California’s sweeping education reforms championed by Gov. Jerry Brown have resulted in higher graduation rates and especially sizable gains in math among low-income students in the 11th grade, according to a new study.
“The evidence suggests that money targeted to students’ needs can make a significant difference in student outcomes and narrow achievement gaps,” the study by researchers at UC Berkeley and the Learning Policy Institute found.
The study, which did not include charter schools, was conducted by Rucker Johnson, an economist at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, and Sean Tanner, a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization in Palo Alto.
It was released last Friday at a conference organized by Policy Analysis for California Education and represents the most detailed analysis to date of the impact of California’s landmark Local Control Funding Formula, signed into law in 2013. Among other features, the formula funnels additional funds to school districts based on the number of low-income students, English learners and foster children they enroll.
State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, said the study covers more years of research and uses more recent data than other studies so far on the funding formula’s impact. “We still have work to do, and this research is very encouraging,” he said.
Until now, most attention has been focused on student performance on the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced tests — which over 3 million students in selected grades take each spring — and on the lack of progress in closing the achievement gap between black and Latino students on one hand and white and Asian students on the other.
The study showed a statistically significant increase in math test score performance among high school students in schools who received more funds. The increase was especially marked among low-income students who take the Smarter Balanced tests each spring. The researchers found that every $1,000 a district received resulted in an increase of approximately 7 months of learning
The Learning Policy Institute’s Tanner said that because math scores increased more among low-income children than all children, if those improvements are sustained over time it would help narrow the achievement gaps between low-income and higher income students.
Additional funds received through the formula also contributed to higher scores in reading for all 11th grade children, although low-income children did not show a greater improvement than their higher income peers.
Rucker said that even the increases for reading were notable in light of the fact that schools have yet to receive “full funding” through the funding formula, and that the number of years students have been exposed to the funding increases is less than 4 years in most cases. In addition, he said,”impacts tend to compound over successive school-age years due to the cumulative nature of learning.”
The study also found that high school graduation rates on average increased by 5.1 percent for every additional $1,000 districts received, but graduation rates among low-income students rose even higher — by 6.1 percent.
UC Berkeley’s Johnson noted that many school districts have received a far greater increase than $1,000 per student — in some cases up to $3000. In those schools, student should show an even greater improvement in their performance.
“The longer a student is exposed to the increase in school spending the larger the impact (on students),” he said.
Using complex statistical techniques, the researchers controlled for multiple influences on graduation rates and academic performance. That included taking into account the elimination of the California High School Exit exam in 2015, which could have contributed to higher graduation rates. They also looked at a range of influences on districts between 2004 and 2012 — before the LCFF went into effect — so they could control for those during the period the reforms were in place.
The study also showed that districts receiving extra funds for high-needs students significantly increased their spending on district-run preschool programs for 4-year-olds, as well as on special education. They also had lower student-teacher ratios in their schools and spent more on raising teacher salaries and on instructional materials.
Johnson has used similar methodologies to look at the impact of government investments in education, including Head Start and school desegregation programs, in improving outcomes for children, not only while they are in school but in adulthood as well.
One of the challenges in looking at student performance is that three years ago California abandoned the old California Standards Tests and began administering the Smarter Balanced tests aligned with the Common Core standards in math and English. That makes it more difficult to compare student performance in prior years to current years. But using statistical techniques pioneered by Sean Reardon and other colleagues at Stanford University, Johnson and Tanner aligned student test results with results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” and were able to gauge student progress over time despite the changes in California’s tests.
“We are finding a consistent story that school resources can indeed improve outcomes of children, even of low-income students who are particularly having some of the lowest average performance,” said Johnson.
A yet-to-be-published study by UC Berkeley’s Bruce Fuller and Joon-Ho Lee also pointed to some promising outcomes from LCFF extra funds — in this case in Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district. Using a different methodology, Fuller and Lee found that middle and high schools with the greatest increases in revenues had higher rates of reclassifying English learners as proficient in English. At the high school level, more students took AP exams, although the share of test takers scoring a 3 or higher on the exams did not climb in schools with the steepest budget increases. Schools with the largest budget increases had smaller class sizes, hired more new teachers and increased the number of course offerings.
The study, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Education, did not look at the impact of these changes on academic performance.
One of the enduring debates in education reform is what difference additional spending makes on school performance. That issue is squarely on the table in California, in light of the considerable increases in funding received by districts with high concentrations of low-income and other high needs students. “We are interested in tracking what will happen in the long run,” said Tanner. “But we are confident that these are the results from the first three years of the policy.”
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