Compounding Challenges: Student Achievement and the Distribution of Human and Fiscal Resources in Oregon's Rural School Districts

Jerry Johnson
The Rural School and Community Trust
April 2006

This short report posits a controversial conclusion: Student achievement depends on school funding. The author examines 132 of Oregon's rural school districts and finds that in 2003-04, the 66 "higher-achieving" districts received more funding per-pupil than the 66 "lower-achieving" districts. Achievement is not based on individual test scores, but rather on the percentage of district students who reached overall "proficiency" on state assessments in math and reading. But is the achievement of these districts actually caused by funding levels, or is it merely related to funding because of other underlying, causal factors (such as family income)? The author's answer: The funding-achievement relationship "has nothing to do with the fact that districts that spend more might have lower levels of poverty, better qualified teachers, or better educated adults." Nor, the report tells us, is achievement strongly influenced by school size (an important consideration in a state with many small school districts). But the author analyzes only three mitigating variables (poverty level, teacher qualifications, and district adult education level), and readers shouldn't discount that other factors-demographic or cultural-may influence student learning and funding. The paper also dodges the important question of why higher spending might lead to better schools in rural Oregon. (One can discern from the data that smaller class sizes are linked to higher achievement, but the report never explores in depth the class size-achievement relationship.) And finally, it would have been useful had the report examined multiple years of data, and perhaps looked at changes in test scores instead of just the percentage of students reaching proficiency in a single year. Such considerations are especially important given that this study is at odds with a considerable body of evidence compiled by Eric Hanushek (prior winner of the Fordham Prize) that shows little relationship between school resources and student outcomes. In short, a more detailed analysis of such an interesting and potentially important topic would make this a better paper. As it is, the reader is largely expected to trust that higher spending leads to better schools in rural Oregon. The report is online here.

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