The 2017-2018 school year saw a wave of school walkouts and protests across the country. In the vast majority of these protests and walkouts educators and education advocates were asking for increased state or local funding for education. As teachers for many years, we completely understand the cries for increased educational funding. We have always felt undercompensated for our work, and we have always felt our students have never gotten the full educational resources they need. However, with stories of Finland outperforming the world with less per pupil funding than the U.S. we got to thinking: Does increased educational funding really lead to better student outcomes, and if so, for whom? Asking this question lead us to pull the data and see where it leads.
Graph Methods: For the graphs below we looked at the intersections of reading proficiency and per pupil spending by OECD countries (graph 1), U.S. states (graph 2), and large cities/districts by race (graph 3). We used all available data ranging from 2013-2017. We also chose to look at reading proficiency instead of math proficiency (the only other large educational outcome data sets) as reading is a stronger predictor of overall educational outcomes than math.
Take Away: When taking a global perspective, using the PISA reading test, spending more per pupil clearly correlates with educational outcomes. In statistical terms, in OECD countries (where per pupil spending and PISA data was available) spending more per pupil accounts for 27% of the variance in educational performance. Meaning, when countries spend more per pupil it helps to increase reading scores. However, this is not a perfect correlation; 73% of the variance is accounted by other factors - captured by countries like Finland and Canada which are in the middle for per pupil funding, but get top educational outcomes.
Take away: When looking just at the U.S., on a state by state level, spending per pupil still has a decent effect on reading outcomes. In statistical terms, according to National data on reading proficiency at 8th grade, spending more per pupil accounts for 19% of the variance in educational performance. As with OECD countries in Graph One, spending per pupil is important at the state level, but not the only variable which has an effect on educational performance outcomes. This can be seen by a state like New York which is the highest for per pupil funding, but in the lower half for educational outcomes.
Take Away: When we start to get into the weeds of educational data, looking just at major cities and large districts where data was available, we see an interesting phenomenon involving the intersection of race, per pupil spending and educational outcomes. Spending more money per pupil in large cities and districts somewhat supports white students (accounts for 11% of variance), but has no effect on increasing educational outcomes for Black and Hispanic students (less than 1% of variance). Put in other words, on average roughly 45% to 60% of white students are reading at or above proficiency (depending partially on how well funded their district is), while roughly 19% of Hispanic students and 12% of Black students are at or above proficiency regardless of how well funded their district is. This is evidenced by large per pupil spending in New York City and Boston where students of color have the same educational outcomes as students in the lowest funded cities and large districts. Also of note are the consistent, and in some cases huge, disparities in reading proficiency between white students and students of color - clearly evident in places like Atlanta and The District of Columbia (D.C.).
Applying This Information
While these graphs helped us answer our initial question - they opened the door to so much more. Looking at the per country data, it is clear that spending money on education does matter. However, in the context of America, it doesn't have the impact many expect. We believe this is because of the racism that permeates American society and particularly American education. We can spend more per pupil but if that money is spent on School Resource Officers, curriculum that reinforces the dominant narrative, and hiring and developing teachers who lack a critical consciousness than that money will only serve to bolster the white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.
It is precisely because of this truth that we developed Re-Imagine Education. If we are truly interested in education as a force for equity then we must invest in equitable educational resources. We must invest in curriculum that tells the truth and in developing teachers that have a critical consciousness.
Ian McLaughlin & Ryan Williams-Virden