Fact check

Why the school spending graph Betsy DeVos is sharing doesn’t mean what she says it does

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s message at an event on Thursday was clear: education leaders have been throwing good money after bad policy.

To make the point, she shared a graph that appears to show that school spending has risen dramatically over the last three decades as student outcomes barely budged.

“Scores [are] continuing to muddle along, unremarkable,” she told one of her predecessors, Bill Bennett, at a Reagan Institute event. “And yet look at the spending. This is not something we’re going to spend our way out of.”

This visualization, which DeVos also shared on Twitter, has become a staple in some education policy circles. Even Bill Gates has offered a version of it. But the graph is misleading, and several recent studies have in fact shown that students gain — in higher test scores, graduation rates, and earnings as adults — when they attend schools that spend more money. And while DeVos highlighted scores in reading, gains in math have been fairly substantial over part of that period.

A spokesperson for DeVos did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.

Here’s why it doesn’t really mean what DeVos says it does.

The biggest problem with the graphic is that it conflates correlation and causation.

Simply pointing to two trends that coincide doesn’t say anything about how one affects the other. It’s possible that if education spending hadn’t increased, test scores would have actually declined. Maybe the extra money actually stopped a dramatic deterioration in school quality, for example. There’s just no way to know based on this data.

Here’s another example: Over the past couple decades, charter schools and vouchers have expanded dramatically. By DeVos’s own logic, those would be failed reforms because they didn’t coincide with a sufficient increase in NAEP scores. But that would also be an unfair conclusion, since we don’t know what would have happened without the increase in choice programs.

The two trends are also put side-by-side in an arbitrary way.

This graph has two y axes: one based on school spending, and the other based on scale scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But these two variables are very different. Should an extra $1,000 correspond with 1 point on NAEP scores? Five points?

The decision is subjective, but it determines how large the spending changes look and how small the NAEP changes look, too.

Spending is up in education, but it’s up elsewhere too.

It’s true that in inflation-adjusted dollars, school spending has risen. The economy has also grown over that same time. That matters, because if spending were to hold steady in education while increasing in other areas of the economy, it might become increasingly hard to recruit and retain teachers of equal quality.

Indeed, while education spending has risen, teacher pay compared to similar professionals has fallen. (At the same time, the number of teachers and the number of non-teaching staff in schools has increased significantly, which some have argued illustrate bad spending priorities.)

The story would also look different for math scores.

NAEP scores have been relatively flat for the past decade, but in math they increased substantially the decade beforehand. In fact, a graph could be made showing a tight correspondence between math results and spending.

That’s exactly what Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jackson did. His approach was similar to DeVos’s, with a few changes. He compared NAEP scores in math to the cumulative spending on the average student in the years leading up to the test — the idea being that scores reflect not just the last year of schooling, but several years before that.

Source: Education Next

His graphs look quite different than DeVos’s, simply by tightening the range of scores, looking at math rather than reading, and tweaking the spending measure. (Jackson said that a similar pattern exists for reading, but that it’s less pronounced.)

Recent research has generally shown that school spending really does matter.

To be clear, Jackson’s graphs are also correlational, and like DeVos’s cannot prove cause and effect.

That’s why he and others have conducted sophisticated statistical analyses to isolate the impact of resources on schools. In one recent study, Jackson and colleagues compared states that made more spending cuts in the wake of Great Recession, and found that they did worse on NAEP as a result. In other words, there is a decent case that the recent stagnation in NAEP scores is due at least in part to spending cuts.

That jibes with a larger body of research. Other recent national studies have linked more spending to better NAEP scores, higher graduation rates, better economic outcomes, and greater social mobility. Studies in specific states including California, MassachusettsOhio, and New York have also found test score gains from spending increases.

Of course, none of that proves that the additional money spent over the past few decades have been well used. It doesn’t even prove that those extra dollars have been helpful — the above studies are of specific places or time periods, and their individual approaches could be disputed, too.

There is one recent study, which DeVos often cites, showing that a federal turnaround program that involved a substantial infusion of money for struggling schools didn’t make a noticeable difference.

Still, the graph that Devos offers is not, on its own, a strong case that resources for schools don’t make a difference. Available evidence suggests the opposite.

