More Flunkin’ out from Flunkout Nation (and junk graph of the week!)

Earlier today I stumbled across this brilliant post by RiShawn Biddle over at Dropout Nation.

Biddle boldly claims:

Despite the arguments (and the pretty charts) of such defenders as Rutgers’ Bruce Baker, there is no evidence that spending more on American public education will lead to better results for children.

Now, regarding the “no evidence” claim, I would recommend reading this article from Teachers College Record, this year, which summarizes a multitude of rigorous empirical studies of state school finance reforms finding generally that increased funding levels have been associated with improved outcomes and that more equitable distributions of resources have been associated with more equitable distributions of outcomes.

In fact, even the Spring 2011 issue of the journal Education Finance and Policy includes an article by Joydeep Roy supporting the positive results of state school finance reforms (using Michigan data).

Proposal A was quite successful in reducing interdistrict spending disparities. There was also a significant positive effect on student performance in the lowest-spending districts as measured in state tests.(from abstract)

As Kevin Welner and I point out in our article, this study is not unique in its findings. Here are a few others:

Card & Payne (2002)

Using micro samples of SAT scores from this same period, we then test whether changes in spending inequality affect the gap in achievement between different family background groups. We find evidence that equalization of spending leads to a narrowing of test score outcomes across family background groups. (p. 49)

Deke (2003)

Using panel models that, if biased, are likely biased downward, I have a conservative estimate of the impact of a 20% increase in spending on the probability of going on to postsecondary education. The regression results show that such a spending increase raises that probability by approximately 5% (p. 275).

Papke (2001)

Focusing on pass rates for fourth-grade and seventh grade math tests (the most complete and consistent data available for Michigan), I find that increases in spending have nontrivial, statistically significant effects on math test pass rates, and the effects are largest for schools with initially poor performance. (Papke, 2001, p. 821.)

Downes (2004) on VT

All of the evidence cited in this paper supports the conclusion that Act 60 has dramatically reduced dispersion in education spending and has done this by weakening the link between spending and property wealth. Further, the regressions presented in this paper offer some evidence that student performance has become more equal in the post–Act 60 period. And no results support the conclusion that Act 60 has contributed to increased dispersion in performance. (p. 312)

Downes, Zabel & Ansel (2009) on Mass

The achievement gap notwithstanding, this research provides new evidence that the state’s investment has had a clear and significant impact. Specifically, some of the research findings show how education reform has been successful in raising the achievement of students in the previously low-spending districts. Quite simply, this comprehensive analysis documents that without Ed Reform the achievement gap would be larger than it is today. (p. 5)

Guryan (2003) on Mass

Using state aid formulas as instruments, I find that increases in per-pupil spending led to significant increases in math, reading, science, and social studies test scores for 4th- and 8th-grade students. The magnitudes imply a $1,000 increase in per pupil spending leads to about a third to a half of a standard-deviation increase in average test scores. It is noted that the state aid driving the estimates is targeted to under-funded school districts, which may have atypical returns to additional expenditures. (p. 1)

Goertz & Weiss (2009) on NJ

State Assessments: In 1999 the gap between the Abbott districts and all other districts in the state was over 30 points. By 2007 the gap was down to 19 points, a reduction of 11 points or 0.39 standard deviation units. The gap between the Abbott districts and the high-wealth districts fell from 35 to 22 points. Meanwhile performance in the low-, middle-, and high-wealth districts essentially remained parallel during this eight-year period (Figure 3, p. 23).

I could go on. But that’s a fair share of evidence right there.

And what does Biddle provide as counter evidence to this – apparent lack of evidence I summarize above (I’ve sent the article link to Biddle on more than one occasion, but he apparently doesn’t read this kind of academic stuff)?

Biddle counters with a link to this graph – a true gem (I’ve added some annotation, not in his original)!

