One of the lingering problems with any analysis of public education is that the discussion inevitably devolves into clichés. Simplistic "solutions" such as increasing spending or reducing class sizes are offered up as a panacea that is expected to instantly boost the effectiveness of K-12 education.
But, as the latest version of an influential annual report from Education Week suggests, the factors that contribute to student success are much more nuanced. Consider the case of Washington as opposed to Oregon, its most closely aligned neighbor — both geographically and philosophically. According to Education Week, Oregon spends more per student on K-12 education than Washington, and both states rank below the national average in student-teacher ratio. Yet the states could not be much farther apart when it comes to education: Washington ranks ninth among the 50 states in terms of student achievement, while Oregon is 40th.
That doesn't mean that it's time to break out the streamers and the balloons. Washington earned a C grade and a score of 74.9 for its student achievement numbers (Massachusetts ranked No. 1 with solid B average); there is plenty of room for improvement. But it does mean that it might be time to examine which factors actually play a role in helping students learn.
Let's focus on spending. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, New York leads the way in per-capita spending on K-12 students, averaging $18,816 per student in 2011-12; but according to Education Week, New York ranks 20th in student achievement. Many other states also show little correlation between spending and academic achievement.
This quick analysis cannot be viewed as scientific, nor is it meant to suggest that spending should be ignored as a factor in educational success. But the mantra for education advocates always seems to be that more money can solve more problems, and that's not necessarily the case. The state Supreme Court has mandated, in its McCleary v. Washington ruling, that the legislature must add billions in funding for K-12 education by 2018. That money, however, must be used wisely if it is to boost the effectiveness of the state's schools; spending for the sake of spending can be counterproductive.
Washington ranks among the top 10 states in student achievement because of strong administrators, excellent teachers, and a commitment from residents to work toward educational success — not because it throws cash at educational problems; the state received an F grade for the amount it spends on schools. But the Education Week report points out two additional important factors: Washington ranks high in family income and the education level of parents, finishing far ahead of Oregon in both categories.
This suggests that a state's economic success plays a role in its academic success. By creating good-paying jobs that require an educated work force, states can attract and develop residents who place an emphasis on education and pass that emphasis along to their children; residents who are educated themselves; and parents who were high academic achievers. All of those play a role in fomenting a culture of learning that can permeate a school district and impact all students regardless of background. And that, in many ways, is more important than the amount of money a state spends on education.