Tuesday, January 25, 2000

Sizing up schools tricky

Performance, spending not always related

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Princeton Junior High student Asha Lambert (center) takes notes while on the Internet.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        Money that schools spend on each pupil often has little relation to how well students perform on proficiency tests used to measure districts' effectiveness.

        Some districts that spent the most failed to meet minimum state standards, an Enquirer analysis of 1999 figures shows. Other districts that spent less per pupil showed better performance. The numbers are in year 2000 report cards that the Ohio Department of Education will issue next month.

        Poverty levels, attendance rates and parental involvement have more to do with youngsters' successes or failures than expenditures. Higher spending often reflects the additional investment required to give poor children a shot at academic success.

        Still, the spending/achievement numbers can baffle parents and taxpayers.

        Krista Blum, mother of a Lockland sixth-grader, knows her district will get an “academic emergency” designation on its 2000 report card. So she was surprised to learn Lockland City Schools spent $8,879 per pupil in 1999 — the third-highest amount in Hamilton, Butler, Warren and Clermont counties.

        “If I was to sit down and think, "Where is this money going to?', I don't see how they can justify spending that much,” she said. “I expect (my son) to achieve as best he can, but I really, truly believe he can do better.”

        Taxpayers often point to low test scores and high expenditures as evidence districts aren't managing their money well.

        That argument helped defeat a $24 million levy requested in November by Cincinnati Public Schools, a district that spent $8,007 per pupil in 1999 but will be designated “academic emergency” on the 2000 report cards.

        Voters are discussing that apparent conflict again as Cincinnati plans to seek two levies in March.

        Experts, however, say it is simplistic to expect that more money will translate into better student performance.

        Among the factors forcing up costs, family poverty is most prominent in Ohio and Kentucky.

        Forest Hills Local School District in Ohio, for example, had a 1999 median household income of $39,857 and 1.3% of its students getting Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The district spent $5,738 per student last year and will receive a report card top rating of “effective.”

        Lockland, meanwhile, had a $21,963 median income in 1999 and 26.5% of its students receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The district is ranked among the state's low performers.

        “Some of our students are coming to school from some very disadvantaged situations that often place them behind,” Superintendent Phillip Fox said. “It takes more resources to educate those students and get them up to grade level.”

        Communities are correct to question spending, but depriving schools of needed money won't rectify the situation either, some experts say.

        Grant Wiggins, president of the Center on Learning, Assessment and School Structure in Pennington, N.J., said schools must show they're spending on the right things, then educate communities that test scores aren't the whole story.

        “The increase in the amount of money spent on public education has made people say, "What are we getting for our dollar?'” Mr. Wiggins said. “The trouble is the only measure for answering that question is a quick and dirty test score that may say more about the demographics of a region” than about a district's performance.

Battle over scoring
        Look at a chart listing designations that Ohio school districts will receive on the state's 2000 report cards and 1999 per pupil spending, and snap judgments are easy.

        Indian Hill spent the most in the region — $9,920 per pupil and will be rated “effective,” because students met all of 27 minimum performance standards that include proficiency test scores, graduation and attendance rates.

        Princeton City Schools spent the second-highest amount — $9,407 per pupil. The district currently is designated “academic watch,” meaning it met nine to 13 standards.

        The district is suing the state department of education to correct erroneous information officials say was provided by a Princeton employee. Correct scores would place Princeton at “continuous improvement,” officials said. One level short of “effective,” that designation means students met 14-25 standards.

        Still, it's tempting to wonder why two districts that spend so much don't show more similar results.

        Look deeper, experts and officials say.

        A school district's per pupil cost — determined by the amount it spends on administration, building operations, teacher training, guidance counselors, teacher salaries and classroom materials — can be affected by its enrollment. Financial aid received for poor pupils, and programs for students with special needs add expenses, too.

        Each district also has unique circumstances. Small enrollment in Lockland, for example, creates added per pupil costs if the district wants to provide comprehensive programs, Superintendent Fox said.

        Other factors are more universal.

        A 1998 study by the Buckeye Institute, a Columbus-based nonprofit group that advocates charter schools and vouchers, found attendance had a more powerful effect on student performance than per pupil spending, class size and even teacher experience.

        Socioeconomic factors have an even bigger impact. Low income can mean frequent moves from district to district, and it can affect parent involvement in their children's education. Both affect the skills youngsters bring to class.

        “We know from the college board data that SAT scores rise in perfect concordance with increases in the salary of parents,” said Mr. Wiggins of the New Jersey center. “You can't just throw money at a problem that has cultural roots and familial roots. Some of the more well-to-do suburban districts could just show up and hand out worksheets and their students would do well.”

        Connie Lippowitsch, director of curriculum and instruction at Forest Hills, attributes her district's success, in part, to well-educated parents who have the time and the resources to help their children. “We have parents who are high achievers, and they have those expectations of their children.”

        Meanwhile, at Princeton — which includes communities as diverse as affluent Glendale and struggling Lincoln Heights — a good deal of money is spent bringing low-achieving students up to speed while improving test scores of higher achievers, Superintendent Dennis Peterson said.

        A new program uses computers to give math teachers an instant look at whether students understand their lessons.

        In Mike Kampel's advanced math class students solve problems on portable computers at their desks. Their answers are beamed to a mainframe computer that Mr. Kampel checks to see who is succeeding and who is struggling.

        “When you're just lecturing, you don't realize how many kids are not with it,” he said. “This forces kids to be answering, and hopefully, they're going to get it right. (For a teacher), this shows you where you need to go.”

        The computers, which are being tested in three classrooms this year, cost $30,000 per room, Principal Aaron Mackey said. Hopes are high that they help raise scores on state tests that eighth-graders will take this spring.

        In Kentucky, per-pupil expenditures also show a difference in performance between rich and poor youngsters. Wealthier districts — Beechwood, Boone, Fort Thomas and Kenton — spend no more than $4,500 per student, according to 1997 state figures. Poorer districts spent more: Newport, $5,889; Covington, $6,126; Letcher County, one of the poorest in the state, $5,228; and Augusta, $6,018.

        Adding to spending per pupil is the fact that poorer schools often qualify for more financial aid from federal and state programs. The more students who qualify for free and reduced lunch at a school, for example, the more money that school can receive for students.

"Solve the problem'
        Regardless of problems, parents, taxpayers and educators say there's little excuse for poor performance.

        As accounts clerk for the village of Lockland, Mrs. Blum knows the socioeconomic issues her community and school district face.

        Still, she said, “I think it's time to stop making excuses for it and solve the problem. I don't want to see a monetary value put on it, I want to see my child pass the test.”

        Report cards have been issued for the past two years in Ohio, but this will be the first time districts face consequences for their rankings.

        Those consequences will range from improvement plans that must be filed with the state to, in extreme cases, state takeover.

        Ohio will provide specialists to districts on “academic watch” or “academic emergency” to help them deal with factors that might contribute to low test scores, state Department of Education spokeswoman LeeAnne Rogers said.

        “We think every child can learn and should be given the opportunity to learn in a positive environment,” she said. “The minimum standards are the same for every district — no excuses, and no allowances for this and that.”

        Report cards are designed to hold school districts accountable, but experts caution against using them to make judgments and comparisons.

        It's best, they say, to compare performance of students in similar districts and to look for trends toward improvement even if overall scores are not up to state standards.

        Jewell Bailey, a Princeton eighth-grader from Springdale, agrees. Although unaware of how important her test scores are to her district, she still feels pressure to perform.

        “It's a big deal to the school, but it's not a big deal to me, because I don't think tests should put you at a certain level,” she said. “Not all students do well on tests.”

        Cincinnati and other school districts with low report card scores say they are working to improve student performance and demonstrate that they're putting money in the right places.

        In Lockland, new Superintendent Fox spent his first weeks stressing the importance of raising test scores as quickly as possible. More funds will be shifted toward teacher training, he said, and an even bigger emphasis will be put on money for classroom instruction.

        Cincinnati, meanwhile, closed two of its lowest achieving schools this year, then reopened them with new staff and leadership, spokeswoman Jan Leslie said. The district also has taken steps to reduce its bureaucracy and central office.

        Cincinnati per pupil funds were given directly to individual schools this year so principals and teachers could decide how best to spend them.

        But public schools will have to do even better if they want to convince voters to approve more funds, warned critic Tom Brinkman Jr., founder of Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).

        His group opposes the March levies, saying more money won't improve Cincinnati schools.

        Instead, COAST advocates shifting some public funds to charter schools on the assumption that competition will force Cincinnati schools to improve.

        Enquirer reporter Andrea Tortora contributed to this report.


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