Dollars down the Educrathole?

The internet has made teaching small involved classes a rewarding pleasure: when an interesting issue comes up laptops fly open and we immediately have the data we want.

Yesterday in my social issues class we were discussing per-pupil expenditure by state in primary and secondary education. Utah is famous for having the lowest per-pupil funding in the country. We are right next to and similar in many ways to Wyoming, which has one of the highest funding levels in the country. The dollars per student are $7,200 in Utah and $18,000 in Wyoming according to this source. Caution is always in order, of course, but these numbers are in broad agreement with other sources and other years.

What does Wyoming get for the extra $11,000 per student? A quick assay is to look at NAEP scores. Here are eighth grade math scores for white students over the last two decades:


A quick look shows that Wyoming is getting nothing at all for their extra $11,000. The results for students identified as hispanic are grounds for a tad of optimism: Wyoming hispanics consistently outperform Utah Hispanics by 10 to 15 points, but we have to know more about the history and demography of the two hispanic populations, those of Utah and Wyoming, before we attribute the differences to $11,000 per student.

What am I missing here?

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18 Responses to Dollars down the Educrathole?

  1. rightsaidfred says:

    Wyoming is a bit like Alaska: awash in mineral wealth. I believe Wyoming has the highest per capita state gov’t expenditure of the lower 48.

    I always think of “hedonic adjustment” when funding levels are discussed. It seems that above a certain level, you don’t get much for your money.

  2. dantae says:

    This assumes 8th grade math scores are a good measure of the intended outcomes of these dollars. While school and test performance certainly predict better life outcomes, it is hard to know what the causal story is. This is because we use test outcomes to rate people and give better slots in schools, universities and jobs to people with better test outcomes. It’s hard to know how much of arbitrary marker test scores are and how much of an important marker which predicts performance beyond social selection.

    • SteveB says:

      It is common to assess the effectiveness of an educational system by testing students at around 8th grade, but I wonder if it would be better to test people some years later, perhaps around age 30, to see how much has stuck. Has this been done anywhere?

      • harpend says:

        My take is that NAEP scores have little to do with education and are simply proxies for IQ or something like IQ. It seems to be difficult to come up with a test of anything that is not just an IQ test.

        I used grade 8 because IQ stabilizes around adolescence and I expect (but have not checked) that there is much more randomness in grade 4 results. I did not use grade 12 because dropouts would have biased the data. But the data are there for all of us (google “Nation’s Report Card”) and we can all share in the fun.

  3. john says:

    It is quite common to refer to education spending as “investments”. Who would disagree with this? We are “investing” in our future generations. In reality, most of the spending above a certain threshold is pure waste. The money went to improve the life styles of the teachers and students, which, in my opinion, makes it harder for the students to focus on learning. You are suppose to live a spartan live style while a student. Of course, we are talking about the U.S., where funding is already quite good even for the poorest of school districts. In my opinion, they would do a lot better by separating the students into different tracks, which cost some money, but not that much more if done correctly. Of course, this is not done due to none financial reasons.

  4. Jehu says:

    Does Utah have less administration beyond the level of the individual schools? I understand that at least half of the money spent K-12 in the US is spent beyond the level of the individual schools.

  5. nameless37 says:

    According to NCES data, WY spends roughly twice the amount of money per K-12 student on instruction, compared to UT ($7900 vs $3800).

    The reason is that UT has nearly double the pupil/teacher ratio (22.8 pupils/teacher in UT vs. 12.5 pupils/teacher in WY). UT used to have the highest ratio in the country, though it may have been overtaken by CA due to its recent string of budget cuts. WY has one of the lowest, comparable only to North Dakota and some Northeast states. (That’s the number of enrolled students per teacher. The difference in effective class sizes is a bit smaller because UT also has the worst K-12 attendance rate in the country.)

    And the reason for that is that UT and WY, though close to each other, are, in fact, drastically different. Utah is the sixth most urbanized state in the country. 80% of Utah students live in Greater Salt Lake City or in the nearby cities. WY is among the least urbanized and has the second lowest population density. Its students are scattered through the state and attend small rural schools. In addition to the pupil/teacher ratio, this translates into a difference in average school sizes (UT: 570, WY: 240). There’s a limit to how thinly you can spread schools, and a limit to the number of teachers you need to run a school, particularly a high school. All that translates into small schools, small classes and small pupil/teacher ratios.

    About all we can really conclude from this analysis is that class sizes don’t matter much for test scores. There’s not enough evidence that WY teachers are substantially better paid or better selected than UT teachers. And we didn’t look into student demographics, so we don’t know if UT students are intrinsically stronger than WY students (as is usually the case in urban vs. rural students.)

    • harpend says:

      Thanks for this information: very nice.

      • Anthony says:

        My first thought when I saw your numbers was that the two states report education spending differently, and that there isn’t really a 2.5:1 ratio between what UT and WY *actually* spend on education. If the numbers you cite *and* the numbers Nameless cites are both correct, then UT is spending 53% of its education money on instruction, and WY only 44%. I suspect that the numbers aren’t truly commensurate, or that a lot of money is being spent on school construction, which may be more expensive for the reasons Nameless cites.

  6. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    What does Wyoming get for the extra $11,000 per student?

    A lot of very happy teachers and administrators?

  7. Nameless covered most of the issues. The jury has been in for decades on spending; it simply doesn’t make a difference. So when you see spending so conspicuously out of whack, you don’t expect Wyoming to be better, you ask what is different about Wyoming. My first thought was the rural vs. urban, and nameless has convinced me that’s most of it. Then you’d want to look at Title I spending. Does Wyoming have a higher poverty rate? Schools that qualify for Title I get more fed money. Special ed is another area, but it’s less likely that would vary by state, particularly states that are both as white as these two are.

    • Um, that’s Realist. I’m not really lit.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Wyoming is flush right now, from minerals, and that also plays a role, I think.

    • rightsaidfred says:

      Back in the day Wyomingites made a concerted efforts to develop coal, oil, gas, uranium, etc. The Denver airport got its fill and aggregate in trainloads from Wyoming. Can’t have a gravel pit in precious Colorado.

      Now they have the permitting, rail lines, and market penetration. Last I heard, they were sending coal to the East coast, which is big because plants have to retool extensively to switch from the local product.

      Nearby Montana has even larger coal reserves, but the place wants to be run by environmentalists. The coal industry there is small and shrinking: the largest mine’s major contract runs out in 2013 with no replacement in sight. The new governor is largely an environmentalist, so I suspect he will be happy to adopt Cuba’s motto: poor but happy. The eastern part of the state is fracking like mad, so we’ll see if he finds a way to stop that.

  8. Toad says:

    Math scores keep going up since 1992. People just keep getting getting smarter and smarter.

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