Rhode Island spends more per student than most other states, ranking in the top ten nationally, but it's 32nd in the country for student achievement, according to a GoLocalProv analysis of data for all 50 states.
“This data highlights the stark reality that although we invest heavily in public education in our state, our performance remains unacceptably low,” said Maryellen Butke, Executive Director of RI-CAN, an education reform group.
She added: “People should be asking how we’re spending that money and how much of it is reaching classrooms. We should invest heavily in education but we need to ensure the money is being used to support great teachers and leaders in our schools.” (See below charts for the complete ranking of all 50 states by spending and student performance.)
Is the spending worth it?
In an effort to fairly measure the effectiveness of education spending, GoLocalProv ranked each state by how much it spends per pupil.
Then, student performance was measured by the math and reading scores of fourth and eighth graders on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, which is administered to samples of students in all 50 states. The NAEP test offers a single benchmark against which to compare all states, rather than the individual state tests, which vary widely in standards from one area to another. The ranking also takes into account the four-year graduation rates across the country, using data culled from the Federal Education Budget Project.
The results were then compared with the per-pupil rankings in order to see how much of an impact spending is having on student achievement. In other words: How much of a return is Rhode Island getting on its investment?
The answer: not enough.
Despite spending more than $14,000 per student—ranking seventh nationally when DC is counted—Rhode Island has a graduation rate of 75.3 percent. Less than 40 percent of its fourth graders are proficient or better in reading and math on the NAEP. For the eighth graders, it’s less than 30 percent for the 2008-2009, the school year for which the most recent data is available for the entire country in the categories examined.
Last in New England
Lisa Blais, an education consultant, said the numbers show that taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth. “At $14,000 per year, it’s clear that our students are not getting the value of education that number suggests,” Blais said. “We are still graduating some kids who cannot even read or write at acceptable levels to get them into employment or to be even able to handle a college application.”
Rhode Island just barely edged out its neighbor to the north, Massachusetts, by a few hundred dollars per pupil. But Massachusetts is getting much more for its dollar: it ranks first in the country for NAEP scores and graduation rates.
“There are pockets of excellent teachers in every school district in Rhode Island but sadly the way the system has been functioning for many years, [it’s] not necessarily provided all the teachers with the tools ... to bring every student to acceptable academic levels of achievement,” said Blais, who is also a spokesperson for the Ocean State Tea Party in Action.
The Ocean State also lags last among most of the other New England states in student performance. Four states in the region—Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire—are among the top ten spenders and the top ten performers. The fifth, Maine, was narrowly edged out of both lists, ranking 14th in per pupil spending and 16th in student performance.
State: RI is getting better
The data may paint a stark picture, but Rhode Island is improving, according to Elliot Krieger, spokesman for state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. He pointed to the 2011 NAEP scores, which showed gains across the board by several percentage points: 43 percent of eighth graders scored proficient, up from 39 percent from two years earlier, and eighth graders are now above 30 percent proficient in both reading and math.
But compared to other states, the Ocean State still ranked 27th in eight grade reading and 26th in eighth grade math in 2011. The best area was fourth grading reading, which was 18th in the nation.
When those scores were weighted to account for poverty and improvement from the previous year, Rhode Island placed 19th in Quality Counts, an annual ranking produced by Education Week—which, unlike the GoLocalProv ranking, lumps per-pupil spending with achievement and blends data from different years.
Asked to comment on the GoLocalProv rankings, Krieger said: “Commissioner Gist believes that our per-pupil expenditures are adequate and that our responsibility is to seek efficiencies—such as the statewide transportation, nutrition, and school-supplies initiatives—that will help us to invest our resources wisely and to focus resources on advancing student achievement.”
“In order to continue to improve student achievement, we are focusing on ensuring that we have excellent teachers in every classroom and that teachers receive the leadership, support, and resources they need to do their work well,” Krieger added.
National rankings: Money isn’t everything
If there’s any conclusion that can be drawn by comparing all 50 states, it’s that educational excellence cannot be measured by how much a state spends. “It has more to do with how they spend it than what they’re spending,” said Jennifer Cohen, a senior policy analyst for the Federal Education Budget Project, which is maintained by the New America Foundation.
For example, New Jersey and New York are separated by roughly $700 in per pupil spending: both spend about $17,000, more than any other state, excepting DC. But the two states are miles apart when it comes to student performance. New Jersey students rank fifth; their New York peers, on the other hand, are 26th.
Cohen points to the two states as an object lesson on the importance of spending money well. “There’s something fundamentally different happening in New Jersey than New York,” she said.
Among the top ten biggest spenders, about half are also at the top for performance. But the rest are stuck in the middle or lower. That includes states like Alaska, which is the sixth highest spender per student, but the 36th for achievement, and Wyoming, which ranks eighth and 25th, respectively.
A number of the highest performing states are not at the top in spending. North Dakota, for example, ranks 29th in per pupil costs. But its students are the seventh best in the country. At just over $11,000 per pupil, Minnesota ranks 18th, but its students beat out most of their northeastern peers, ranking third overall. South Dakota spends half as much as Connecticut on its students, but it still manages to get them to perform 12th in the nation. Connecticut students rank sixth.
Meanwhile, the highest spender on the list, DC, is also the lowest performer.
What’s the key to success?
So what is the key to spending money wisely—focusing on teacher training? Testing? Charter schools? More parent involvement? “There is no one size fits all,” Cohen said. “You have to take into account the context in which you’re doing things.” For example, one how one state approaches teacher quality, she said, might have to be different than another.
For Rhode Island the path to a brighter future is clear, according to Blais. She said the state needs to press forward with the systemic reforms advocated by education commissioner Gist in the statewide Basic Education Plan, including teacher evaluation requirements and the elimination of seniority as the sole factor in determining classroom assignments. Blais said the state also needs to open up more charters and alternative education programs for students and keep the General Assembly from interfering in local school matters and education regulations.
Note: The Rhode Island Department of Education encourages all Rhode Islanders to become familiar with its data on school spending, which is available on a district and statewide level from the Uniform Chart of Accounts. See the Infoworks Live! Web site: http://infoworks.ride.ri.gov/