Parents interested in helping their children succeed at school may find that the school district they choose can affect their child’s academic achievement by as much as half a grade level, according to a new study.
About 14,000 school districts in the United States receive roughly $500 billion in public money through local, state and federal sources, yet few studies have examined the role school districts play in determining student achievement, said Grover J. Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the nonprofit Brookings Institution, speaking at a discussion Wednesday about a new Brookings report, “Do School Districts Matter?”
“It was very surprising to me that no one has previously answered that question,” Whitehurst said, who co-authored the report. “School districts in America are very central to the way education is delivered and are central, at least conceptually, to reform, but we don’t really know much about their influence on student achievement.”
Researchers at Brookings decided to do their own analysis.
They used complex statistical modeling to compare math and reading test scores for fourth and fifth graders at public schools across Florida and North Carolina for the school years from 2000 to 2010, trying to find out how much of students’ academic achievement could be attributed to variables such as their school district, their school, their classroom teacher and the individual student.
The results were surprising.
If a student’s academic performance was a whole pie and each variable contributing to that performance was a pie slice, nearly 60 percent of the pie was made up of unexplained factors at the student level: possibly a bad day, distractions during the test or erroneous measurements, explained Matthew M. Chingos, a governance studies fellow at Brookings and a co-author of the report.
Demographics such as age, race, ethnicity or free-lunch eligibility accounted for 30 percent of the variability in student achievement. Teachers accounted for nearly 7 percent of the variability in student achievement, while the school itself accounted for 2 percent of the variability in student scores.
Only about 1 to 2 percent of the pie could be attributed to the school district the student studied in.
“Despite that, differences between school districts in effectiveness are large enough at the extremes to represent more than a half-year difference in schooling,” the Brookings report found. “These are differences that are large enough to warrant policy attention.”
If a student attended a school in the lowest performing school district rather than attending one in the highest performing district, Brookings’ analysis indicated that by the end of fourth or fifth grade the student would perform as if he or she had attended school for half a year less, the report said.
More research was needed into the reasons why some different school districts consistently performed better than others or improved upon previous performance, while others consistently failed to improve, the report found.
“There is no reason to expect that a particular intervention intended to improve district level performance such as hiring a superstar superintendent or providing more autonomy to school leaders or changing teacher compensation packages would come close to achieving outcomes as large as the naturally occurring differences in district effectiveness found in our analysis,” the report found.
The findings were “tantalizing fruit” for further study by researchers, and could influence changes in education policy, the report said.