Common Standards and the Capacity to Achieve Them

It would appear that the Common Standards movement has picked up some momentum this week, with the administration’s pitch that Title I aid should be tied to states adopting common college readiness standards. This is all good talk, but standards alone, on paper and/or in state policies or proclamations don’t achieve themselves. It is inappropriate for state policymakers, federal policymakers, pundits or the general public to simply assume that local public school districts all have sufficient resources to achieve any reasonable common standards.

Perhaps if those standards are set obscenely low they will be broadly attainable at current state and local spending levels. Even then, there will be significant inequities in the ease with which those standards are attained.

Noticeably absent in the current policy conversations is any discussion of the relative capacity of state education systems and local school systems  to achieve any reasonable common standards. It would be far more logical for the federal government to tie Title I funding not to some vacuous statement of endorsement of toothless common standards, but rather to a guarantee that the state will ensure that all local public school districts (and charter schools) have sufficient financial resources to achieve common standards – whatever they are.  In this paper, I, along with Lori Taylor, explain how we approach the measurement of cost and its implications for common standards.

To see just how far our nation has to go in order to move toward common capacity to achieve common standards, let’s take a look at some national maps. Let’s start with a map of the projected relative state and local revenue per pupil levels across states, corrected for a variety of “cost” factors (regional wage variation, economies of scale, population density, poverty):

After correcting for a variety of factors, some stats like Tennessee, Mississippi, Utah and Oklahoma simply spend far less than most others on schools and only slightly above half as much as some states.

Here’s a different view, down to the district level based on an alternative set of cost adjustments. This second map shows that not only are some states much lower spending overall, but within those states, after adjusting for various cost differences, there also exist significant differences in spending (in this case, the map uses current operating expenditures per pupil with Title I funding). Again, Tennessee and Mississippi have overall very low spending. So do many areas of eastern central Washington, much of California and Texas major urban centers. Estimates are not provided for non-unified districts (large expanses of white bkgd).

So, by this point, you’re probably saying – yeah… but money doesn’t really matter that much. It’s how you use it. Maybe Tennessee, for example, is just really, really efficient at producing great outcomes on little expenditure.

Let’s now take a look at state assessment outcomes by districts, nationally. In this map, I’ve taken the proficiency levels for each district, based on the 3 year data set compiled by the New America Foundation (Thanks NAF) and I’ve expressed them as standard deviations from the national mean proficiency rate. Blue areas are those with relatively high proficiency rates and brown areas have relatively low proficiency rates. Check it out:

Wow, Tennessee does do great, despite its low spending! So does Oklahoma. These are model states, right? Low spending, yet really high performance on their own state tests! Check out Missouri. What’s going on there? Well, as it turns out, Tennessee is doing great on its own self-validation exercise – state tests – because it has really easy state tests – or, in other words, really low proficiency cut-points for its state tests. This is the game that states have been playing since the adoption of NCLB. We don’t have to spend much, or actually fix our education system as long as we set low enough standards to make it look like we’re awesome. This is well documented in a series of NCES reports which map state cut-points to NAEP cut-points. By the way – Missouri has a very hard test (in contrast with Kansas, right next door, which has relatively easy tests.)

Finally, here is a scatterplot of the relationship between an overall index of the relative equity and adequacy of state and local revenues per pupil, and state mean 4th and 8th grade, math and reading NAEP assessments for 2007. The funding equity/adequacy ratings are based on national, district level data from 2005 to 2007, and account for a) relative effort by states to fund schools (% of gross state product), b) shares of children in the public school system (and ratio of family income of those not in the system to those in the system), c) predicted state and local revenue level at average poverty, and d) extent to which funding is targeted based on poverty differences across districts.

If we really plan to get serious about Common Standards, then states like Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama and Oklahoma are going to need to step things up a bit. Notably, low fiscal capacity states like Mississippi and Alabama will need significant federal assistance to pull this off. But, Tennessee and Louisiana are two states which spend less by choice – having among the lowest “effort” among states (% of Gross State Product allocated to schools).

Alternatively, we could just set standards as low as Tennessee standards, spend as little as Tennessee and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. I don’t believe that this is the intent of the common standards movement, but I may be wrong. Nonetheless, if we continue to throw around the rhetoric of common standards without ever discussing the capacity to achieve them, then we should not expect much to ever come of this movement. Without sufficient capacity, there can be no substantive reform.

For more on whether school finance reforms actually can help, see:



  1. Statistical note:

    The relationship between the comprehensive equity/adequacy indicator and state mean NAEP scores is reasonably strong across states, with an R-squared of .29.

    Some might argue that these differences are mostly a function of wealth, but the relationship between gross state product and mean NAEP is only .20 – less than the comprehensive equity/adequacy indicator.

    When included together as predictors of NAEP mean, the partial correlation for the comprehensive funding indicator and NAEP is .49 (p<.001) and the partial correlation for the GSP measure and NAEP is .40 (P<.01).

    Yes, the two are deeply intertwined. More educated, wealthier states do provide more resources for their schools. But, in fact, effort (share of GSP to schools) predicts even more of the state spending level.

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