More Spending Not the Solution to School Woes

A feverish debate over how to improve public education is occurring in Lansing. Some legislators and interest groups argue that more spending is the key, others argue that systemic reforms need to be adopted before new revenues are considered.

What are the factors that contribute to better student achievement? Does spending more money really matter? What about teachers salaries? Parent involvement? While other researchers before me have addressed these questions, I wanted to know what the relationships were, so I made a comprehensive and rigorous analysis of Michigan data utilizing student test scores and education input factors published by the Michigan Department of Education.

Currently, the state Department of Education administers the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP). Students in fourth, seventh and tenth grade are required to take the MEAP test in mathematics and reading, and students in fifth, eighth and eleventh grades take the MEAP test in science. The Department annually reports the percentage of students in each school district who pass each section of the MEAP test. Education input factors such as level of per pupil spending and average teacher salary are published annually in bulletin form as well by the Department.

When I compared the per pupil spending in the 111 largest school districts in the state with the percent of students passing the MEAP tests, I found a weak relationship between the two. Total per pupil spending in these districts ranged from $3,400 to $9,800 per pupil, while the test scores varied from 26.3 percent passing to 82.2 percent passing. As the accompanying chart demonstrates, less than five percent of the variation in MEAP scores is explained by the districts' per pupil spending level. In other words, the level of spending appears to have very little to do with the level of student achievement.

There are some who say that paying teachers more would attract better personnel to teaching and improve the quality of education. Average teacher salaries in Michigan's largest school districts in 1990-91 ranged from $32,700 to $ 51,400 per year. It turns out that the average teacher salary explains less than three and one-half percent of the variation in MEAP scores. In other words, the level of teachers' salary appears to have very little to do with the quality of education in a school district.

Many people are of the opinion that small class sizes contribute to better student achievement. When comparing the Michigan data, however, there appears to be only a moderate relationship. The variations in class size in the largest school districts explain only about twenty-four percent of the variations in MEAP test scores in those same districts. Given the enormous cost of reducing class size significantly, the data suggest that such an investment may not be warranted.

The failure of school factors such as per pupil spending, average teacher salary and class size to have much effect on test scores indicates that emphasis on these items cannot significantly improve student achievement in Michigan. Spending more clearly does not guarantee a better education as measured by the MEAP test scores.

If spending-related factors do not explain much, then what are the factors that contribute significantly to improved student achievement? In the 111 largest school districts, over 80 percent of the differences in MEAP test score results are explained by such non-school factors as family and community background.

What this suggests, in my opinion, is that one of the keys to improving the quality of education lies with parents becoming more involved in their children's education and students becoming more committed to learning. Unfortunately, these are not the kind of things that can easily be mandated by the state legislature or by school boards. Parents need to know what their children are studying in school and they need to know if the homework assignments are completed. Parents need to ask the teacher how they can help their child learn and then follow through in helping their child.

If we devoted less attention to cash and more to strengthening the role of parents, Michigan could make real progress toward improving education.