more money fewer problems

DeVos says school spending and student outcomes aren’t related, but recent research suggests otherwise

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Ashland Elementary School.

More money is not the answer for schools, suggested U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in Senate testimony Tuesday — but a wave of new studies show that additional money for schools can make a big difference for students.

In an exchange with Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, DeVos reiterated her view on the topic. Kennedy began by saying, “Do you find it at all strange that in America now, we seem to judge success in education by how much money we’re spending as opposed to whether our kids are learning?”

DeVos replied, “I do find that strange. In fact, in the last administration there was $7 billion invested specifically into schools that were failing … to improve them and there was absolutely zero outcome from that investment.”

“The notion that spending more money is going to bring about different results is ill-placed and ill-advised,” she said.

DeVos was relying on evidence from one specific program, but the broader research on money in education generally paints a more positive picture.

“There’s this notion out there that increased spending doesn’t help,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach who has studied school spending and is the director the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. “There’s good evidence that indeed increased spending does help — it increases student test scores and it improves later life outcomes.”

A few major national studies have reached that conclusion.

One analysis, published in the peer-reviewed Quarterly Journal of Economics, found that court-ordered increases in school spending caused students to attend college at higher rates and earn more money as adults. Another study, coauthored by Schanzenbach, showed that when states increased spending they saw substantial increases in scores on the federal NAEP exam.

Other national research has linked more spending to higher graduation rates and greater social mobility.

State-specific studies have pointed to similar results. Research in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio have also found gains caused by additional education spending.

None of this research is bulletproof because money is never randomly assigned to schools, but the studies do make efforts to look specifically at the effects of additional spending itself.

Skeptics often point to the fact that education spending has increased while overall performance on federal high school exams has been flat, but according to Schanzenbach this approach to determining the impact of additional resources is problematic.

“If we want to think about what’s the effect of school funding, you can’t do correlations — you need a research design to isolate what happens when more money is pumped into the system,” she said.

In her testimony and in other instances, DeVos’s has highlighted the Obama-era school turnaround program, which produced some successes but did not seem to have much if any overall impact, according to a federal study of the program.

But Schanzenbach says this does not show that resources don’t matter. “That is an evaluation of a particular program, targeted at particular schools,” she said. “I don’t think we get to step back and say we learned something fundamental about the relationship between spending and student achievement.”

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.

next stop

Robotics is bringing Betsy DeVos to Detroit for the first time as education secretary

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (U.S. Department of Education)

Betsy DeVos is set to appear in Detroit for the first time as education secretary on Friday, though she’s unlikely to encounter local students when she’s there.

DeVos is scheduled to attend a student robotics competition being held downtown in a bid to promote science and math education. The event is also likely to again highlight DeVos’s past influence over education policy in the city, which has been heavily scrutinized.

Before becoming President Trump’s education chief, DeVos, a prominent Michigan philanthropist, was a key architect of policies that many blame for the dire state of Detroit’s schools.

We’ve outlined that debate in full, but the key points are that the state’s charter law puts no restrictions on where or how many charter schools can open, which has created school deserts in some neighborhoods, and far too many schools in others. Both district and charter schools struggle financially with less-than-full enrollments, while student performance suffers across the board.

DeVos’ critics say she has blocked attempts to bring order and oversight to Detroit schools. Defenders note that parents now have more options and that charter school students in the city do slightly better on state exams than their peers in district schools.

DeVos also had a tense exchange with Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” about Michigan schools back in March.

“Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it,” she said.

DeVos’s announcement says she plans to meet with students on Friday. But while the event is happening in Detroit, the students DeVos encounters at the FIRST Robotics World Championship on Friday will almost surely hail from elsewhere. Earlier this week, Chalkbeat noted that just one city high school in Detroit qualified to send a team.