School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

More R&D, please

One of my favorite economists, Tyler Cowen, recently posed an important question in his must-read blog “Marginal Revolution.” It’s a question I’ve pondered for many years: why is funding for R&D in public education astonishingly low?

Cowen writes that as a nation we spend less than $1 billion per year on education research.  He contends this is a paltry amount when compared to the $140 billion we spend each year on medical research. Cowen aptly views education and medicine as “two sides of the same coin” in that both are services that advance human health and happiness (in the case of medicine) and economic productivity and happiness (in the case of education).

So, Cowen asks – how to explain the 140:1 ratio?

The question generated lots of interesting responses. This list (partially edited) from a reader was particularly thought-provoking:

1. The beneficiaries of education improvements [kids] don’t vote.
2. Medical research is inherently expensive relative to education.
3. Accounting definition confusion (a lot of education and medicine are research and maybe medicine is better accounted for as research).
4. We do research in the practice of education just as in the practice of medicine; we just don’t do as well capturing the data.
5. We don’t see a lot of obvious ways to improve education from education (as opposed to waiting for the internet to save the day which won’t be accounted as education research).
6. We psychologically don’t accept trial-and-error in education, so we build buildings, buy computers, and hire teachers, whereas all medicine is trial-and-error and we oddly accept that is easier.

Beth T. Sigall

October 11, 2012

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