Commentary: Closing the Educational Performance Gap

A discouraging report from the American Enterprise Institute finds that the expenditure of billions of new dollars on public education has done almost nothing to close the reading and math gap between higher- and lower-income students.  Maybe we should be looking for more promising alternatives. 

In the coming fiscal year the Vermont legislature will vote to spend over $1.7 billion to educate our preK-12 students. What are students, parents and taxpayers getting for this startling expenditure?

To answer that question, Katharine B. Stevens and Meredith Tracy of the American Enterprise Institute recently released a study for all 50 states entitled “Still Left Behind: How America’s Schools Keep Failing Our Children”. The authors used the most recent data (for the 2017-18 school year) for K-12 spending and results.

Their proxy for results was the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) average scores on 8th grade reading and mathematics. The authors adjusted the per student spending (in 2019 dollars) to reflect differences in state income levels.

“The report’s most important finding is that large proportions of lower-income eighth graders in 2017 still failed to demonstrate even minimum levels of competence in reading and math, as indicated by scoring below NAEP Basic. This was the case in every state—even those that appeared to have improved the most from 2003 to 2017.”

“That is, more than 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary School Act into law as a cornerstone of his War on Poverty legislation, and close to 14 years since the nation’s most far-reaching school reform initiative [NCLB] was launched, the disadvantaged children long targeted by reforms and increased spending were still failing in large numbers.”

First, let’s look at the findings for Vermont, for lower income (free and reduced lunch) and higher income students.

For 8th grade reading, 14% of higher income students in 2003 scored below “Basic” the lowest NAEP category, equivalent to “just barely acceptable”. After fourteen years of increasing educational spending, the percentage dropped to 12%. Not much improvement.

For lower income students, 33% scored below Basic in 2003, and 30% in 2017. Again, not much improvement.

The gap between upper and lower income students scoring below Basic was 19% in 2003, and 18% in 2017. There was no progress at all in closing the gap.

For 8th grade mathematics, the higher income students scored the same  – 16%  of them were below Basic -  in 2003 and 2017. The lower income students scored far worse - from 41% below Basic in 2003 to 37% below in 2017.

The gap between upper and lower income math students declined from 25% to 21% over the 14 years.

The conclusion from Vermont’s results: an alarming percentage of our 8th graders, both high and lower income, are getting D- grades in both Reading and Math, per the NAEP test. The lower income students are doing far worse than their higher income peers, and the gap between them is not significantly shrinking.

The author’s conclusion from the national results: “It’s clear that a great number of schools have been failing disadvantaged children to a stunning degree for years, despite massive public investment that’s reached over $700 billion annually. We’re now heavily focused on getting schools open again, but reopening previously failing schools will unfortunately be much less help to children than many like to acknowledge.”

Now let’s look at Vermont spending. Vermont taxpayers spent about $14,100 per K-12 student in 2003 (in 2019 dollars). In 2017 the number had risen to $19,280. That put Vermont third in the country, after New York ($20,590) and DC ($20,127). New Hampshire was 13th at $15,731, and Utah was 51st at $7,748.  The authors admit that comparing results with expenditures is “exceedingly difficult”, but say that “increased expenditures have not been shown to relate to improved outcomes in a clear, systematic way”.

“The dismal outcomes described in this report were produced in the context of great investment, of both resources and effort, over many decades. Indeed, today’s schooling outcomes are the cumulative result of a half century of intensifying reform efforts and steadily increased spending on K–12 schooling.”

What can a citizen and legislator take away from these findings? At the risk of oversimplifying: The billions spent on closing the gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers is not getting results. There is clearly some minimum amount of per pupil spending that must be provided (think Utah), but doubling and tripling that amount is not a recipe for educational success.

One better strategy for closing that gap would be to concentrate preK funds on the 20% of students who badly need early and more intense help, instead of spreading it over 100%. More importantly, in this age of internet access and pandemic-driven alternatives, we need to go beyond finding more billions to preserve intact the bricks-and-mortar, sage-on-the-stage government monopoly schooling, and enable all parents to seek out and choose among diverse education opportunities that work best for their kids. Yes, that would be disruptive.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.


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