Sunday, November 22, 2015

State-by-State Education Rankings: It's (Almost) All About the Spending

Reading this article in the NYTimes on Massachusetts' dropping out of the Common Core testing regime made me wonder how different states compared in student performance. The NYTimes' article placed Massachusetts at the top, even outpacing all other countries except Singapore in science. Them's some pretty hot numbers.

The best comparison I found was published in Education Week using 2013 numbers. the statistics were essentially unsurprising and established pretty clear differences. Massachusetts indeed placed first. The graphic above provides quite a picture.

What does Massachusetts do right? Just about everything, including high levels of spending. The list of higher-learning institutions, such as Harvard, M.I.T., Amherst, Holy Cross, Tufts, Williams, Brandeis, and Boston College is quite impressive. The state is highly educated and ranks high in all categories.

The best performing states are clustered in the Northeast. It appears likely that the presence of fine private schools and colleges -- including the Ivy League schools and more -- leads to better school performance. In fact, all of the original thirteen colonies are in the top fifteen performing states -- with the glaring exception of three Southern states, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

The cluster from Virginia north all the way to Maine speaks to the long history of education reaching back 300 years. The poor performance of the three Southern states can be partly explained by spending. Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina all received Fs for overall spending.

The high-performing exceptions, Wyoming and Minnesota, seem to break the mold. Wyoming spends a lot of money for good results, surprising for an essentially rural state with only one four-year college. Two important indicators for Wyoming are high rankings in the categories of Early Foundations and Adult Outcomes, which indicates that the state may have fewer English Language Learners dragging down test scores, plus a stable and well-educated workforce. Who knew?

Minnesota, on the other hand, has much lower spending for good results. Minnesota is near the top in Early Foundations and even higher than Wyoming in Adult Outcomes.

By and large, though, spending equals outcomes among the vast majority of states, especially when comparing top performing and low performing states. You get what you pay for. My state, California, used to be an educational juggernaut. Now it's in the bottom grouping. What's telling about California is its very low spending (gets an F) and its low scores for Early Foundations and Adult Outcomes. Since I spent part of my career as an English Language Learner teacher, I'm aware of the challenges California faces because of its large immigrant population. In fact, toward the end of my career, my school district in Napa had a majority Hispanic population (it takes a lot of Mexicans to tend all those vineyards).

A state, like California, can look bad in the ratings because of its challenges but actually be doing a pretty good job in light of those challenges. So beware of the "failing schools" narrative. California is barely doing okay with barely enough money in teaching a very challenging population leading to barely okay Adult Outcomes. No surprise there. What would the outcomes be in a less diverse population, like Minnesota?

By the way, under Governor Jerry Brown, spending on education has begun to rise dramatically in recent years, with a $3,000 per pupil jump since 2012. Still, school spending lags in my state.

But again, my rule in judging school performance remains: Follow the money. This Jill Tucker article in the SF Chronicle tells a very enduring tale of affluent communities wildly out-performing impoverished ones, something I noted in my column in the Napa Valley Register back in 1998 when the first student test scores came online.

No matter what money is spent, poverty is the leading cause of low test scores.

If you were wondering whether educational accomplishment was good for you, check the above graph.

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