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If You’re Into Data Driven Decision Making, School Resources Should Matter

As the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike has come to a close, one of the key issues that seems to keep popping up is the discussion over whether schools need more resources or not.  It was one of the teacher’s unions major planks in their quest to get more books, improved facilities, an expanded curriculum and more social workers in their schools – yes it’s true, the entire strike was not solely about salaries or evaluation methods (in fact, click here for what CTU lists as their points of negotiation and where the agreement ended up).

But many out there are asking the question: More resources?!?!

And the reason for this is that it has become a common refrain that our schools have gotten more and more resources, but student performance has barely budged.  In fact, one of the key phrases that is tossed around is that as David Brooks so aptly put it:

Over the past 50 years, spending on K-12 education has also skyrocketed. In 1960, Americans spent roughly $2,800 per student, in today’s dollars. Now we spend roughly $11,000 per student. This spending binge has not produced comparable gains in student outcomes.

Or as a friend of mine stated to me in response to the article, student test scores are “flatlining…while spending per student has gone up 300% adjusting for inflation.”

The problem is…that’s just not true.

The figures that Brooks and my friend were referring to are from the US DOE National Center for Education Statistics.  A graph of this data shows the following trend:

Then compare that to student test scores:

(Source: Mother Jones)

Scores have indeed flatlined…since 1990.  Looking at White students, you could make the case they’ve flatlined for even longer.  But spending for student hasn’t increased much since 1990 either.

In fact, from my vantage point the spending and test scores are moving fairly much in tandem.  Since 1990, spending per student has increased by 33% (or 2% annually!) and test scores have been relatively flat for all races and ethnicities as well.  Contrast that with pre-1990 and spending per student did indeed increase by almost 300% from 1960-1990.  Similarly, test scores increased significantly over that time.

Now this is not an apologia to say that no work is to be done on education. In fact, it’s an extremely important issue to focus on, certainly in my top 3. It’s not even meant to say that resources can’t and shouldn’t be used more efficiently in order to get more productivity from each dollar that is spent on education in US public schools.  They can and they should.

It’s more to point out the fact that resources do indeed matter and anyone saying otherwise and dropping lines like, “this spending binge has not produced comparable gains in student outcomes”, isn’t looking at the data.  It seems quite ironic then that those that are largely blind to this are the education reformers who like to position themselves as having their decision making driven by testing and statistical data.

(By the way…can we figure out what happened in the 1980s that produced such significant student progress?)



2 thoughts on “If You’re Into Data Driven Decision Making, School Resources Should Matter

  1. what i think would be the best move this country could possible make with respect to education would be to increase spending exponentially on one thing: better teachers. in full disclosure right off the bat i went to private school from kindergarten through grade 12. however, i do have a large number of friends who have attended public schools and a handful who have tough in them. i also try to read about the educational system when i can as i will most likely end up in education in some capacity, possible even as college professor (i already have a phd and am now a postdoctoral fellow). the general gist of my idea is to double teachers salaries right off the bat. yes, i know its a a simple solution, but its a starting point. in return for doing this I would abolish the tenure system in secondary education altogether; everyone’s job is on the chopping block every year. period. the notion of tenure works in a university setting where often the professors are the leading experts in their fields and their retention guarantees the flow of grant money to the university. tenure also, at least in my field of molecular cell biology, gives professors the freedom to pursue riskier (i.e. more difficult) lines of experimentation knowing that they are not under the same pressure to publish as they are prior to obtaining tenure. however, in high schools we give tenure to anyone who is above capable. if salaries were increased, it would attract more talented people to the profession and the competition to retain positions (versus just going through the motions year after year) would ensure that teachers perform at a high level. right now i think tenure can be awarded after 3 years of satisfactory teaching in some places. this is ridiculous. i know if i ever end up teaching high school that i will be the teacher who shows up early and stays late to help kids learn the material (and serve as a general mentor as well). how many folks actually do this (not many, since they have to run home to deal with their own kids)? the problem is that both teachers and the population at large look at teaching as a safe and productive, but not competitive and revered career path. go to scandinavia where being a teacher is a really revered job. why? cuz they don’t take anyone into the craft. the level of teaching, and by proxy the education of our students, in this country will always be at the level of our demand and our reward for doing it well. right now, both are frighteningly low.

    Posted by dorian | September 19, 2012, 5:56 pm
    • I would largely agree. Higher teacher standards and higher salaries probably would do a lot of good. at the same time, I would use caution when implying that making it easier to fire teachers results in better teachers. That’s not how it’s done in Scandanavia, and there remains a question outstanding of why those states where it is easier to fire teachers (say Georgia) are not performing significantly better than states where it is more difficult (say Illinois). That being said, what those countries that perform better than the US do re: education extends beyond the school walls. The larger government safety nets in certain regions (again, Scandanavia comes to mind) produce approaches for children which are more akin to that of Harlem Children’s Zone where schools are wrapped with necessary social services. Additionally, there is more emphasis on family and community to support the children in most places compared to the US. And, lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is significantly less childhood poverty in these places.

      Are we prepared to make that type of commitment as a society?

      Posted by chico | September 19, 2012, 7:38 pm

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