There has been much debate about public education spending and its effect (if any) on test scores. Members of both sides of the argument have their own perspective and are very good at getting their point across. Proponents of greater funding for public schools point out that more funds provide greater opportunity for teachers and students in the classroom. On the other hand, those who oppose more spending believe that the opportunities lie in being creative with resources and developing top talent to engage students. Unfortunately, this issue is really not easily solved.
The solution for many complex situations oftentimes lies in the middle, where both sides must compromise to get to an agreeable solution. I am going to propose that maybe we do need to spend more money on education – in some areas, and cut back on spending in others. Fortunately, we live in an era where nearly everything can be quantified and tracked.
Looking at the figures from the year 2012, we have two very basic education metrics – spending per pupil and ACT scores. Both of these are aggregated on a per-state basis for comparability.
Notice the very large distribution range of state spending compared to the smaller range of ACT scores in the two box and whisker charts above. Utah is the frugal one of the bunch at $6,206 per enrolled pupil and New York state leads the pack at a whopping $19,552 spent per pupil. That is 215% more per student. Now, lets take a quick look at the ACT scores from these two states.
New York is at near the top of the pack with its average ACT score of 23.3, while Utah is lower at 20.7. New York’s score of 23.3 is great, but is it worth $13,346 more per student? I doubt that it is, especially when considering that the maximum score for the ACT is 36.
Before you get out the pitchforks, I just want to say that I realize this is just one test and standardized test are another controversial topic. The task of educating students has many moving parts, and our education professionals have no control over them. Students are greatly influenced by their environment at home. Factors like harmony within the home (or lack thereof), poverty, and diet – just to name a few are very real things that children deal with on a daily basis.
With that said, now I want to point out that there is some evidence that spending more on education can improve test scores. Keep in mind that what I have found in the scatter plot chart below is a correlation, and one of the basic principles of statistics is that correlation does not imply causation. In other words, correlation between two variables does not automatically imply that one causes the other.
Scatter plots can help us to see the relationship between two variables. The median value of the ACT scores is 21.6. In the chart above, all of the states that scored below the median are in red and those above are in blue. Also, the states that spend the most are plotted to the right side of the graph, while those with the highest scores are plotted towards the top. Notice there is a group of red squares in the lower left quadrant of the graph and more blue squares towards the upper right. Again, just because the numbers correlate does not necessarily mean that one causes the other.
We need to take a long, hard look at our education system with the belief that everything is on the table. Spending, when done right, can produce some very positive results and potentially save money in the long run. However, spending increases must be done wisely and along with reforms that will eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse.