Parallel between spending, learning

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Shifting demographics since the implementation of the Education Reform Act in 1993 has also resulted in a greater concentration of low-income and limited English proficient students in lower spending districts like Pittsfield, making it difficult for certain communities to close the performance gap.

The report, published by the independent research institute MassInc., is the culmination of two years of research that sought to measure the effects of the landmark reform effort that aimed to reduce disparities in funding in the state's public schools.

The research was funded entirely by Bank of America, and suggests that districts most dependent on state aid are also at a greater risk of losing the gains they've made since 1993 during the current recession.

"One of the things that we're trying to do is talk about a greater sense of urgency in urban school reform. We've been complacent with this achievement gap. We need to generate more focus, discussion and urgency about some of the challenges our urban districts face," said Jon Schneider, executive vice president of MassInc.

The report found that the law ultimately succeeded in raising the level of spending per student in so-called "low-spending" districts.

The influx of state aid helped reverse a trend that showed test scores dropping among students in the low-spending districts, resulting in students' performance on standardized testing across the state outpacing their national and international peers.

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Education reform, however, has failed to close the achievement gap between poorer urban centers like Lowell, Springfield, Holyoke and Pittsfield and wealthier suburbs that invest more in their schools.

Contributing to the achievement gap is evidence that low-income student enrollment in certain districts has skyrocketed over the past 15 years, making it more challenging to increase student performance.

In Pittsfield, for example, the percentage of enrolled students who qualified for free or reduced lunch grew by 19.6 percentage points, from 23.9 percent in 1992 to 43.5 percent of the overall student body in 2008.

Furthermore, the percentage of students in Pittsfield with limited English proficiency (LEP) grew from just 57 students in 2001 to 216 in 2008.

"Districts and schools with relatively rapid LEP growth tended to somewhat unsuccessful in producing achievement gains," said Tom Downes, the author of the report and an associate professor of economics at Tufts University.

Downes said the state funding formula for Chapter 70 school aid could be revised to better account for limited English proficient students, but he said it was unlikely that money alone could close the achievement gap.

"We wouldn't want to overstate it. State aid can be a piece of it, but probably not a huge piece. That's why the emphasis is on other reforms rather than trying to redistribute the dollars that are out there," Downes said.


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