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School Spending and the Limits of Research

In the new Education Next, researchers C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C. Johnson, and Claudia Persico have a study that finds a big impact of increased school spending on educational attainment and on family income (once students become adults). The researchers have drawn attention because they wind up making some pretty massive claims about the impact of new spending—in a field where analysis has tended to show little (or no) clear evidence that more spending leads to better outcomes for kids. Indeed, they conclude that a 22% boost in per-pupil school spending (about $2,900 per student) throughout a student's K-12 experience would suffice to wipe out the "gap" between low-income and nonpoor students when it comes to educational attainment. 

Jackson et al. dug deep into the econometric bag of tricks, relying heavily on a creative assumption about how districts react to court-ordered funding increases. As always, the findings turn on the researchers' assumptions about how the world works and on how generalizable one thinks the findings are. I was going to wade into all this, but, happily, Jay Greene has already done a splendid job of discussing the study and dissecting some of the key assumptions.

So, go see what Jay has to say. Instead, I'll just offer a few more general points. First off, let me say that I'm hugely dubious that a 22% boost in spending will actually eliminate the income-based attainment "gap." If the study's authors can find a deep-pocketed funder to finance that experiment and prove me wrong, I'm all ears. Meanwhile, I'll take the pessimistic side of that bet at 50-to-1 odds. Now, you may ask, "How can that be?" After all, we've just heard what the latest research says.

Truth is, I think there's a lot of confusion today about what education research can and can't tell us (even setting aside the hundreds of studies that have come to contradictory conclusions). The limits of social science is a topic I've written about at some length, but here I'll just say that we should be really cautious about claiming to have deciphered complex social phenomena or extrapolating the findings from a given milieu or time period. We suffer from an excess of overheated claims about what "works" when it comes to pre-K, extended learning time, turnarounds, teacher evaluation, and much else. In reality, when dealing with complex systems, it's tough to be sure that you have studied things properly, have made the right assumptions, or know how things will translate to different circumstances.

That's why, as regular readers know, I'm one of the least "research-impressed" education scholars around. It's not because I'm down on research. It's because I think that research relevant to education policy is always fraught with questionable assumptions, flawed metrics, and problems of generalizability. (This is less true when it comes to research focused on instructional practices than when you're trying to figure out which tutoring program leads to larger gains in ELA achievement.)

So, three quick thoughts on the spending question. First, I find it totally plausible that enough additional money will benefit kids. If you put enough resources into anything, it'll usually do some good. Of course, we don't have unlimited resources. So if we're spending millions more on education, that's money we're not spending on something else. Equally important is that public funds come from raiding the wallets of private citizens—so we've an obligation to ensure that funds are being well spent and delivering a reasonable return. Absent that, I'm loath to spend, even if the money might help. That's why this 22%-more-eliminates-the-attainment-gap story is such a big deal. If that figure is true, then that's money I'm happy to spend. But, like I said, I'm dubious.

Second, extra dollars have an interesting side effect—on me, college kids, district administrators, and everyone else. Extra funds alleviate the need to scrape, save, or be thoughtful about spending. Given that the nation's school systems tend to be undisciplined and fairly mindless about their cost structures, austerity is immensely healthy. (By the way, there's nothing unique to schooling here. Periods of austerity are healthy for think tanks, colleges, and businesses, too.) It's just that, in the past century or so, American education has only had a tiny handful of years in which per-pupil spending declined. Bad habits have taken root, with outlays running on automatic pilot and no one eager to unnecessarily eliminate positions or programs. The upshot is that extra dollars can all too easily serve to enable bad behavior rather than fuel improvement.

Third, I just don't believe that the amount of extra funds ultimately matters as much as what is done with those funds. Yet calls for funding increases are frequently accompanied by mandates, programs, and regulations that ensure that those funds are used in clumsy, one-size-fits-all ways—or that they're stacked upon deep-set routines, rather than being an excuse to rethink how things are done. Thus, my take on the value of extra dollars turns on how they're going to be spent; I have zero enthusiasm for someone simply arguing "more." By design, though, research on the effect of education spending is uninterested in (and atheoretical about) how the money is spent. I find that disconcerting.

Now, I know that none of this analysis is very sophisticated . . . or research-based. It's a product of personal experience, what I've observed, common sense, and how I think the world works. And I know that some regard being explicit about such things (not hiding them in jargon or dressing them up with alternative citations) as dreadfully gauche. Such is life. Again, let me be clear: I think high-powered social science is a good thing. It's useful and provocative. It can challenge our assumptions and offer insights. And, if enough different scholars and approaches deliver enough similar findings, we can even find the occasional truth. But, when dealing with complex, uncertain, and changing social systems, it's good to be skeptical about how much even a clever bit of econometric analysis can really tell us.     

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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