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School-Spending Patterns Can Influence Student Achievement, New Data Suggest

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Initial research suggests that school-spending patterns can influence student achievement, a report released last week by researchers experimenting with a new local cost-analysis model asserts.

Using detailed financial information from 24 school districts across the country, the researchers conclude that analyses of standard cost-accounting systems can begin to answer lingering questions about school efficiency and productivity.

In analyzing the spending habits of 84 academic high schools in New York City, for example, the researchers found that channeling more money to classrooms leads to higher scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

After adjusting for students' socioeconomic status and the experience of each school's teaching force, the researchers found that each additional $100 of spending on classroom instruction in the city raised combined scores on the mathematics and verbal sections of the S.A.T. by 18 points.

"The model suggests that per-pupil dollars spent on direct instruction have a significant impact on academic achievement,'' states the report, written by Bruce S. Cooper, a professor of educational administration and urban policy at Fordham University.

Mr. Cooper developed the cost-accounting model that was unveiled this month by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a study of eight school districts nationwide. (See Education Week, March 17, 1993.)

The model tracks local spending and assigns costs to administration, building-support, teacher-training, pupil-support, and classroom-instruction categories at each school building and the central office.

Not only can administrators use the local data for diagnostic purposes, Mr. Cooper said, but researchers can use the cumulative data to look for keys to wiser spending and greater productivity.

While the purpose of the cost-tracking model "was not directly aimed at the assessment of school productivity, we have kept this goal in mind from the onset,'' notes the report, presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Finance Association in Albuquerque, N.M., last week.

Among its findings, the report, which examines data gleaned from the eight districts in the Chamber study, 15 Colorado school districts, and the New York City district, concludes that many districts have potential for greater internal savings.

Wiser use of school buildings, more efficient energy systems, and better-planned bus routes could help lower many districts' operating costs, the report says.

In the Chamber study, for example, one district spent 22 percent of its school budget on building support; the district posting the highest percentage in Colorado spent 19 percent in that category. Other districts spent half as much, often plowing much of the savings into instruction.

Big Is Better

The report encourages other researchers to begin weighing questions of efficiency--how well districts do in getting money to the classroom--and productivity--measures of student outcomes--within school districts.

In their initial attempt to gauge efficiency, the researchers used two measures. First was an instructional ratio that determines the percentage of overall spending (including salaries and supplies) that reaches the classroom. The second was a support ratio that consists of the classroom funding plus allocations for such supplemental programs as libraries, computer labs, and athletics that affect students.

In both cases, the report says, secondary schools were more efficient in targeting funds to students than elementary schools, bigger schools were more efficient than smaller ones, and schools with students from wealthier families were more efficient than those with poorer children.

Although hardly surprising, the finding can raise many questions for administrators, the report says, ranging from whether smaller schools should consider sharing administrative expenses to whether more per-pupil classroom aid should be directed toward elementary students.

As for productivity, the researchers admit that the use of S.A.T. scores is a crude measurement, but one that shows promise for tying school-funding patterns to performance.

"The problems of relating resources to outcomes are monumental, since so many other variables intervene in this interaction: family income, neighborhood conditions, student background, prior preparation, language spoken in students' homes, and teacher quality,'' Mr. Cooper writes. "While the S.A.T. is not an ideal measure of pupil achievement, it does provide high reliability and validity and is widely given.''

Beginning to make such connections, the researchers contend, is an important and overlooked aspect of the school-reform movement.

"Even if American schools remain as they are,'' the report states, "superintendents, school boards, school business officials, not to mention John and Joan Q. Public, need to know where the resources are going and how to get more help to students.''

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