Study: No Clear Relationship between Education Spending and Achievement

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School district spending has no clear relationship to student achievement in more than half the country, according to a new study from the Center for American Progress that assesses more than 9,000 school districts in 46 states on their return on educational investment.

The CAP report’s result represents good and bad news: It shows tremendous financial waste, but at the same time provides hope for the poverty-stricken communities, which generally receive less public school funding, that school success is attainable.

The report, aimed by its heavily Democratic-leaning think tank publisher to spark a national conversation about educational productivity and identify which districts most effectively spend money, ranks districts on how they fare compared to the rest of their state – controlling for extra costs of educating low-income, special education and first-generation students – and finds wide variation within states.

For instance, in New York, spending by the upper one-third of districts in achievement, with achievement measured by student results on state assessments in reading and math, showed a range in spending per pupil of more than $7,000. In California, this same tier of districts had a per-pupil spending range of nearly $8,000.

Increased spending corresponded with higher student achievement in only 16 states and in five states increased spending was associated with lower achievement.

At the same time, the study notes that district level data is often unreliable and that it was unclear if the data for each state includes or excludes items such as student transportation costs.

The study’s author, Center for American Progress senior fellow Ulrich Boser, explained his methodology and results before a packed room at the center’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, followed by a discussion paneled by three education leaders.

Among the panelists was Eugene Chasin, the senior vice president of the national nonprofit foundation Say Yes to Education, who spoke about the success he’s seen districts have at realigning dollars to incorporate after-school programs. Chasin also said the value of education efficiency reports such as this one is they can help break down cultural barriers that prevent districts from partnering with government agencies and local philanthropic groups to achieve student success.

Panelist Jacob Adams, an education professor at Claremont Graduate University, said the value in such a report is it “gets folks asking, ‘What is it you’re doing that we’re not?’”

Boser, for instance, highlighted two nearby districts in Wisconsin – Oshkosh and Eau Claire – that share similar sizes, demographics and results on state exams, but spend different amounts. Eau Claire outspent Oshkosh by roughly $8 million, or about $300 more per student, in 2008, the most recent data available.

As for actually translating these results into changes, the third panelist, Jim Shelton – the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education – expressed mixed optimism. “Politically, lots of folks are ready” to move on education spending reform and at the local level “I definitely see a willingness that I have not seen before,” Shelton said. However, he said many districts simply lack the help of an outside party with “expertise on resource allocation.”

An interactive map with a search feature showing results for all school districts in the report is available here, while the full report is available for free here.