Domestic Education Comparisons

You’ve probably heard the old saws about America’s school system falling perilously behind, our teenagers scarcely better than a bunch of Slovenian slackers while studious Singaporeans win the future. As Kevin Drum observes, it’s not really true, American students have never tested best in the world, American education has been said to exist in a state of crisis since Sputnik (at least!) and though it’s clear “that America does a terrible job of educating low-income students” it’s less clear if “our low-income kids score worse than other countries’ low-income kids? Or do we simply have more low-income kids?”

That’s why I think it’s generally more helpful to take advantage of the fact that America is a big country and that Americans are pretty familiar with the characteristics of its sub-units. Here’s a chart Dana Goldstein posted recently:

I don’t know what firm conclusions you can draw from that scatterplot, but it seems to be saying that within the United States of America some states are getting more value for their money than others. Very white states and low poverty states seem to do better, but even if you try to look at pretty similar states (New Jersey and Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire) you see big differences.

Of course that particular data set has a lot of limitation. But CAP has a nifty interactive tool that lets you see a much richer range of information down to the district level. And what you see, over and over again, is that “it’s complicated.” You can adjust for all kinds of different things, and it invariably comes out to be the case that however you slice the demographics there’s a very weak correlation between spending and student outcomes.

Our analysis showed that after accounting for factors outside a district’s control, many high-spending districts posted limited outcomes. In Minnesota just 23 percent of the districts in the top third of spending were also among the top third in achievement. In Florida, only 17 percent of the state’s highest-spending districts were also in the highest-achieving tier.

In high-spending districts, success often comes at significant cost. Consider Howard County School District in Maryland. Many consider the affluent district to be one of the best in the country, and a magazine recently heralded the district as an international academic “powerhouse.” But after controlling for factors outside the district’s control, the school system has one of the highest rates of perstudent expenditures in the state, spending over $1,600 more per student than the state average and almost $3,000 more than the national average.

There are two different possible takes on this. One is that there’s something wrong with the way many of our school districts are run and that it makes sense to experiment with a range of different approaches. Another is that the obvious demographic controls are inadequate, and the real differences here aren’t driven by anything that happens in the classroom but by some hidden student characteristics. If that’s true, then suddenly the preferred conservative solution of arbitrary spending caps and cuts suddenly looks appealing. I don’t believe that’s true, and I don’t believe that the people who sometimes claim to believe it’s true really believe it themselves. If you look at how upper middle class professionals raise their own kids, it’s clear that they think it matters what happens in a child’s educational experience. And I think they’re right. But if they’re right, then the implication of this is that many American school districts need to change things up in significant ways.