Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wisconsin: An Educational Failure?

CNS is running a news story that skewers the Wisconsin educational system. A few key details:
In the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests administered by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009—the latest year available—only 32 percent of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders earned a “proficient” rating while another 2 percent earned an “advanced” rating. The other 66 percent of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders earned ratings below “proficient,” including 44 percent who earned a rating of “basic” and 22 percent who earned a rating of “below basic.”
Wisconsin public schools increased their per pupil expenditures from $4,956 per pupil in 1998 to 10,791 per pupil in 2008. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator the $4,956 Wisconsin spent per pupil in 1998 dollars equaled $6,546 in 2008 dollars. That means that from 1998 to 2008, Wisconsin public schools increased their per pupil spending by $4,245 in real terms yet did not add a single point to the reading scores of their eighth graders and still could lift only one-third of their eighth graders to at least a “proficient” level in reading.
Sounds pretty terrifying. Except there are a few problems.

To tackle the matter of finances first. The statistics quoted above compare apples to oranges. The $4956 CNS attributes to 1998 does not cover the total per-pupil spending---only the spending for instruction (and not for support services). The amount spent per pupil on instruction in Wisconsin in 2008 was, according to the Department of Education, $6560, or about exactly what it would be if 1998's numbers were adjusted for inflation. The total expenditures per pupil in 1998 were $9298. According to the inflation calculator, $9298 in 2008 comes out to $12,281. So total expenditures in Wisconsin for education seem to have gone up slower than the rate of inflation.

On to the role of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests: One of the unfortunate tendencies of many right-leaning approaches to education policy has been the elevation of standardized test scores above all (see No Child Left Behind, etc.). Especially from a classical conservative perspective (though not only from that perspective), it seems problematic at best to reduce educational success to a few test scores. Moreover, one perhaps cannot disregard the notion that certain parties inside and outside the government may have an interest in defining "proficiency" up in order to precipitate a useful "crisis." So I think these scores might be taken with a grain of salt.

But it should be noted that Wisconsin's average eighth-grader NAEP reading score of 266 is above the national average. 34% of students at or above grade level in reading may sound bad, but the highest-scoring state scored only 43% at or above level. That state happens to be the union bastion of Connecticut, which spent over $14,500 per pupil. Massachusetts and New Jersey round out the top three, both having spent significantly per pupil more than Wisconsin.

What does a low-scoring state look like in terms of scores? States like Louisiana ($10,000 per pupil), Mississippi ($7890 per pupil), California ($9706 per pupil), and Nevada ($8180 per pupil) have NAEP proficiency ratings in the low 20s (Mississippi is in the teens). The lowest-scoring jurisdiction in the USA is Washington DC, with only 13% of 8th-graders at or above level. The District spends over $16,000 per pupil.

The case of DC shows that high spending is not enough to ensure academic success, and the case of Idaho (which spends $6900 per pupil for an achievement level about equal to Wisconsin's) shows that higher spending is not necessarily necessary for scores above the national average. Many of the states near the bottom are right-to-work states, but some right-to-work states have higher scores. Meanwhile, many union-strong states dominate the top of the charts, but having a strong union (see California) is not a sufficient recipe for educational success.

Unions in public education may be bad or they may be good. But to single the public schools of Wisconsin out for a unique inefficiency and failure is rather unfair.

There are far more variables involved in the success of our schools than mere funding and union presence. The composition of student populations in a school district, for example, plays a key role in the challenges and opportunities for that school. An inner-city school with a majority of immigrant students faces a very different educational situation than a small middle-class town in Idaho---and that educational situation would not suddenly turn around if a union were abolished. Unfortunately for us, perhaps, educational policy often seems more about struggling with numerous finite particulars than grasping that golden panacea.

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