New Rankings Should Lead to New, Better Conversations

While Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report is just one of many K-12 state rankings out there, it tends to get a lot of attention because it’s more accessible and easier to interpret that data directly from, say, the U.S. Census Bureau or the National Center for Education Statistics. The latest edition of that report was just released, which means we’re about to see a bevy of questionably accurate news articles, accusations, and assertions crop up in the near future. In the meantime, we can talk a little about the latest results and what they may or may not tell us.

Some of you may remember that the Education Policy Center spent some time talking about Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts report in a recent paper on Colorado school finance. Here’s a refresher on last year’s report:

Published annually by Education Week, this report ranks states on “chance for success,” academic achievement, and school finance, with ratings in each of these categories consisting of both an overall grade and a number of more granular rankings. The 2016 report, which relied upon 2013 data, ranked Colorado 37th overall in the area of school finance. As some interest groups have reported, the state was ranked 42nd in adjusted per-pupil expenditures, which account for regional cost differences. Colorado received rankings at levels ranging from 12th to 39th on a variety of other funding measures within the report.

Interestingly, the Education Week report is one of the few sources of school finance rankings that also directly ranks states on academic measures. The report ranked Colorado 18th in overall K-12 achievement, 15th in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading proficiency rates as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and 22nd in graduation rates. It also ranked Colorado 13th in “chance for success,” which evaluates states on a range of criteria like family income, academic achievement, and adult educational attainment. If Colorado’s ranking in school finance had any impact on its ranking in the academic areas of the report, that impact is not immediately apparent.

In other words, the state tends to do pretty well academically compared to other states despite what many interest groups cite as a catastrophic funding shortfall that leaves Colorado further down the school finance list.

That trend largely continues in the 2017 report. The headline you’re likely to see is “Colorado Earns F for School Funding,” but I encourage you not to get bogged down in Education Week’s debatable reporter-bait letter grades. Education Week says the national average grade on spending measures is a D, which somewhat calls into question the scale they are using. We should, however, pay some attention to the state’s finance rankings as they are presnted in Colorado’s highlight report—not necessarily because the percentages earned on Education Week’s grading metrics are themselves entirely relevant, but because we’re probably going to be hearing a lot about them in the coming weeks.

As usual, these rankings are more complicated than they initially appear. There are really two broad rankings in the area of school finance: one for education spending, and one for “equity measures,” which deal with the distribution of spending across the state. Colorado did pretty well in the latter category, earning a ranking of 17th—despite the fact that there has been a lot of noise recently about the inequity of our school finance system across districts. I bet we’ll be revisiting this topic in the near future, so I won’t belabor the point now.

Our state’s 41st ranking in school finance comes from the combination of the report’s spending metrics. That’s important, because it means that this ranking includes more than just Education Next’s basic adjusted per-pupil expenditures figures. Also thrown into the finance ranking mix are scores based on the percent of students in school districts with per-pupil expenditures at or above the national average, “per-pupil spending levels weighted by the degree to which districts meet or approach the national average for expenditures (cost and student need adjusted),” and the percentage of taxable resources spent on education. So when you see Colorado’s overall finance rating in the news, remember that you’re looking at an awful lot more than you might initially expect. And keep in mind that a good portion of that score stems from comparing districts in our state to largely uninformative “national average” spending figures.

Additionally, don’t forget that this is just one ranking stemming from one particular method of calculation. There are a whole bunch of other credible school finance ratings out there, some of which are pretty close to this one and some of which are radically different. Check out Colorado’s other rankings on education spending:

National Center for Education Statistics: 39th

U.S. Census Bureau: 40th

National Education Association: 22nd

Education Law Center, Rutgers University: 34th

Honestly, though, the most important question is whether or not we should be as concerned as we are about inputs in the first place. Should we define our level of satisfaction with a government service—education, health care, criminal justice, you name it—by how many resources we can put into it compared to other states? Or should we be thinking more about what kind of results those services are producing?

Those questions get to why I actually like the Quality Counts report: It also ranks states on the basis of outcomes, which means academic achievement in this case. As in previous reports, Colorado looks significantly better than most states on the outcome measure. Overall, we come in 18th on overall K-12 achievement, and 11th when it comes to student performance on NAEP. Our rankings are lower when it comes to improvement over time (30th) and achievement gaps between lower-income students and their more affluent peers (a disturbing 47th), so there’s definitely still a lot of work to do. But the fact remains that our state tends to do pretty well academically.

The importance of focusing on outputs rather than inputs is further highlighted by looking at the academic rankings of states that did very well in the finance rankings. Wyoming, which spends an adjusted $17,490 per pupil (almost double Colorado’s adjust $9,471) and received the number one position on the school finance list with this year’s only A, came in behind Colorado on K-12 achievement at 21. New York, which came in number two on the finance list with more than $18,000 in adjusted PPE, is 27th when it comes to overall achievement. In addition to being far behind Colorado, this position is below both the U.S. average and the academic performance of Arizona—the third worst state in the nation on Education Week’s finance metrics with only $8,125 spent per pupil.

In fairness, there are a few places where high finance rankings and high achievement rankings align. New Jersey, for instance, does well on both lists. So does Vermont. But there are enough glaring exceptions that we should be very cautious about assuming that moving up on the finance rankings list means students are actually seeing better results.

We should also recognize that efficiency is a good thing. Everywhere outside of government, a comparatively high return on a comparatively lower investment is a cause for celebration. But when it comes to education, we can’t seem to break out of the mindset that how much we spend (which, by the way, is an awful lot) is somehow the more important side of the equation. That’s a backwards way of thinking about something that should always and forever be about producing great results and opportunities for students. In a world of scarce resources and ugly, government-on-government budgetary competition, we should be thrilled if Colorado can produce strong results and  improve educational outcomes for students without spending twice what it does now on education simply to “keep up with the Joneses.”

You know what? Let’s make a resolution right here, right now. Let’s pledge that in 2017, we’re going to spend more time focusing on outcomes rather than inputs. If we can do that, we can be reasonably assured that we’re having good, productive conversations designed to help people rather than simply support systems or things. And that’s the lion’s share of the battle.