How the Cost of Education Works

Education: The U.S. Vs. The World

South Korea has one of the world's top-performing school systems yet spends far below the U.S. on education.
South Korea has one of the world's top-performing school systems yet spends far below the U.S. on education.

There are huge differences between how the U.S. and other countries fund schools. The United States blows away all other budgets, spending about $12,000 per child, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). However, looking at global math scores, the U.S. average was 481 (out of 600) in 2012, closer to the likes of Russia and Lithuania which spend far less on education, than of top-performing countries like China and South Korea [sources: Associated Press, The Telegraph].

If the U.S. spends so much on education, why are the results so poor? Education spending is hardly apples to apples. Obviously, population is a key factor – many other developed countries simply don't have the student population to educate that the U.S. does. Many students in the U.S. public schools are recent immigrants who might face language barriers; there's also a disproportionately high number of students from impoverished backgrounds in the system. Finally, the U.S. scores lower than average for the number of resilient students. These are students who perform better than would be expected when taking their socioeconomic background into consideration [source: Ryan].

Despite the large amount spent on funding, some basic needs are still lacking, as evidenced by the sheer amount of supplies that teachers and tax-paying parents have to buy. The current state of school facilities is sometimes questioned, with 43 percent of public school principals reporting that environmental factors, like heating/cooling issues and portable classrooms, interfere to at least some level with the education process [source: National Center for Education Statistics].

Then there is the tie between test scores and funding. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, for example, awards funds and grants to schools that regularly achieve standardized testing goals. Although the approach was designed to incentivize schools and teachers to improve students' reading and math abilities, critics argue that this encourages educators to "teach to the test" rather than foster comprehensive learning. (In 2012, 25 states were given waivers from the NCLB standards in exchange for agreeing to implement their own reforms).

Since improved test scores are also typically tied to salary increases, there's an incentive for teachers and administrators to raise those scores "by any means necessary." The city of Atlanta was rocked by a massive cheating scandal that involved dozens of educators who were encouraged or forced by superiors to engage in falsifying answers on student tests. Further probes indicated that other school systems across the country also experienced questionable score improvements [source: Copeland].