The myriad ways in which school districts and states can be assessed can make it difficult to discern what a particular state’s strengths and weaknesses can be; a number of factors, including funding, exam assessment, student safety and teacher proficiency can contribute to a holistic perspective on a state’s education system.
In a new nationwide analysis of school systems, WalletHub ranked states and the District of Columbia based on a number of factors, including dropout rate, math and reading scores, median SAT and ACT scores, pupil-teacher ratio, student safety as measured by the number of threatened or injured high school students, and bullying incidence rate.
WalletHub's analysis found that Massachusetts offered public school students one of the best systems in the country. It was ranked the best state in terms of school quality and safety, while Louisiana was cumulatively viewed as the lowest-performing state.
The survey suggested a strong, though by no means uniform, correlation with state expenditures on education and the performance of that state’s school system. States like Massachusetts and New Jersey ranked high in terms of school spending as well as in performance.
But at the same time, states like Virginia and Iowa were #26 and #28, respectively in the listing of school spending while both were in the top 10 in terms of performance — statistics which reflect how high rates of spending can but do not necessarily result in strong performance. For instance, New York, which was the second highest spender of education besides Vermont, was ranked 26th in overall performance, while the District of Columbia was behind New York in spending, but ranked 48th in WalletHub’s books.
This research reflects how different states face unique challenges that affect outcomes, and how the spending-performance dichotomy is surrounded by an array of inconsistent research. In fact, the correlation between the two was disputed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing in early June.
The question is all the more pertinent when considering the long-term impact of funding inequities, with certain districts benefiting from higher local property tax revenues that can enable them to offer more robust services — as opposed to cash-strapped districts in low-income communities.
Environmental factors surrounding schools affect performance
Per-pupil spending does not necessarily always correlate to positive outcomes, according to Jan Arlene Furman, an assistant professor in the Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy at Seton Hall University. Furman cited Abbott School District in New Jersey as an area where a boost in spending had not resulted in higher performance rates. Significantly, she noted that if local and state governments were not willing to raise taxes to close revenue gaps, there could still be benefits from increased partnerships.
“State and local policymakers need to provide incentives for closer collaboration between social services for children and parents and the public schools,” she said. “In many urban areas, issues that affect school performance are caused by poverty, community violence, parents working several jobs at minimum wage, which do not allow them to be involved in their child’s education, or even to be home to ensure their child attends school. Schools alone cannot solve these issues.”
Furman’s perspective mirrors the view of other experts who commented on WalletHub’s analysis, as well as the questions it raised. Anthony Petrosnio, Jr., the associate professor of Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Texas at Austin College of Education, said that as much as 70% of a student’s standardized test score can be correlated to the prior education level and income of that student’s family, a reality that reflects how more must be done outside of the school walls for leaders to see more success for enrolled students.
How school spending is being directed also matters — and, political factors could sway that
One example of this is teacher training, which many experts have commented as being highly tied to student performance. Though many are unsure about whether they will be able to afford resources in this area due to a potential loss of Title II funding that could come from the House of Representatives’ budget for the coming fiscal year. Many advocates who support teacher training worry that such an action could be detrimental to teacher success rates, and could result in lower levels of educator retention from year to year. Some also raised concerns about the lack of accountability in regards to charter schools, a lack of oversight they expected DeVos to vociferously support.
“The biggest amount of variance in student achievement is student poverty,” William Price, the professor of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University, said in response to a question about how DeVos could impact K-12 education. “We now have a national policy leader who would, if given the chance, privatize public education. Putting education on the marketplace will guarantee inequity, creating enormous inefficiencies by operating parallel school systems under different governance models.”
While DeVos has surprised some critics due to the Department's heavy hand while considering ESSA plans, the Trump administration is still pushing for $1.4 billion in funding for promoting school choice initiatives.