A few social workers who work with children were discussing funding for special education. It is a chronic problem for them, as their charges often need very specialised, expensive services that school districts are reluctant to provide. Parents who are attempting to obtain services for their children are familiar with how quickly it can become adversarial with the people in the district controlling the money. It all makes sense, of course. Budget-watchers are supposed to be cautious with the money. Parents are supposed to help their children get educated.
The curious part of the conversation was how quickly everyone at the table agreed that it was better in Europe. I asked for examples, data. All were puzzled that I didn't just know this. Everyone knows that Europe has more widely available health care, that fewer people in Europe are poor, etc. It only stands to reason that they would provide better SPED services as well.
I said I doubted it. Then I went to research what happens in Europe for special ed and specialised mental health services and found I was just about right. There is a lot of variation in services among European countries. Comparisons are exceedingly difficult for the usual apples-and-oranges reasons. Different countries define special needs, emotional disturbance, and psychiatric illness differently, and have different approaches how they want to attack the problems.
Where comparisons can be made however, The US doesn't look so bad on special ed. Nor on mental health services (sidebar links). Nor on overall neurological , mental health, and substance abuse services. In general, you can find 1-3 countries in each small category that does better than the US - the other forty or so are behind us, and the overall average for Europe is behind the US. And it's not the same 1-3 countries each time, either, though Finland is up there most of the time.
We have people out there we can learn from. We can do better. But there is not some mythical area or country where everything is much better. We do well.
It is worth noting that most countries have the same problems of funding. Lots of expensive solutions don't provide much in the way of outcomes. Even excellent, state-of-the-art treatments can often only ameliorate, not solve, brain problems. And the most money goes into those children and youth with multiple problems, where the rate of return is even lower.
It's a good thing to do. Relieving suffering is good. Helping people improve is good. I don't resent the cost. But I also don't feel crushed with guilt about this. I see enormous resources poured into bad-risk patients every day. I don't see our society as hateful simply because people wish they could do more.