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May 3, 2005

Buffalo News series confirms that more money does not equal better education

Echoing many other studies, the Buffalo News has contrasted spending and academic performance in western New York schools and concluded that more per-pupil spending does not guarantee better academic results.

One article in the series compared two school districts, Lancaster in Erie County and Barker in Niagara County. Lancaster spends $6,524 per pupil compared to $10,587 in the rural Barker district.

“Yet fourth-grade pupils in Lancaster do as well on standardized tests as kids in Barker,” the article said. “Eighth-grade scores in the two districts are identical. High school students do as well on Regents exams in both places.”

The article pointed out that, throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Falls region, the school districts with the best performance were not necessarily the districts spending the most money.

The Buffalo News series, which examined statistics from leading think tanks along with data from local school districts, ran in early May.

"Nationally, we've found very little relationship between what's spent on schools and what the schools contribute to learning," said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University told the News.

The statistics that do make a difference may be found outside the home, the paper noted. “The wealthier the family, the better a student’s test scores, the national research shows.”

But money spent inside the schools seems to make little difference, the paper added. “The district with the best raw test scores is Clarence, which spends less per pupil than 27 of the 37 other local districts.”

The paper reported that the two biggest items in most school districts are teacher salaries and special education classes.

Teacher salaries rises with experience, the paper reported, but added. “Teacher experience, though, does not result in better student test scores.”

The paper found that two of the most experienced teaching staffs in the area, those at the Buffalo City and Royalton-Hartland school districts districts, have test scores among the lowest in the area.

The paper also found that poorer school districts are more likely to spend higher amounts on special education. “Children in poverty are more likely to end up in special education, experts say, for a variety of reasons, ranging from inadequate health care to environmental problems such as lead poisoning.”

Half of students in special education classes are categorized as “learning disabled,” which includes everything from attention deficit disorder to speech impediments, the paper noted. Special education classes are smaller and more labor-intensive, which costs the district more money. Students with more severe problems which could require attendance at specialty schools can cost $70,000 a year, the paper said.

A second story in the News also confirmed that there is no correlation between spending and quality education.

“[T]op performing schools - those that get the most from their students regardless of family income - often are the ones teaching students who have the least,” the article said.

The paper analyzed nine elementary schools in Erie and Niagara counties that “excelled” at fourth-grade standardized test scores.

“These top schools didn't necessarily have the best raw test scores, although some did,” the paper noted. “But when adjusted for poverty, their scores were all well above what they would be expected to achieve given the economic background of their pupils.”

The method to analyze the schools was similar to what is done by most nation-wide studies, the paper said.

The series included a column by Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan.

“Family affluence, as educators know, tends to translate into higher test scores. Wealth is a very good predictor of test scores. And high test scores are often used to measure how good a school is,” Sullivan said. “But what if you were able to measure a school's quality after removing from the equation the variables of wealth or poverty?”

What the Buffalo News found is that measuring achievement after removing economic indicators found that the best schools aren’t necessarily the most affluent and, surprisingly, some of the best are the most impoverished districts, Sullivan said.

The stories are available through the Buffalo News Web site at www.buffalonews.com/editorial/20050502/1035414.asp and www.buffalonews.com
/editorial/20050501/1048485.asp. The Buffalo News column by Margaret Sullivan is available at www.buffalonews.com/editorial/20050501/1064805.asp.