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Does Spending Lead to Better Education?

Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority AEL

Imagine being commissioned to make a 30-minute documentary about the yield on investments in U.S. public education. You sift through piles of data and find some gold nuggets. Each one reveals a different perspective. As you dig deeper, you find a story layered with complexity. Finally, you realize the truth: "The whole story can't be told in 30 minutes."

This scenario mirrors the daunting task faced by researchers and analysts studying what results municipalities get for their investments in education. If we limited our imaginary documentary to a glance at this data, it would take only a minute to tell the story: Education expenditures have doubled in 30 years, but student achievement in core subjects has barely moved.

Of course, that's not the whole story. A filmmaker would explore reasons for the increased expenditures, such as the rising cost of teacher salaries and benefits, the provision of special education services, and costs associated with technology and energy. The tests themselves would be examined.

Also worth noting are differences between the 1970 and 2000 calculations of expenditures. Beginning in 1980, the National Center for Education Statistics began excluding state administration expenditures; in 1988, extensive changes were made in data collection procedures. Researchers Jim Fortune and Susan Spofford point out that issues such as these should be taken into account--but are often ignored--by those examining the relationship between per-pupil expenditures and student achievement.

Improving student achievement is a relatively new objective of school finance, spurred in part by the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk and, more recently, by NCLB. Throughout much of the 20th century, the emphasis was on guaranteeing access to public schools. If we look at the data from this perspective, we find that substantial progress has been made: Special education services accommodate children who were not served in public schools 30 years ago. The percentage of 25-somethings who have completed high school is more than twice that of 1960. You wouldn't want to leave this out of the story.

Today, however, conversations about the relationship between K-12 expenditures and results are likely to focus on student achievement and the issues of adequacy and allocation. Legal debates have shifted from equitable distribution to adequacy of funding: What level of funding is required if schools are to provide real opportunities for students to meet objectives?

Meanwhile, financial decisions in school district offices may focus on allocation: Given our current funding, what allocations would yield the greatest improvements in student achievement? Because researchers have identified teacher effectiveness as school's most important input to student achievement, it follows that strategic investments in teacher recruitment, retention and professional development might pay high dividends.

District leaders must consider many elements--including administration, instruction and individual school needs--to maximize the public's common investment in education. Viewing these accomplishments and challenges through a wide-angle lens offers perspective on a demanding task.

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