“If reduced spending contributed to the problem, it seems reasonable to conclude that increased spending may alleviate it,” said Jackson, the Northwestern researcher. “This is not to say that increased spending is some silver bullet, but rather that it should probably be part of a comprehensive set of policies to improve U.S schools.”

color blind

The feds are discouraging districts from using race to integrate schools. A new study points to a potential downside

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Trump administration recently made waves by removing Obama-era guidance that offered ways for school districts to consider students’ race in order to diversify and integrate schools. The rollback could have harmful consequences for students, according to a new study.

The paper offers a test case of the rule, and it suggests that move — at least if it affects any districts’ policies — could hurt academic outcomes, including college enrollment, by making racial segregation worse, although the study only focuses on a single district.

“There’s a general sense that student outcomes are going down in these schools that are more racially segregated from these race-neutral admissions,” said Jason Cook, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the study.

The paper, which has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on an anonymous urban school district that, after a federal investigation in the early 2000s, was forced to end race-conscious admissions to its coveted magnet middle schools. To maintain some diversity in its student body, the district ran separate lotteries for black and non-black (largely white) students. After the federal mandate, though, the district put all students in one lottery, and in turn the schools became notably more segregated — rising from about 77 percent to 85 percent black.

After the policy from 2003 to 2007, the research finds that the spike in segregation corresponded to a decrease in college enrollment for black students by a couple percentage points. There was also an indication of modest declines in test scores in sixth grade and in high school graduation rates, though these results weren’t statistically significant for black students. There was no clear impact on 10th-grade test scores.

These effects aren’t huge, but neither was the increase in segregation, and the results generally point in a negative direction.

Separately, the paper shows that in general magnet schools in that district were less effective when they were made up of predominantly black students, perhaps because they have a higher concentration of struggling students and recruit lower-quality teachers.

The paper also shows that as schools became more predominantly black, more of their white students left, creating a vicious cycle that intensified segregation. “Racial segregation is self-perpetuating,” concludes Cook.

The district in question did not attempt to use race-neutral measures, like poverty status, to promote integration. Research, though, has shown that such approaches are less effective for achieving racial integration than considering race directly.

There is one particularly important caveat to the results, though: The policy change meant that more black students had access to in-demand, high-performing magnet schools. That is, in changing the lottery to stop what amounted to preferences for non-black students, the shift increased segregation but it also meant that a small number of black students had access to top schools they otherwise might not have.

That remains a key point of contention in other cities debating integration. In Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, a longstanding court decision has prioritized the creation of integrated magnets — done in part by giving white students from the suburbs preference in admissions to magnet schools in the city. After a local newspaper series looked into this practice, critics said the system was effectively shutting out local students from the best schools; supporters contended that the rules are necessary to prevent resegregation of those schools.

The latest study can’t answer knotty philosophical questions about how to divvy up seats in coveted schools, but it does suggest each side has a point — admissions rules do, by definition, keep some kids out, but removing those rules can lead to unintended consequences, including making those schools less effective.

Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who has studied school segregation and is writing a book on the topic, pointed out that the latest study has limits. “That particular paper is focused on one specific district, so even if it’s done really well, you still would want to consider whether [it applies in] other districts,” he said.

But Johnson said the findings are largely consistent with past research including his own, which focused on school desegregation efforts in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. “For African-Americans we saw significant impacts,” he said. “High school graduation rates increased, college attendance and college completion rates increased, the type of colleges they attended were more selective, …[there were] increases in earnings, reductions in annual incidence of poverty.”

More recent research has shown that the resegregation of districts led to dips in high school graduation rates among black and Hispanic students. A school integration program on the San Francisco Peninsula caused jumps in test scores and college enrollment (though also arrest rates for non-violent crimes).

In recent decades, as court-mandated integration orders have ended, race-based segregation has gotten worse or held steady, depending on how it’s measured; income-based stratification has consistently worsened. The recent move by the Trump administration is not legally binding, and only a small number of districts have voluntary race-conscious integration policies in place.

Johnson, for his part, fears that defeatism has overtaken the urgency to integrate schools. Some people, Johnson said, have the mindset that “we can’t socially engineer integration.”

“The reality is we did socially engineer segregation,” he said. “It would be natural to understand that we might have to re-engineer that through some intentional policy.”

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.