In Part I of this series, we questioned whether Florida’s embarrassingly low per pupil spending, in the face of questionable measures of quality, really meant our education system was “efficient” or just cheap. We also asked that the Florida Department of Education stop celebrating high 4th grade reading scores as a measure of high quality, when those scores are clearly the result of mandated 3rd grade retention and any benefit noticed evaporates by the 8th grade assessments. In Part II, we wonder if increased funding might lead to improved outcomes in our public schools.
Part II: How You Spend It Matters A Lot
When parents learn that Florida spends well below the national average in per pupil spending (learn more here and here), many advocate for increased education spending as a way to improve the quality of our public schools. It seems to make intrinsic sense that schools spending significantly more educating their students would, naturally, be able to provide a higher quality education. Indeed, many districts rely on that belief to get voter approval for local sales tax initiatives or increased millages to help fund local schools.
On the other hand, education “reformers” frequently claim there is no relationship between per pupil spending and student outcomes on standardized test scores and they use that idea, frequently, to advocate for low levels of state education funding in the name of “efficiency.” This appears to be a commonly held belief amongst Florida Board of Education members, the Department of Education and many, if not most, of our legislators. The idea seems to defy common sense but (much to my surprise) the research on the subject, until recently, actually appeared to support the position.
The idea dates back to 1966, when James Coleman lead a group of sociologists to write a report on educational equality in the United States, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education. It was a massive study surveying more than 150,000 students, one of the largest in history. The finished report was titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” and is common referred to as The Coleman Report.
The results of the Coleman Report are widely reported to show that variation in school resources (as measured by per-pupil spending and student-to-teacher ratios) was unrelated to variation in student achievement on standardized tests. These results have been upheld by further research leading to reformers to report this as a “commonly held” belief. Indeed, Dr. Jay Greene, testified to as much during the recent CSS v BOE trial, pointing out that variations in state funding did not correlate with proficiency levels in Florida’s districts (you can see his testimony here).
Interestingly enough, the Coleman Report didn’t really deny that funding or other school effects matter, but it did argue that other factors are more important (learn more here). “Specifically, the report found that student background and socioeconomic status are much more important in determining educational outcomes than are measured differences in school resources. It also affirmed that differences in schools—and particularly teachers—have a very significant impact on student outcomes.” The study, also, concluded that disadvantaged black children learn better in well-integrated classrooms, leading to the busing of students in attempts to desegregate public schools. Additionally, the Coleman Report, suggested that standardized tests measured cultural knowledge, not intelligence, putting minority students at a disadvantage.
Regardless, the belief became “commonly held” amongst education policy makers that increased funding will not improve education, pointing at high poverty schools with many special needs children requiring expensive programs, yet scoring low on standardized tests, as proof. Many education reformers equate increased funding for public schools, in the face of low standardized test scores, as “throwing good money after bad.”
What if the lack of a connection between improved funding and a better educational outcome is simply because standardized tests scores are not the best measurement of learning?
A recent study addressed the limitations of standardized testing and the results suggest that increased education funding may result in significantly improved outcomes, especially for children of low income families. The 2105 report by
“Tracking students born between 1955 and 1985, the researchers isolated the districts where court-mandated reforms would affect spending at those students’ schools; next, they compared those students’ achievement to similar students’ progress in districts that did not receive greater funding. The effects they found were huge and likely causal: A 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending led to higher graduation rates, nearly 10 percent higher earnings in adulthood, and fewer incidents of poverty later in life. The researchers found small effects on students from affluent families but huge effects on poor students.”
So, increased periods of spending had a significant effect on graduation rates AND narrowed the wage gap between low-income and non-poor students when they reached adulthood:
This study showed that the “commonly held belief” may be wrong, demonstrating, instead, that increased education funding can have significant impacts on educational and economic outcomes, particularly for children in low income families. This suggests that increased funding, whether it results in improved test scores or not, may lead to improved lives. Perhaps standardized test scores are NOT the best measure of the impact of education funding? Maybe narrowing the achievement gap on standardized test scores is not nearly so important as narrowing the economic gap? Maybe a better metric of quality is needed? We think Florida should consider this.
Public education advocates are often accused of wanting to “throw good money after bad.” Rest assured, we are not asking for that, nor were the authors of the 2015 study. The 2015 study authors cautioned that how additional funds were spent “matters a lot.“
The authors evaluated the effects of court-mandated spending increases on spending for school support services, physical capital, and instruction. They also estimated the effects on student-to-teacher ratios, student-to-guidance-counselor ratios, teacher salaries, and the length of the school year. What they found was:
“… exogenous increases in school spending are more likely than other forms of school spending to go to instruction and support services. The increases for instruction and for support services (which include expenditures to hire more teachers and/or increase teacher salaries along with funds to hire more guidance counselors and social workers) may help explain the large, positive effects for students from low-income families.”
“While there may be other mechanisms through which increased school spending improves student outcomes, these results suggest that the positive effects are driven, at least in part, by some combination of reductions in class size, having more adults per student in schools, increases in instructional time, and increases in teacher salaries that may help to attract and retain a more highly qualified teaching workforce.”
So, when appropriately used, increased education funding CAN lead to improved outcomes, especially for our most at-risk public school children. Sadly, in recent years in Florida, rather than focusing funding towards instruction and support services, state and federal mandates have directed large portions of school budgets towards things like technology infrastructure, progress monitoring and assessments. In the face of nearly flat education spending, the net result is less funding for the very things shown to improve student outcomes: class size reduction, guidance counsellors, social workers and the increased salaries necessary to attract and retain a high quality workforce.
We urge the Florida DOE to expand its definition of educational outcomes beyond standardized test scores and reconsider funding priorities. Increased funding, when spent appropriately, can have significant, lasting effects for our students, especially those most at-risk. Continuing to ignore the positive effects of appropriate funding is #accountabaloney.