July 14, 2003
By Greg Forster and Marcus A. Winters
Just in time for Pennsylvania's continuing budget showdown over education spending, the U.S. Department of Education has released the latest round of reading scores from its national testing program. Pennsylvania, which already spends more than $4 billion a year on education - more per pupil than almost any other state - got mediocre results. This shows us yet again that throwing money at schools won't improve them without structural reforms in the education system.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the "nation's report card," is a standardized test given periodically to a national sample of students in select grades.
Pennsylvania ranks 19th in fourth-grade reading out of 44 states for which scores are available, close to the middle of the nation. The state's eighth-grade reading scores look about the same, ranking 20th out of 42 states, according to the assessment test. (Participation in the tests was voluntary in 2002, the year that these results represent.) At first glance, those test scores may not look too bad - not great, to be sure, but not alarming, either. They look a lot worse when you put them next to the state's gargantuan education budget. Adjusting for cost of living, Pennsylvania's per-pupil education spending ranks third in the nation.
Pennsylvania schools are providing a mediocre performance on a top-ranked budget, even before Gov. Rendell's proposed spending increases.
When a rookie baseball player turns in a mediocre performance, nobody really notices or cares, because the team is paying him the league minimum salary. When they hired him, they made the decision to take a cheap player rather than invest in an outstanding one. On the other hand, when Ken Griffey Jr. turns in a mediocre performance, people notice. When a team decides to invest $112 million over nine years in a player, it has a right to expect superior results.
Likewise, Pennsylvania taxpayers have decided to invest more money in their schools than all but two other states, Wisconsin and Minnesota. They should be shocked when their schools repay that investment with a performance that ranks only at the middle of the nation. Clearly, just throwing more money at schools doesn't lead to better results.
Fortunately, the new assessment test scores also show that there is another way to get excellence from our schools. States that adopted reforms designed to hold schools accountable for their performance tended to perform well on the tests, even when they didn't spend a lot of money.
Accountability changes rely on what is sometimes called high-stakes testing. Students and schools are rewarded for good test scores and faced with sanctions for poor scores. For students, this can mean having to pass a test before moving to the next grade level or graduating from high school. For schools, high test scores can bring financial rewards while low scores can trigger state-mandated reforms.
Student accountability is intended to ensure that students get the training in the basic skills they need before they leave school, while school accountability is designed to give schools the right incentives to perform well.
States with tough accountability systems did well on the national tests. Massachusetts led the nation in fourth-grade reading scores and was second in the nation in eighth-grade reading scores, and it achieved this excellence on an education budget that ranks 36th in the nation for per-pupil spending. Virginia ranked sixth in fourth-grade reading and seventh in eighth-grade reading despite a budget that ranks 25th in the nation.
Pennsylvania's state test, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, is not used to hold students or schools accountable. Just the opposite, in fact: If schools do badly enough on the test, they are rewarded with additional state funding - rewards that Rendell now proposes increasing. Providing that kind of perverse financial incentive for schools to fail is just the opposite of the approach that works elsewhere.
Pennsylvania's commitment to better education is admirable. However, it would be more effective if it took the form of holding schools and students accountable for their performance rather than just throwing ever-greater piles of money at schools. The nation's report card shows that real reform brings real results.
Greg Forster is a senior research associate and Marcus A. Winters is a research associate at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. They work from the institute's Education Research Office in Davie, Fla. (www.miedresearchoffice.org).
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