As a new resident in Arkansas one of the first expressions I heard repeated was “Thank goodness for Mississippi.” If it weren’t for Mississippi, I was told, Arkansas would have the worst schools in the country. The Special Masters report to the state Supreme Court regarding the adequacy of school funding similarly strikes this gloomy tone, suggesting that massive increases in school spending are necessary for Arkansas schools to offer a minimally adequate education.
But Arkansans should get over their inferiority complex. Arkansas schools actually perform about as well as schools nationwide when the demographic characteristics of our students are taken into account. And according to new test results from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Arkansas schools have made impressive gains since 2000. While we still have a long way to go until we have the schools we want, Arkansans should understand that the state’s schools are not particularly bad and have been making significant progress.
It is true that student achievement in Arkansas tends to lag national averages. But it is also the case that Arkansas students often bring greater disadvantages to their educational experience. On average Arkansas students come from households with lower incomes, lower levels of parental education, and higher rates of single-parenthood-all factors that tend to hinder student learning. If we want to know how effective our schools are we have to separate the influence of these student background characteristics from the influence of school instruction on achievement. Using statistical techniques to adjust for the greater disadvantages that Arkansas students possess, I have found that the effectiveness of Arkansas schools is about on par with the effectiveness of schools across the country. Finding that Arkansas schools are about par doesn’t mean that they are particularly good, but it also shows that they aren’t as bad as people think.
Even more encouraging is that in the last several years Arkansas schools have made exceptional progress. According to the NAEP test results released last week by the U.S. Department of Education, 64 percent of Arkansas’ 8th grade students in 2005 demonstrated at least basic skills in math compared to 49 percent in 2000. Only Texas made greater gains on that test since 2000. On the 4th grade math test 78 percent of Arkansas students performed at the basic or better level in 2005 compared to only 55 percent in 2000. This is the biggest improvement among all states.
Progress in reading results has been less impressive but still outstrips gains nationwide. On the 8th grade reading test national results have actually declined slightly since 1998 while Arkansas made a slight improvement-a gain that was the sixth best among all states. On the 4th grade reading test 63 percent of Arkansas students demonstrated at least basic skills, up from 54 percent in 1998-the fifth best improvement among all states.
What has Arkansas been doing right to produce these exceptional gains? No matter how much the Special Masters would like to claim that higher levels of spending cause greater achievement, the improvements can’t be credited to higher spending. During the 1990s per pupil spending in Arkansas rose by 23 percent, adjusted for inflation. But during that time Arkansas performance on the NAEP hardly budged and significantly lagged progress in the national averages. If greater education spending in Arkansas explains higher school performance, we should have seen progress in student achievement during the 1990s. But we didn’t. And we can’t attribute improved results since 2000 to the recent court-ordered jump in school spending, because most of the gains over the last several years occurred before those extra dollars flowed into schools last year.
Our experience in Arkansas and nationwide suggests that giving more money to schools is not sufficient to produce improvement. We also have to give schools and educators stronger motivation to use the money effectively. While we have doubled inflation-adjusted per pupil spending nationally and in Arkansas during the last three decades, we have only recently begun to see achievement gains-and even then only among 4th and 8th graders and not at all among 12th graders. It is only recently and primarily in elementary school grades that we have implemented school accountability systems, such as those required under No Child Left Behind. Clearly just increasing school spending, as we did steadily for more than 30 years, did not give us better schools. But as we have started to hold schools accountable for using those dollars effectively to produce gains in student learning, we have finally begun to make progress.
Arkansans ought to take pride in the progress our schools have made. And we ought to reject the mistaken claims of those who run down our schools to justify ever-larger increases in spending when the evidence shows that progress has had little to do with spending.