Back in 2004, one of the Ben & Jerry’s cofounders put up an animation using stacks of cookies to demonstrate that the US spends way too little on education relative to its spending on defense. The page showed $35 billion worth of cookies for K-12 education as opposed to $400 billion for defense.
Actually, the US in that year was spending almost $500 billion in government money for K-12 education. The $35 billion looks about right –for Federal government spending only. Most educational funding in the US occurs, of course, at the county, state, and municpal levels. The phrase “Federal budget” does occur somewhere in the presentation. But the manner in which the numbers are presented–in the form of a single bar graph–implied that the $35B for education was directly comparable to the $400B for defense. The casual or not-very-knowledgeable reader would be likely to look at this page and draw very incorrect conclusions about the relative levels of defense and educational spending in the United States.
I was reminded of this misleading presentation of data by another bad infographic, this one appearing in the United Airlines in-flight magazine. The piece, titled “Geek Tragedy,” shows the U.S. having a rank of 27th among developed nations in proportion of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) bachelor’s degrees, asserted that the US economy would benefit by $75 trillion (over the next 80 years) if we could match Canada’s math proficiency level…and went on to compare “Annual US Federal Investment in STEM Education Programs” ($3 billion) with “Amount Americans Spent on Beer in 2011″ ($96 billion.)
This comparison offers from the same deficiency as the cookie analysis–the state and local spending which makes up the vast bulk of American educational funding is completely ignored. There is also the question of exactly what a “STEM educational program” might be…does it include 4th grade math, for example?…because high school algebra teachers will tell you that failure to learn the fundamental in the earlier grades commonly cripples a student’s ability to master algebra and more advanced subjects. Indeed, the failure to learn to read well will also cripple a student’s potential future in any STEM field.
The conclusion this infographic seems to want people to draw is that “Americans are a stingy and irresponsible crew, who spend more on BEER than on STEM education. In reality, there are plenty of problems with American education, including STEM education, but it should be obvious by now that they are not matters of insufficient spending.
There is way too much of this sort of simplistic and misleading analysis going around.