Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Public Education in Texas: New York Performance at Half the Price

The New York Times's editorical pages writers are, as a group, deeply enamored with the fact that Texas has the one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country.

On February 27, Paul Krugman wrote:
And in low-tax, low-spending Texas, the kids are not all right. The high school graduation rate, at just 61.3 percent, puts Texas 43rd out of 50 in state rankings.
On May 27, Gail Collins also noted:
If Perry were elected president, perhaps he would do for the entire United States what he’s done for Texas, which ranks... 45th in high school completion.
So, are Texas's low-tax policies responsible for the state's poor high school graduation rate? Is Rick Perry ruining public education in Texas? Not really.

According to 2008 data on high school completion from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, 65.29% of freshman who entered a public high school in Texas in the fall of 2004 had graduated by the spring of 2008. That is 45th in the nation and below the national average (mean) of 70.06%.

However, a quick look at the 18 states that have graduation rates below the national average shows that states with low high school graduation rates are a politically and geographically diverse set.

Nevada 47.56
South Carolina 53.85
Louisiana 58.13
Georgia 58.77
Florida 59.56
New Mexico 60.61
Mississippi 61.69
Alabama 64.03
Texas 65.29
Delaware 65.68
Alaska 65.82
North Carolina 65.9
Arizona 67.13
New York 67.13
California 68.17
Hawaii 68.43
Washington 68.62
Kentucky 69.11

Southern states and conservative states are over-represented on this list. Eight of these states are in the south and twelve are red states (i.e. states that went for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election). However, the list also includes the bicoastal pillars of American liberalism and public education spending---New York and California---along with fellow blue states New Mexico, Delaware, Hawaii, and Washington.

According to the Census Bureau (Table 11), in 2008-2009, New York spent $18,126 per pupil in its elementary and secondary schools, the highest in the nation. California spent $9,657, per pupil, ranking 30th. Texas spent $8,543, 43rd in the nation. Looking over the list above and at these three data points, the correspondence between policy liberalism or education spending and education outcomes, at least in terms of graduation rates, is not clear.

That's a bit of a puzzle. More money should relate to better educational outcomes all else being equal. So, how can New York spend more than twice as much per pupil as Texas and still end with less than a 2% advantage over Texas in its high school graduation rate?

The answer is, of course, that all else is not equal.

Working with 2008 data on high school graduation rates and student performance on the math component of the National Assessment of Education Performance from National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the 2008-2009 Census spending data, the correlation between per-pupil state spending on education and high school graduation rates is a modest 0.26 (p=0.06; two-tailed test).

Now, here's where the data get really interesting. The correlation between per-pupil spending and the proportion of all 8th grade students scoring "proficient" or better on math components of the NAEP is 0.35 (p=0.02; two-tailed test). However, the correlation between per-pupil spending and the proportion of low-income 8th grade students scoring "proficient" or better on math components of the NAEP is only 0.04 (p=0.76; two-tailed test).

These results suggest that spending on public education has a positive influence on the educational performance of students from middle- and upper-income families while it has much more marginal influence, if any, on students from low-income families. The data suggest that students from advantaged backgrounds can be induced to perform at higher levels, on average, by spending more on public education. The academic performance of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, however, is not as upwardly malleable. There is no observed correspondence between marginal increases in per-pupil spending and student performance in the math sections of the NAEP.

Looking back at graduation rates, the NAEP data suggest that education spending is less likely to impact the propensity of poor or otherwise disadvantaged students to complete their formal secondary education. As a matter of state policy outcomes, this result suggests that states with large number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds---those with low incomes, non-English speaking families, weak social support networks, and/or those with little family history if educational attainment, for example---will have relatively lower rates of academic achievement. Texas, New York, and California, among others, have relatively large populations that fall into these disadvantaged cohorts. To determine whether these states are doing a relatively good job in terms of public education, it is, therefore, unreasonable just to look at aggregate graduation rates. Instead, we should look at, say, the performance of low-income students as an indicator of the extent to which states are providing educational services that actually reaching those most in need.

By this standard, Texas is doing relatively well. Fifteen percent of low-income 8th graders in Texas score "proficient" or better on the math sections of the NAEP. That's tied with Indiana for 18th place. New York is tied with four other states at 16% proficient or better. California is tied with eight other states at only 9% of low-income students scoring proficient or better. (Among all students, Texas and New York are tied with 31% of students scoring proficient or better. Only 22% of all students in California score proficient or better.)

No one should be doing cartwheels about this level of performance in public schools. However, The New York Times's editorial page writers are deeply misguided to waive disapproving fingers at Texas. In the aggregate, public schools in Texas are largely comparable to those in New York state... at half the price, thank you very much. There is clearly much room for improvement in Texas's public schools---but no more so than in the public schools in the Times's backyard and much less so than in California.

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