Although declining standardized test scores usually bring calls for more state, local and federal financing from the education establishment, at least one prominent academic remains skeptical that increased government subsidies will solve the problem.
“One idea that clearly won’t work is across-the-board funding increases,” Richard Colvin of Columbia University’s Teachers College points out in an article in the September issue of State Legislatures. State Legislatures is the official magazine of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In like fashion, he sees further spending increases yielding little in the way of more literacy or computational skills. “Neither is it clear that simply giving low performing schools extra money is a solution,” he writes. “Schools will tend to spend additional money in the same way they’ve spent existing dollars.”
“If anything is to change,” he concludes, “schools have to spend money differently, not just spend more.” Colvin points out that spending on education went up by more than 90 percent over the past three decades. At the same time, elementary and high school test scores on exams given by the U. S. Department of Education showed little improvement.
“Despite some progress, 9-year-olds’ overall reading performance is little changed over the past two decades,” Colvin writes. Colvin serves as director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College.
“Data from the latest round of testing, released in June, show about 36 percent of fourth graders and 25 percent of eighth graders read at a level the test givers consider to be ‘below basic,’” Colvin writes, “meaning that they have trouble understanding their assignments.”
“The news is better in math,” Colvin points out. “In 1990, 50 percent of American fourth graders had a ‘below basic’ mastery of math. Ten years later, only 31 percent of them were that far behind.
These test scores show two decades of less than stellar academic performance at the kindergarten through high school level that followed the release of the U. S. Department of Education’s historic study, A Nation At Risk. Public schools around the country responded to the results of that study by making academic standards a bit tougher. Many of these reforms, though, proved illusory.
For example, Colvin notes, “27 states either have high school graduation tests in place or are phasing them in.”
“Such tests are meant, in part, to signal to schools and students what’s expected,” Colvin explains. “But the failure of many students to pass such tests—even though they’re generally pegged at a eighth or ninth grade level—shows that the message is not getting through.”
Colvin reports, “In response, states are beginning to back off by lowering the score needed to pass, delaying the effective date of such tests (as occurred in California) or allowing school districts to override the test and hand out diplomas anyway.” Colvin previously worked as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times.
A decade ago, a group called the Economic Policy Institute produced a study showing that the United States spent less on education than other industrialized nations. Now, that ratio is reversed, but the U. S. lags behind these other nations in language and math skills.
About half of what every level of government spends on education actually makes it into the classroom, at least in the form of the teacher’s salary, study after study shows. “The U. S. spends more on administrators than do many other nations,” Colvin told AIA.
“But by business standards, management is not a large share of the overall spending,” Colvin cautions. “Moreover, that percentage has gone down as schools and districts have consolidated over the last several decades.”
“The biggest source of increased spending is the growth of special education costs.” Colvin questions the efficacy of most school reforms proposed today, from the small classes recommended by left-leaning teacher’s unions to the vouchers promoted by conservative education analysts.
“California in 1996 reduced class size statewide to 20-1 in primary grades, a policy that has cost $10 billion,” Colvin remembers. “The policy exacerbated an existing teacher shortage that was especially acute in the urban and rural schools serving the most disadvantaged kids.”
One different approach to spending that Colvin remains ambivalent about is the redistribution of existing funds that enable low-income public school students to enter private schools. “The academic results of school choice are mixed,” he states. When AIA asked him to elaborate he admitted, “It’s possible to find studies showing very slight gains for vouchers, but only for African-American males.”