Why are NAEP-reported student outcomes lower than in previous years? We’re likely to hear in the coming weeks that the culprit is a lack of funding.
But here’s the thing: The US increased funding for K-12 public education during the period in question. In 2013 we spent $11,791 per pupil and by 2019 we averaged $13,187 per pupil. And yes, those figures are both in 2019 dollars, which means the funding jump exceeds any rate of inflation.
And yet several key student outcomes went down. So, what gives?
The answer is messy: there’s a lot involved in making sure that money matters for students.
For years, dueling research battled over whether money mattered for student outcomes. On the one side were researchers like Eric Hanushek, who wrote in 2015: “Outcomes observed over the past half century – no matter how massaged – do not suggest that just throwing money at schools is likely to be a policy that solves the significant U.S. schooling problems seen in the levels and distribution of outcomes.”
Then, more recently, Kirabo Jackson and colleagues used newer analytical techniques and found spending more money translated into statistically significant benefits for students, including rising test scores and high school graduation rates. By 2018, Jackson declared: “By and large, the question of whether money matters is essentially settled.”
Now to be fair, we can’t cherry pick two data points (spending and NAEP outcomes) and use them to second-guess the conclusions of solid research studies. But at the same time, some of the explanation for the lower student outcomes on NAEP amid the higher student spending is right there in the concluding paragraphs of nearly every legitimate study: There are many factors involved in this complex relationship. Jackson and colleagues tell us that while “adequate funding may be a necessary condition… money alone may not be sufficient.”
Beyond the question of how much money, it also matters, for instance, how the money was spent. And of course it does. It’s a stretch to think that when new funding goes only to sports fields, for instance, or toward paying for retirement promises for former school employees, that such spending choices are likely to boost reading scores.
Studies suggest other variables matter too, like school leaders’ management skills or school-level student outcome targets. Or possibly factors like who made the spending choices. (Did local schools have a say in whether proposed investments would work for their kids?) Or even whether funds delivered to districts then made it to the schools with the most students needing added resources.
Even in those studies that have found a positive relationship between funding and outcomes, the relationship is limited and doesn’t explain as much of the variation as we’d like. That means: if the system doesn’t get better at translating dollars into outcomes, we’d need to spend hella more money to do right by kids.
There’s a caution in there for those tempted to make ‘more money’ the goal itself. Spending increases must be coupled with a corresponding commitment to ensuring the funds are allocated and used in productive ways. When money becomes the only rallying cry, students can get lost.
This all matters tremendously right now, especially as the country is investing an historic $190 billion in one-time federal pandemic relief. We must remain vigilant in calling on schools and systems to ensure students meaningfully benefit from the new funding. Leaders need to stay laser-focused on ensuring these investments translate to student outcomes—especially for students who most need help.
One thing we do know: There will be calls for continued increased investments when the federal money runs out, and those calls will undoubtedly be hampered by any evidence (including these NAEP scores) that erodes confidence that funding can bring real benefits for students. The strongest case proponents can make is to help make money matter more.
Originally published on Eduwonk.