Early Childhood Reporter's Notebook

Getting Up to Speed on Finance Research

By Michele McNeil — April 03, 2007 4 min read

The national and state-level welfare overhaul of the 1990s did more than just get people off public assistance and into the workforce, a Clemson University economist argues—the new policies likely led to an increase in student achievement as well.

That’s the verdict from Lei Zhang, an assistant professor of economics at the South Carolina university, whose research paper was one of 60 presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Finance Association, held here March 22-24.

The conference drew more than 200 scholars and state policy experts in the fields of economics, education, and finance, who vetted each other’s ideas and showed off the latest in school finance research on such topics as how age affects kindergarten performance and whether the grade span of a school influences achievement.

Ms. Zhang’s work had the potential to break ground, since researchers said little study has been done on school performance for children in welfare families.

“What we know is the impact on adults. We know very little on the effect on low-income children,” said Ms. Zhang.

She used 4th and 8th grade math and reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to measure the progress of low-income students compared with that of their more affluent peers. She tried to control for factors such as existing upward trends in academic improvement and new accountability laws.

Her findings? Low-income 4th and 8th graders posted significantly improved math scores in 2003 and 2005, regardless of their race, sex, or ability. The reasons for those gains vary, she said, and weren’t the subject of her study. And other researchers raised questions in their critiques after her presentation about whether she could attribute any gains directly to changes in the welfare system.

But Ms. Zhang suggested that those changes led to improved achievement because family income went up (which could mean more money for books), parents in the workforce were likely seen as better role models, and children could see they could no longer count on long-term public assistance.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have come up with some intriguing findings on the effect that a child’s age has on achievement—a timely topic as more states consider moving their kindergarten-entrance cutoff dates so that children are older when they start school. (“States Again Weighing Proper Enrollment Age for Kindergartners,” March 28, 2007.)

Older children do better in kindergarten and also do better if they’re surrounded by classmates of the same age or older, according to a study presented by Darren H. Lubotsky, an assistant professor of economics. But that performance isn’t because the older kindergartners have a greater ability to learn—they do better because of their experiences before kindergarten.

“Policies that delay kindergarten entry but do nothing to address prekindergarten learning are not likely to be successful in raising the achievement level of children from families that provide poor learning environments,” the authors write.

The National Center for Education Statistics is working to bolster its treasury of school finance data, with a particular emphasis on collecting more information on teacher quality, NCES Commissioner Mark S. Schneider told researchers during a keynote address.

This month, researchers will begin collecting individual, teacher-by-teacher compensation data from nine pilot states. The statistics center also is working to gather better data on teacher mobility.

Mr. Schneider, who has led the statistics arm of the U.S. Department of Education since 2005, also said the NCES is moving away from relying heavily on “survey data,” or information obtained from surveys of districts, schools, and staff members, and toward “administrative data” already collected by districts.

Perhaps the best-attended session of the conference was a spirited debate on the role of courts in school finance between a university economist and a lawyer who has sued to seek more money for schools.

On one side was Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Stanford University-based Hoover Institution, who argues that more money is not the magic bullet to improve student performance.

“Money is the easy answer [for courts],” Mr. Hanushek said. “But it’s ineffective.”

On the other side was Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Columbia University-based Campaign for Educational Equity and one of the lawyers who successfully fought, through the New York state courts, to get more money for the New York City schools.

“We would not have the intense focus on equity [among school districts] if the courts hadn’t gotten involved,” Mr. Rebell said.

Mr. Hanushek retorted that it’s a “bad idea” to define adequacy and equity in school finance just in terms of spending more money.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week

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