`EVERYBODY" knows that expenditures for education, especially by the federal government, were cut back severely over the past decade or so and that children have suffered in the process.
So it was a real eye opener to learn from a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that funds available to schools increased substantially during the 1980s, and the quality of American education did not decline. Federal appropriations to support elementary and secondary education rose in constant dollars from $12.8 billion in fiscal year 1980 to $14.2 billion for fiscal year 1993. That's an 11-percent increase. Education outlays by states and localities rose at an even faster rate.
As a result, expenditures per pupil in public schools rose 35 percent from the 1981-82 school year to the 1990-91 school year, reaching an average of $5,400 per pupil, after adjusting for inflation. (Without explanation, the CBO study ignores the large and important sector of American private education.)
The average salary of full-time teachers also increased in the 1980s - after declining in the late 1970s. In the 1990-1991 school year, the average teacher's salary rose to a record $33,000, while the average class size declined.
Over the last decade, the average pupil-teacher ratio dropped to 19 students per teacher in elementary schools and 14.5 students in high schools.
These are measures of "input," or the resources going into education. But what about the "output," the results produced? In this case, there is both good and bad news.
The good news is that today's students are performing at roughly the same levels as previous students. Average achievement in science and mathematics - which declined substantially in the 1970s - improved significantly in the 1980s. The gap between whites and minorities also lessened.
One of the better-kept secrets in American education is that the high school completion rate for 19- to 20-year-olds rose to 83 percent in 1990. A reduction in dropout rates was especially notable for black and Hispanic pupils during the 1980s. The proportion of high school graduates who entered college in the fall after graduation rose during the 1980s to a record level of more than 60 percent in 1990, up from 49 percent in 1980.
The bad news is that United States students did not do very well in an international assessment of educational progress conducted in 1990-91.
For example, 13-year-old students in the US performed at about the same level on science tests as pupils in Canada, France, and Spain - but not as well as students in Korea, Taiwan, and the former Soviet Union. In mathematics, US student were significantly outscored by their counterparts from all other countries taking the test except Spain.
These comparisons are hardly novel, however. A 1981-82 algebra skills' test revealed that Japanese students outperformed US students. While 60 percent of the Japanese students in the seventh grade answered the test questions correctly, only 42 percent of American students did. However, US pupils currently enrolled in an algebra class did about as well as the top Japanese students.
When we combine the good news about outlays for schooling and the bad news about students' relative performance, the problem does not seem to be lack of money. We must look for solutions to problems within the education process in the US - a process that does not sufficiently challenge the average student.
Diversity within the American educational system can be a big plus, however. Fifty states, thousands of school districts, and an unsurpassed array of private educational institutions permit a degree of experimentation unparalleled elsewhere in the world.
We can take advantage of that opportunity and encourage school systems to try something different, including choice (competition), vocational education alternatives, and work-study programs.
Mediocre results from our existing large commitment to education is a compelling reason to advocate change.