Money is No Guarantee

No surprise here, but yet another review has shown there is little correlation between cost and performance in schools.

Writing for Forbes magazine on July 7, Christina Settimi compared cost and performance. (The story, which was temporarily available on Yahoo, is called “Best and Worst School Districts for the Buck.”)

Settimi compared used ACT and SAT scores, exam participation rates, and graduation rates to measure student performance–and then compare that with per-pupil spending amounts.

The winner was Marin County, California. Marin County is famous for being the home to the rich and famous, so this ranking might seem to validate the argument that success depends on money. But not quite.

“Marin County, Calif., provides the best bang for the buck. In 2004 Marin spent an average of $9,356 ($6,579 adjusted for the cost of living relative to other metro areas in the U.S.) per pupil, among the lowest education expenditures in the country. But in return Marin delivered results above the national average: 96.8% of its seniors graduated, and 60.4% of them took the SAT college entrance exam and scored a mean 1133 (out of 1600).”

The highest cost school was in Alexandria City, Virginia. It spent $13,730 ($11,404 adjusted) per pupil, In return, it had a graduation rate of 73% graduation rate, and the 65.0% of its seniors who took the SAT scored 963, on average.

The methodology behind the story is interesting in itself. It applies only to counties and not individual school districts. And only a small portion of the nation’s schools were taken into consideration. The first cut was to take only the counties with a population of greater than 65,000. The second cut was take the 775 of those that had the highest average property taxes. The third cut was to look at counties in which more than half of all spending came from property taxes. That left 97 counties.

When that sample was obtained, the next step was to apply a cost-of-living adjustment to the expenditures, to reflect regional variations.

The analysis put twice as much emphasis on performance as weight, an arbitrary decision.

One very interesting and troubling feature was the fact that data is still hard to come by, despite the reams of data that are cranked out by the education establishment each year: “Just getting the raw data is no small task; in many counties you have to call dozens of high schools one at a time to find out how many kids drop out, how many take the SATs and how they do on the exams. Since no standard method to calculate a graduation rate is enforced nationally, and the college entrance exam boards will only release data below a state level directly to the schools, not the public, we were left to trust county, district and school officials to honestly and accurately report their results.”

School officials, by the way, were not above gaming the system to their advantage: “During this process it was interesting to hear about the amount of effort and the number of creative ways that schools take to report the best possible results. For instance, high school guidance counselors can encourage poor-performing students to take the ACT exam over the SAT exam, so that their SAT score remains high. Graduation rates can be calculated based on the number of seniors still enrolled in school on the date of graduation, compared with looking at a cohort that began freshman year four years earlier or even looking at the number of seniors enrolled at the beginning of the year. If only as much effort went into improving performance as it did into fixing performance measures.”

The conclusion: money’s not as important as you think. “The caveats to our methodology notwithstanding, our study shows that there are big differences in the quality of education relative to spending among counties and is further proof that money is not the only–or perhaps even the most important–factor when it comes to the quality of education.”

The full story has since gone behind a paid firewall, but you may still be able to view a slideshow of the top 10 counties. Following Marin County are Collin County, Texas (Plano); Hamilton County, Ind. (suburban Indianapolis); Norfolk County, Mass (suburban Boston); Montgomery County, Md. (suburban Washington, D.C.). In total, 3 of the top 10 are in Texas (outside Austin and Houston).

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