
One of the best strings of data comes from the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress, an assessment authorized by Congress, which measures U.S. students in reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography and other subjects.
Reading scores are available for 9-, 13- and 17-year-old students periodically starting in 1971. The first of 11 assessments in math began in 1973.
In that span -- from 1971-2008 -- how have U.S. students performed on the test?
Contrary to what Rhee has suggested, at every age level and in both math and reading, students have improved.
In reading, average scores were 12 points higher than in 1971 for 9-year-olds and four points higher for 13-year-olds. The average score for 17-year-olds improved, but was not significantly different compared to 1971.
In math, it's the same story. Average scores were 24 points higher than in 1973 for 9-year-olds and 15 points higher for 13-year-olds. The average score for 17-year-olds was higher, though not significantly different than in 1973, according to NAEP results.
Looking on a trend line, the results show slight to modest gains for students both in reading and mathematics. That's comparing the American students of 30 years ago to the American students of today.
We contacted Rhee's schools group, Students First, but did not hear back.
During her trip to Florida, Rhee said that Americans, in the last 30 years, "have more than doubled the amount of money we are spending per child (on education) … and the results have gotten worse, not better."
Per-pupil education spending has grown significantly over the past 30 years, and the United States spends among the most to educate its K-12 students. But to say that student results have gotten worse is simplifying things a bit.
Maybe the return for the increased spending isn't what people want, but student performance in math and reading has improved slightly over the past 30 years, according to statistics kept by the U.S. Department of Education. Different assessments essentially show that U.S. students have failed to make the gains that other countries have. But they haven't showed U.S. students performing worse. We rate this claim Half True.