Spending more money on public schools has long been the conventional way to try to improve student performance. Countries that allocate less than the average OECD expenditure expressed as a percentage of their gross domestic product are criticized for shortchanging students. But Japan and the United States illustrate that the preoccupation with spending is a distraction from a more fundamental issue.

Japan spends only 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product on education, which is below the OECD average of 4.7 percent. As a result, it has the third-largest class size, pays teacher salaries that have not kept up with inflation between 2008 and 2013, and provides 20 days of training for high school teachers compared with 70 to 120 days in half of other OECD countries. Early childhood education also suffers, with only 30 percent of children in publicly funded schools. That compares with the OECD average of 68.4 percent.

Yet despite these factors, Japanese students continue to excel on tests compared with their peers in other nations. For example, on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, Japanese students ranked second in math and first in reading and science. Moreover, students distinguished themselves in problem-solving skills, which are considered indispensable for success in the global economy.

If educational spending is indeed the key to student performance, how do we explain these results?

The situation in the U.S. is the flip side of the coin. The U.S. spent $12,608 per student in 2010 — more than double in inflation-adjusted dollars than it spent in 1970. That puts the U.S. on a par with the OECD average expressed as a percentage of gross domestic product. Yet despite these increases in funding, its students performed below average in math on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, and about average in reading and science. Moreover, its adjusted state SAT scores showed little improvement since the 1970s.

As for early childhood education, more than $200 billion has been spent on Head Start since it began in 1964 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. But a 346-page Final Report released on Christmas Eve 2012 by the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that the initial positive impacts largely faded by the end of the third grade in the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices.

Teacher salaries are also above the average paid to other teachers in the OECD. The average high school teacher earns about $53,000, which is above the OECD average of $45,500. According to The New York Times, thousands of teachers in the New York City suburbs have routinely been earning $100,000 for several years.

Based on the evidence from Japan and the U.S., it’s clear that funding is not the entire story. If it were, then Japanese students would perform worse than American students. The more likely explanation is the role that culture plays. Japanese students devote more effort to their studies and set higher personal standards. They make academic excellence their top priority, rather than socialization and athletics.

No matter how well financed public schools are, they cannot by themselves change the cultural values that students bring to class. Schools are not Lourdes, and teachers are not miracle workers. Student achievement is due more to the lives students live outside of school than what takes place within school. When Laurence Steinberg made this observation in 1996 in Beyond the Classroom, he was accused of being a defeatist. But time has shown that he was a realist.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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