The extensive edublog reflections upon the new Secretary of Education have provided a convenient list of Hot Topics in Ed Policy. One that has not much been in the forefront is simple, and of course related to almost every other policy theme: Money, the staff of life for institutions and sine qua non for most policy priorities — and for conditions on the ground in schools. At every level of government, decisions about whether and how to fund schooling are taken all the time, and there are at least two lines of connection that link the national with the local (and back again). One is the flow of dollars, and the other is the flow of ideas, since it is ideas ( in various guises— hopes, prejudices, philosophies, economy, science, etc. ) that determine where the money-pipelines will flow, which spigots are opened or closed, what the flow-rates are, and where you meter the system.
So it is useful to have to hand a survey of research about a simple topic: Does money matter in education? When we translate this into slightly more concrete terms, nuances appear, as they should: What harm will we do by cutting education budgets? What benefit can be gained by spending more (any?) public money on education?
Long ago, the meme that “you can’t fix education by throwing money at it” was replaced in sober policy discussions by the better meme, “What matters is what you’re spending the money on.” Eric Hanushek and others who share his generallly “economist” view of education use as their most important metric the impact of dollars on “student outcomes,” generall “achievement,” despite the acknowledged difficulty of Attribution: being able to say with sufficient certainty how a dollar spent could be linked to individual student test scores. People with other foci will frame the discussion very differently (see, for example, most any blog in our Blog Roll, or for variety’s sake this article by Dana Goldstein in the Nation — from 2012, but framing our question energetically in terms of classroom resources and the lives of teachers).
Bruce Baker has provided a full-but-compact overview of studies about the impact of money in education, with particular emphasis on evidence of how money is being spent effectively (tip of the hat to Derek Black’s blog post on this report). Baker’s report, “Does Money Matter in Education?,” includes a brief and useful overview of the “does money matter” debate over recent decades, and then moves on to answer three questions, accepting as the “dependent variable” the “student outcomes” that are the Coin of the Realm in ed policy circles:
• Does Money matter? Baker says, Yes: “on balance, in direct tests of the relationship between nancial resources and student outcomes, money matters.” Baker does not avoid the nuances — some studies show more impact than others, there are many mediating variables, you can’t establish a “dose-response” relationship of dollars input to points of student achievement gained, but the trends are clear and persistent.
• Do schooling resources that cost money matter? This is a very valuable re-phrasing of the basic question. After all, how can we decide what to spend our money on? The answer again is Yes, but again nuances matter: “On the whole…the things that cost money benefit students, and there is scarce evidence that there are more cost-effective alternatives.” Baker mentions some specific “things” postively associated with improved student outcomes: “smaller class sizes, additional sup- ports, early childhood programs and more competitive teacher compensation.” Baker notes that some of these (e.g. smaller class sizes) have been shown to be particularly of value to more challenged, lower-performing students — the ones we keep saying we most want to help cross the “achievement gap,” that persistent chasm.
• Do state school finance reforms matter? Again, Yes. The executive summary is: “While money alone may not be the answer, more equitable and adequate allocation of nancial inputs to schooling provide a necessary underlying condition for improving the equity and ade- quacy of outcomes.”
For me, the great value of this paper is precisely that while clear answers are given, some specific mechanisms behind the answers are provided, and nuances are included or alluded to. Too often “ideas” in policy debates or funding documents are not accompanied by much in the way of a theory of action, or any hint that other factors may be at work which might affect how or whether the hammer you are wielding actually drives home the nail you’ve chosen to strike.
Note: The opinions in this blog are solely the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.