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Articles on Class Size

No. 93-29
December 6, 1993
Contact: The Mackinac Center
(517) 631-0900

More Spending Not the Solution to School Woes

by William L. Fagley
(William L. Fagley of Midland is a retired business counselor who has consulted with several millage committees on school finance. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted provided credit is given to the author and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.)

A feverish debate over how to improve public education is occurring in Lansing. Some legislators and interest groups argue that more spending is the key, others argue that systemic reforms need to be adopted before new revenues are considered.
What are the factors that contribute to better student achievement? Does spending more money really matter? What about teachers salaries? Parent involvement? While other researchers before me have adressed these questions, I wanted to know what the r elationships were, so I made a comprehensive and rigorous analysis of Michigan data utilizing student test scores and education input factors published by the Michigan Department of Education.
Currently, the state Department of Education administers the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP). Students in fourth, seventh and tenth grade are required to take the MEAP test in mathematics and reading, and students in fifth, eighth and ele venth grades take the MEAP test in science. The Department annually reports the percentage of students in each school district who pass each section of the MEAP test. Education input factors such as level of per pupil spending and average teacher salary are published annually in bulletin form as well by the Department.
When I compared the per pupil spending in the 111 largest school districts in the state with the percent of students passing the MEAP tests, I found a weak relationship between the two. Total per pupil spending in these districts ranged from $3,400 to $ 9,800 per pupil, while the test scores varied from 26.3 percent passing to 82.2 percent passing. As the accompanying chart demonstrates, less than five percent of the variation in MEAP scores is explained by the districts' per pupil spending level. In o ther words, the level of spending appears to have very little to do with the level of student achievement.
There are some who say that paying teachers more would attract better personnel to teaching and improve the quality of education. Average teacher salaries in Michigan's largest school districts in 1990-91 ranged from $32,700 to $ 51,400 per year. It tu rns out that the average teacher salary explains less than three and one-half percent of the variation in MEAP scores. In other words, the level of teachers' salary appears to have very little to do with the quality of education in a school district.
Many people are of the opinion that small class sizes contribute to better student achievement. When comparing the Michigan data, however, there appears to be only a moderate relationship. The variations in class size in the largest school districts ex plain only about twenty-four percent of the variations in MEAP test scores in those same districts. Given the enormous cost of reducing class size significantly, the data suggest that such an investment may not be warranted.
The failure of school factors such as per pupil spending, average teacher salary and class size to have much effect on test scores indicates that emphasis on these items cannot significantly improve student achievement in Michigan. Spending more clearly does not guarantee a better education as measured by the MEAP test scores.
If spending-related factors do not explain much, then what are the factors that contribute significantly to improved student achievement? In the 111 largest school districts, over 80 percent of the differences in MEAP test score results are explained by such non-school factors as family and community background.
What this suggests, in my opinion, is that one of the keys to improving the quality of education lies with parents becoming more involved in their children's education and students becoming more committed to learning. Unfortunately, these are not the k ind of things that can easily be mandated by the state legislature or by school boards. Parents need to know what their children are studying in school and they need to know if the homework assignments are completed. Parents need to ask the teacher how they can help their child learn and then follow through in helping their child.
If we devoted less attention to cash and more to strengthening the role of parents, Michigan could make real progress toward improving education.



The tiny island of Singapore last year dominated the world on the Third International Math and Science Study (Colvin, L.A. TIMES, 2/25). According to the paper, the secret is the country's emphasis on competition and total government control of educatio n.
Singapore students face "high-pressure" exams at the end of grades four, six, 10 and 12, that eventually will determine "whether they will wind up as doctors or cabdrivers," writes the paper. The country also boasts a national curriculum, with "amazingly concise" standards set for each grade level. For example, a ten-page document comprises eighth-grade math, which covers 19 topics within algebra, geometry and other math areas. By comparison, American eighth-graders "race through 30 or more topics lea rning them so superficially that they have to be repeated over and over," reports the paper.
Involved parents also are key to Singapore's academic success. Parents pay extra to hire tutors for their children. They also pay fees so they can take weekend courses that allow them to better help their children learn subjects, writes the paper. The Singapore government also directs significant funds to education. The TIMES notes that while Calif. Gov. Pete Wilson ® recently announced a $50M campaign for computers-in-the-schools, Singapore is spending $1B over five years, "in a school system wit h fewer pupils than Los Angeles."
Other aspects of Singapore education: class size is on average 40 students, including in elementary schools; teachers spend more time than any others in the world planning lessons and grading homework; students devote more time to homework than their wor ldwide colleagues -- 4.6 hours per day; students do not use calculators on exams until the seventh grade, and are taught math using the abacus. Of course, the paper comments on the severe discipline code that governs students, and citizen, behavior in Singapore. It also mentions that producing top-notch students is a critical component to the nation's economic and security agenda. "We are const antly being drummed with the message that we cannot take our survival for granted," said Tan Teng Wah, principal at a Singapore school for 16- to 18-year olds. "Human nature is such that students will take the path of least resistance."
The paper describes Singapore's geographic disadvantage— it lacks oil, minerals and land to grow rice. Its natural resources are its ports and a high quality workforce, reports the paper. Competition is valued as a way to maintain a well-educated workforce. From the paper: "So obsessed is Singapore with comparisons, the schools are ranked not only on academics but by the percentage of students who are obese—fitness, too, is national poli cy." "If students are not fit, they won't cope with their studies very well," said Kwek Hiok Chuang, principal of the Anderson Secondary School. Boston College professor Albert Beaton said the U.S. is not "ready for the type of formal, controlled system of Singapore." He added: "The U.S. has to examine its own values and decide whether it wants to be No. 1 in the world that badly." Beaton also headed the recent 41-nation study by the International Association for the Evaluation for Educational Achievement.
Although I do not necessarily agree with all points in the previous article, it is documented not only in Singapore, but Japan and China where classrooms average 40 students, yet these countries lead the world in standard exams.

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Page updated by N.S. Gill April 20, 1998.
Copyright © 1996, 1997 & 1997 N. S. Gill.

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