Thoughts on the State of U.S. (and Kansas) Education

Thoughts on the State of U.S. (and Kansas) Education

The website Politico had a fascinating article this weekend entitled “Do American public schools really stink? Maybe not.”  You will want to read the whole story, but here are the key points and how they apply to Kansas.  KASB will be talking about many of these issues in our ten regional meetings across Kansas over the next three weeks. (To find out more and to register visit

U.S. Students are Falling Behind China and Rest of the World

The story begins with reports of alarm over the 2009 PISA international math test, given to 15-year-olds around the world. “Only 32 percent of American kids scored proficient, which puts us at 32nd in the world, miles behind perennial powerhouses like Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea — and also far behind nations less frequently thought of as academic superstars, including Estonia, Iceland and Slovenia.”

However, the story goes on to report that the U.S. did much better on another (and more recent) test, the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).  As a nation, the U.S. ranked 11th for fourth grade math and 9th for eighth grade math.  Moreover, several U.S. states also participated, and four scored above the U.S. as a whole at 8th grade.  If these states had been participating as individual nations, Massachusetts would have ranked 6th, Minnesota 7th, North Carolina 9th and Indiana 10th.  Although Kansas did not participate, Kansas eighth grade math scores on the 2011 National Assessment for Education Progress were below Massachusetts and Minnesota but higher than North Carolina and Indiana, suggesting that Kansas would rank as a top 10 country, as well as a top 10 state, for math performance.  See details in the chart below:

Experts quoted in the story note the U.S. has scored relatively low on international tests for decades, yet has remained an economic superpower in part because of other qualities stressed in American schools over test-taking.  However, long-term economic trends clearly favor more educated individuals.  Kansas is in a better position than most states because it ranks high in adult educational attainment – higher than any states in the region except for Colorado and Minnesota.  However, other industrialized countries have, on average, increased college completion by young adults much faster than the U.S. and Kansas.

We’re Spending More but Schools Are Getting Worse

School spending has increased over the past several decades – but so has the overall economy. The article notes a significant portion of increased school spending has gone to serve students that previously were excluded from public schools or received far less attention and had much less success: special education, bilingual and low-income “at risk” students.

That is certainly true in Kansas. Since 2004, school district operating budgets (general fund plus local option budgets) have increased about $1 billion, and about half was targeted at special education state aid and “restricted” weightings for programs such as at-risk and bilingual services.  In addition, another $250 million was increased for funding the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, which has almost no impact on current educational services.

Adjusted for inflation and applied per pupil, the facts are even more stark. “Current” spending per pupil for annual operating costs is almost unchanged since 2004 when adjusted to 2013 dollars.  The only significant increase in spending since 2004 has been in KPERS contributions and local bond issues and capital outlay funding approved by local voters. See my earlier blog “What is the real state of Kansas Education Funding?”

The Politico article also points out that many measures of student achievement have actually increased since the 1970’s, including long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress results, graduation rates and college completion. Even more significant is the fact that the U.S. (and Kansas) student populations include many more low-income, minority and immigrant students who tend to perform at lower levels, and these groups have all made progress. This means that additional spending on these students really is paying off.

I talked about these trends in more detail in an a blog post last month.  I noted that despite significant increases in the dollar amount of education spending, funding for K-12 education in the United States is slightly lower as a percentage of personal income, i.e., total taxpayer income, than it was in the 1970’s.  The same is true for Kansas.

An Education Problem or an Equity Problem?

Despite progress over the past 40 years, low income students – who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic – still have significantly lower achievement levels than their more advantaged peers.  Schools, districts and states with more low income students tend to have much lower performance than schools, districts and states with fewer low income students.

There are two basic solutions proposed to solve this dilemma: more resources or more reform.  The “more resources” camp says “failing schools” are really the result of impoverished neighborhoods and families, and can only be addressed by additional financial resources to offset the lack of resources available for those children.  The “more reform” side argues that more money hasn’t solved the educational inequities so far, and that only new alternatives like charter schools, private school vouchers and tougher standards for teachers and students will work.

Of course, as noted above, the performance of disadvantaged student groups HAS improved over the past 40 years, especially over the past decade, at the same time new resources have been targeted to these groups.  Moreover, the highest achieving states generally spend the most money per pupil, and the lowest performing states the least. Kansas ranks 7th on an average of four measures of educational attainment through 2012. Every state that ranks higher than Kansas spends more per pupil.

It’s true that higher achieving states also tend to have far fewer low income students, and low achieving states have the most low income students.  To some that may suggest the student population determines achievement, not funding.  But we also know that higher educational attainment results in higher individual income levels and less poverty.  Therefore, it is plausible that states spending more in education and getting better results will have fewer disadvantaged students BECAUSE they invest more in education.

On the other hand, there appears to be no correlation between high state achievement and popular “reform” efforts like charter schools, extensive online programs, vouchers and grade retention based on reading tests.  Florida, for example, is often touted as a model state for education reform. However, on the 2013 ACT test, Florida tested about the same percentage of graduating seniors as Kansas, but had a much lower percentage of “college ready” graduates than Kansas among African-American and White students, and no better scores for Hispanic students.  I explored the relations between funding and achievement in my blog post “Higher funding linked to higher college readiness.” Florida also has lower NAEP results than Kansas, not only for all students but for low income students. That means Florida’s lower scores are not simply the result of MORE low income students.

In my view, the Politico article reinforces these positions on education in Kansas and nationally. Public education has made a great deal of progress to be proud of, but economic and social changes demand continued improvement in outcomes.  Funding DOES make a positive impact on achievement, and is far more important than “reform” initiatives that may undercut the commitment of quality public education for all.