Here's how schools could be better, according to research
School funding inequalities hit pupils in low-income, minority neighborhoods most. Source: Kris Connor/AFP

In April this year, US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos defended a proposal to cut US$200 million from efforts to boost literacy rates across the US. Her reasoning for the statement? Money doesn’t matter.

“Continued federal funding to try to fix problems has not yielded the results we’ve all hoped for,” DeVos told the House Education and Labor Committee.

But is she right? Is money really no help in boosting school performance?

Research disagrees. A paper presented at the Fall 2018 Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research Conference by C. Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University unearthed that several recent studies have found otherwise.

Older literature on the topic – which was largely descriptive – shows “strong support” for a “positive economically important association between increased school spending and improved student outcomes”, but notes that their observational nature means one could not deduce a cause.

The proposed cut to federal education funding would eliminate 29 programs .

Proposed cuts would eliminate 29 education programmes, advocates say. Source: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

Instead, schools should consider much more recent literature, which employ larger data-sets and quasi-experimental methods.

“The recent quasi-experimental literature that relates school spending to student outcomes overwhelmingly support a causal relationship between increased school spending and student outcomes,” the report said.

“All but one of the several multi-state studies find a strong link between spending and outcomes –
indicating that money matters on average.”

They listed areas where more school spending is effective such as the Head Start programme, which promotes school readiness in children up to age five from low-income families, as well as where politicians and taxpayers invested more money in teacher salaries.

Speaking to EdWeek, a Stanford economist emphasised the need to dramatically change school spending habits.

“It’s not that resources don’t matter and that they can’t matter,” he said.

“It’s that you can’t trust that you can just drop in a pile of money and expect good performance to come out. That doesn’t mean you should cut spending on schools. I think that there’s still a case to be made on targeting extra resources on schools to get better performance.”

Different US states have varying school spending. According to the Education Week Research Center’s most recent Quality Counts analysis, the US gets a C grade for school finance overall – the average spending is around US$12,000 per student.

But this figure varies widely between states, even between neighbouring states. For example, Wyoming spends US$18,090 per pupil – third highest in the nation – while Utah spends US$7,635 per pupil – the lowest in the nation.

Source: Jesse Grant/AFP

Another report by the Albert Shanker Institute found that states are spending too little on schools, especially those in poorer districts. These students need more money to educate because they need better-qualified teachers, stable learning environments and more wraparound services.

“The vast majority of states spend well under the levels that would be necessary for their higher-poverty districts to achieve national average test scores,” the authors conclude.

States should be spending more than US$20,000 on poorer school districts, authors claim.  Arizona, Mississippi and California were found to be those that spend too little.

“Progressive distributions of funding must be coupled with sufficient overall levels of funding to achieve the desired outcomes,” the authors add.

“This consensus—that money does, indeed, matter— is supported by a growing body of high-quality empirical research regarding the importance of equitable and adequate financing for providing high-quality schooling to all children. In education, money can be, and frequently is, used poorly. How money is spent—and on which students— is no less important than how much money is spent.”

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