Yes, Biddle’s entire counter to the body of research he has not and will not read, is to use this graph of “promoting power” by student race group for Jersey City, NJ in 2004 and 2009. Note that the infusion of additional funds in NJ occurred mainly from 1998 to 2003, leveling off thereafter. But that’s a tangential point (not really).  So, Biddle’s absolute verification that more money doesn’t matter is to simply assert without verification that Jersey City got a whole lot more money and then to use this graph to argue that nothing improved!

First of all, that analysis wouldn’t pass muster in as a master’s degree level assignment (I teach a class on this stuff at that level), no less major research conclusions. From a graphing standpoint, I often criticize my students’ work for what I refer to as gratuitous use of 3d – especially where the use of 3d bars actually obscures the comparisons by making it hard to see where they align on the axis.

But, the really funny if not warped part of this graph is that there appear to be significant gains for black males between 2004 and 2009, but those gains are obscured by hiding the 2009 black male score behind the 2004 black female score.

Note that the graph also contains no information regarding the actual shares of the student population that fall into each group? Not very useful. Pretty damn amateur. Certainly fails to make any particular point, and certainly doesn’t refute the various citations above – all of which employ more rigorous analytic methods, apply to more than a single district, and most of which appear in rigorous peer reviewed journals.


Card, D., and Payne, A. A. (2002). School Finance Reform, the Distribution of School Spending, and the Distribution of Student Test Scores. Journal of Public Economics, 83(1), 49-82.

Deke, J. (2003). A study of the impact of public school spending on postsecondary educational attainment using statewide school district refinancing in Kansas, Economics of Education Review, 22(3), 275-284.

Downes, T. A. (2004). School Finance Reform and School Quality: Lessons from Vermont. In Yinger, J. (ed), Helping Children Left Behind: State Aid and the Pursuit of Educational Equity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Downes, T. A., Zabel, J., and Ansel, D. (2009). Incomplete Grade: Massachusetts Education Reform at 15. Boston, MA. MassINC.

Goertz, M., and Weiss, M. (2009). Assessing Success in School Finance Litigation: The Case of New Jersey. New York City: The Campaign for Educational Equity, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Guryan, J. (2003). Does Money Matter? Estimates from Education Finance Reform in Massachusetts. Working Paper No. 8269. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Papke, L. (2005). The effects of spending on test pass rates: evidence from Michigan. Journal of Public Economics, 89(5-6). 821-839.

Roy, J. (2003). Impact of School Finance Reform on Resource Equalization and Academic Performance: Evidence from Michigan. Princeton University, Education Research Section Working Paper No. 8. Retrieved October 23, 2009 from in Education Finance and Policy.)

8 thoughts on “More Flunkin’ out from Flunkout Nation (and junk graph of the week!)

  1. This is a real problem: hacks like Biddle continue to be treated as serious people making serious arguments by policy makers and the media.

    This is happening in nearly all areas of study that relate to public policy: education, the environment, economics… It’s more than frustrating – it’s dangerous.

    1. Indeed this is a huge problem, and partly why I started blogging and tweeting after years of quietly doing my academic research. When my colleague Kevin Welner at U. of Colorado started the Think Tank Review panel I tentatively got involved, viewing it as too hard left leaning and potentially lacking in credibility itself (more or less playing into a left-right pissing match). After writing a few think tank reviews of really shoddy stuff coming out of Fordham Institute, Friedman Foundation and Reason, I started getting more and more irritated. We were (and are still) turning around TT Reviews in a matter of weeks upon release of stupid crap. But I soon began to realize that even that wasn’t quick enough, and the crap was proliferating at an alarming rate. I also happened to start listening to NJ 101.5 around the same time which didn’t help my irritation. Now, I can’t really speak to whether anyone actually gives a damn about RiShawn Biddle’s childish garbage. It really is at the edge of completely stupid, and roughly in the same category as Bob Bowdon’s Cartel movie. As a result, I usually wouldn’t bother even critiquing it. But, I do critique it every now and then in part to show how this stuff is actually only marginally more absurd than much of the stuff that is treated more seriously (Waiting for Superman, or the graphs I pointed to on the DFER site and in the Gates op-ed).

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