News: CJ Exclusives

Studies Question School-Spending Effect

Polling, data suggest that costly “reforms” don’t necessarily boost scores

The Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on public attitudes toward public education hinted at, and two studies now confirm, the public’s intuition about school spending: Americans aren’t getting the achievement “bang for the bucks” their governments are spending. As parents told the pollsters this year, families, communities, and choice play a larger role in achievement than total or per-pupil spending.

When parents were surveyed in 2003 about the reasons for a persistent black-white achievement gap in education, PDK/Gallup revealed that only 16 percent of participants chose “quality of schooling” as the cause. At least 80 percent chose “other factors.” These parents thought that parental involvement, home life and upbringing, student interest, and community environment were the most important influences on student achievement.

The attitudes of survey participants are hardly proof that education spending policies are ineffective, but two statistical studies now support the intuition of the parents who answered the PDK/Gallup survey.

The American Legislative Exchange Council recently released its Report Card on American Education : A State-By-State Analysis 1976-2002. Increased spending doesn’t necessarily lead to better academic performance on measures such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the study finds.

According to the ALEC report, total U.S. spending on public schools reached $334 billion in 2000-01. North Carolina contributed $6,208 per pupil to that total.

North Carolina, according to the ALEC report, increased its public school student enrollment by about 12 percent from 1980 to 2000. Per-pupil expenditure, measured in 1998 dollars, grew by more than 35 percent during the same period.

In an effort to boost academic achievement, the state lowered its pupil-teacher ratio to 13:1 in 2000-01, well below the national average of 16:1.

Still, the ALEC report ranks North Carolina 30th in the nation on a composite of NAEP achievement measures for 1990 through 1996.

The ALEC Report Card uses a 20-year history of each state’s standings on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math tests, the Scholastic Assessment Test, the American College Tests, high school graduation rates, and completion of a minimum of college prep core curriculum courses in high school. By comparing academic progress to spending in a state, the Report Card generates a picture of how effective that spending has been.

According to ALEC, some of the most popular policies haven’t returned dividends as promised. The study finds that raising teacher pay and lowering the pupil-teacher ratio overall don’t raise achievement. Average SAT scores have dropped 1.8 percent since 1972. In 1972 the average national score on the SAT was 1039. The 2002 average score was 1019, although it rose by one point to 1020 in the 2003 round.

On the NAEP, the 2002 reading test showed fourth-graders improving, nationally, eighth-graders leveling off, and 12th- grade students losing ground. These results prompted the authors to say that “this disturbing pattern suggests that the longer students remain in the public school system, the worse their performance becomes.”

The District of Columbia’s student population declined by 4.1 percent in the 1990s, its teachers were the seventh most highly paid in the nation, per-pupil expenditure remains at or near the top of the nation, and yet average test scores are the lowest in the United States, the authors note. North Dakota, with teacher pay ranked 50th in the nation, produced the country’s top average composite SAT score and the fifth-best average NAEP scores in the nation.

“What money cannot buy” in our public schools, the authors write, is the influence of parental choice and inter-school competition. “Parental choice has spurred parents to participate in their children’s learning. It has focused needed resources on the low-income, unruly, and at-risk students the traditional public schools have long since abandoned or written off. It has improved standardized tests for the most disadvantaged students.”

Choice within public schools pays off, the report states. Charter schools outperform other schools among low-income and at-risk students, “those most victimized by the last two decades of demographic change.”

Drs. Michael Walden and Mark Sisak of N.C. State University studied factors that influence achievement in North Carolina schools in “School Inputs and Educational Outcomes in North Carolina: Comparison of Static and Dynamic Analyses.” The authors compared the influence of school policy variables with socioeconomic-family factors in two different models. Their dynamic analysis showed that school policy factors account, at most, for 10 to 20 percent of the variation in student achievement in North Carolina.

The findings from the dynamic, value-added model, Walden and Sisek said, “suggest student performance is heavily dominated by socioeconomic inputs and unobservable innate abilities of students.” Strongly positive socioeconomic factors include having at least one parent with a college degree. Racial factors were not significant for achievement differences.

Some policy factors such as increasing the number of pupils (without additional teachers), increasing the number of pupils identified as “gifted,” and accelerating the number of teachers with graduate degrees, had negative results.

The authors conclude that since socioeconomic factors have such significant effects, scarce resources might be used to improve socioeconomic factors that influence achievement.

Dr. Karen Palasek is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.