Differentiating Between Research and Common Sense

Differentiating Between Research and Common Sense

If you’ve been involved in education policy and/or funding, you have no doubt heard the arguments about whether or not there is a connection between education funding and student outcomes. Education proponents cite data showing that states paying more per pupil on education tend to have higher student graduation rates and better student assessment results. People on the other side of the issue lambast the research (and often the people citing the research), indicating that it is all smoke and mirrors. Their bottom line is that there is no connection between education funding and student outcomes.

I am a researcher by title and by nature. I like to investigate the available data and see what conclusions I can come to. However as I’ve noted before, I understand that research cannot give us absolute truths or undeniable facts. Research provides indicators. Indicators show us patterns and suggest what might be happening based on what we can observe and measure. Research cannot prove that more money equals better outcomes.  Statistics can show that the two are correlated, and even that more money predicts better outcomes, but because we cannot control for the variety of factors that impact educational outcomes, it is very, very difficult to produce definitive proof of the causal relationship between education funding and student success.  

But let’s take a moment to really think about the debate. Let’s step back from the data and the arguments about particulars, and let’s talk big picture.  

If you have more resources, does it not follow that you have a better chance to be successful in whatever it is you are doing than if you had less resources? Does anyone truly believe that putting more money into the education system would have no effect, or even negative effects, on student graduation rates and assessment scores? Why would anyone believe such a thing?

Of course it is not that simple. The education funding skeptics (those who say funding amounts do not matter) point to efficiency and effectiveness, saying that schools and districts are mismanaging the money, that administrators are being paid too much, and that we are not getting the return on our educational investment that we should. They say the solution is not to spend more, but to crack down on the school administers and ensure that they are spending the money they’ve got more carefully.  

This is presented in the face of reports from the advocates for additional funding which consistently show that Kansas ranks high in education outcomes but only in the middle for education spending, suggesting that the state is more successful in terms of student outcomes than would be expected based on our funding level. So while we can assert the correlation between spending and outcomes, we also can assert that Kansas does better than can be attributed to spending alone.  Something about the Kansas education system allows us to have better outcomes for our students than other states that spend similar amounts.  

But even these arguments seem to create a false dichotomy. No education proponents ever argue that we should spend more and not also ensure we are spending as efficiently and effectively as possible. Of course we need to spend carefully and to look for opportunities to save and make those dollars stretch. But anyone on a tight budget can tell you that scrimping and saving only gets you so far. You have to have a minimum amount to work with in order to be effective, and if you don’t have that minimum amount, no scrimping and saving will help.

So back to my original point. Research, statistics, and analysis will never be able to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that increasing education spending will lead to better student outcomes. But based on your own personal experiences, and your own common sense, do you truly need research to prove that to you?  Do you need someone to present incontrovertible evidence that having more resources increases your chance for success?   

Maybe it is time we focused a bit more on common sense and a bit less on what research can or cannot prove.