"There are countries which don't get the bang for the bucks, and the U.S. is one of them," said Barry McGaw, education director for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which produced the annual review of industrialized nations.
The United States spent $10,240 per student from elementary school through college in 2000, according to the report. The average was $6,361 among more than 25 nations.
Yet the United States finished in the middle of the pack in its 15-year-olds' performance on math, reading and science in 2000, and its high-school graduation rate was below the international average in 2001 — figures highlighted by Education Secretary Rod Paige.
The country fared better in reading literacy among fourth-graders, where it finished among the top scorers in 2001. But the declining performance as students grow older served as a warning to the nation, Paige said.
"These results highlight an extremely important truth about our educational system: I think we have become complacent, self-satisfied and often lacking the will to do better," Paige said.
Appropriate spending has emerged as a key political issue this year as the nation's schools deal with federal reforms. The No Child Left Behind law demands better performance from students and teachers, particularly in low-income districts, but critics say Republican leaders in Congress have spent too little on the effort.
The report, released Tuesday, sets international benchmarks and identifies areas for improvement.
Based on educational level, the report says the United States spends the most on higher education for every student and is a leading spender on primary and secondary education.
Paige said the nation must fill the gap between it and other countries, and bridge another between students succeeding in American public schools and those falling behind. Within that promising fourth-grade reading showing in the United States, Paige said, is a revealing number: the higher the percentage of poor students, the lower the average score.
"There's no such thing as a 'typical' fourth-grader," Paige said. "We want to go to each fourth-grader. We need to see who needs the help."
The new federal law requires states to chart adequate yearly progress — not just for a school's overall population, but for groups such as minorities and students who speak little English. Sanctions grow by the year for schools receiving low-income aid that don't improve enough. Consequences range from letting students transfer to a better school within their districts to handing control of a poor-performing school to the state.
"No other country is imposing such a rigorous requirement on its schools," McGaw said.
But from school boards to Congress, growing numbers of leaders say the federal government isn't committing enough money to the task. States must, for example, expand their standardized testing and put a highly qualified teacher in every core class by 2005-06.
Federal education spending has grown by $11 billion since President Bush took office, Paige said, but that includes spending beyond the first 12 grades. Even increased money for elementary and secondary education doesn't cover the law's sweeping expenses, said David Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"You can't just mandate that things happen and then not follow up with the resources to make it happen," said Shreve, senior director for the conference's education committee.
Comparisons of spending among countries is difficult, he added, because the systems vary widely.