Comparing Adequacy Across 50 States

January 15, 2011

Allan Odden

Allan Odden

Until now, no one has tried to estimate the costs of educational adequacy across all 50 states using a common method applied in a consistent manner. UW-Madison education professor Allan Odden and colleagues have realized that goal.

In a recent report, Odden, Lawrence Picus, and Michael Goetz provide state-by-state estimates of the cost of the evidence-based model. Theevidence-based model relies primarily on research evidence when making programmatic recommendations. The evidence-based approach starts with a set of recommendations based on a distillation of research and best practices. As implementation unfolds, teams of state policymakers, education leaders, and practitioners review, modify, and tailor those core recommendations to the context of their state’s situation. Odden’s report compares those estimates to each state’s current spending.

Allan Odden and colleagues have developed the first state-level analysis of education finance spending using a model with consistent assumptions across all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.

Odden and colleagues studied districts and schools that have made substantial gains in student performance. They identified the strategies used, then compared those strategies to the recommendations of the evidence-based model. The research found a strong alignment between the strategies and the resources in the evidence-based model and those strategies used by districts and schools that have seen dramatic increase in student learning.

The Evidence-Based Model and Adequacy

When experts discuss education finance, they sometimes use the term “adequacy.” Odden offers this definition: “Providing a level of resources to schools that will enable them to make substantial improvements in student performance over the next 4 to 6 years, as progress toward ensuring that all, or almost all, students meet their state’s performance standards in the longer term.” 

“Substantial improvement in student performance” means that, where possible, the proportion of students meeting a proficiency goal will increase substantially in the short- to medium term. Specific targets might vary, depending on the state and a school’s current performance. Yet this goal could be interpreted as raising the percentage of students who meet a state’s student proficiency level from 35% to 70%, or from 70% to something approaching 90% and, in both examples, to increase the percentage of students meeting advanced proficiency standards. There are several approaches to estimating adequacy. They include cost functions, professional judgment, successful schools and districts, and the evidence-based approach.

The study found that many states are in a position to provide the full range of what educators claim is needed to improve student performance without spending substantially more money per pupil and, in some states, with fewer dollars than currently in the system.

The report presents state-by-state comparisons according to two measures. One table illustrates costs of the evidence-based model using nationalaverage compensation. The other provides estimates using state-by-state estimates of average teacher compensation and national averages for all other positions.

Using the nationalaverage compensation figures, the weighted per pupil estimated costs for adequacy using the evidence-based model is $9,641, an average increase of $566 per student on a national basis. In 30 of the 50 states, additional revenues are needed to reach the estimated cost level. In the remaining 20 states and Washington, D.C., current funding levels are more than enough.

If all states were to receive funding at the estimated level of the evidence-based model, the total cost would be $27.0 billion, or a 6.2% increase. However, the politically feasible approach would not allow using the “excess funds” from the states currently spending more than that level. Given that, the total cost rises to $47.2 billion (a 10.9% increase) to fully fund the model’s estimates.

When state level average teacher salaries and benefits are used, the estimated weighted average cost per pupil of the evidence-based model amounts to $9,940. The total cost of this model amounts to $41.3 billion (a 9.5% increase), or $54.6 billion (a 12.6% increase) if excess funds are not recaptured from high-spending states. Although this represents a significant jump in education spending, Odden says, it is not unreasonable over time.

The estimates reported here do not take into account cost differences that result from  lack of economies of scale or from decisions to have larger or smaller core class sizes. Odden explains that many states make adjustments in their formulas for small schools. And when implemented in an individual state, carefully documented adjustments are made to prorate resources to smaller schools and adapt the evidence-based model to the actual school conditions found in that state. As a result, Odden says, the costs of adequacy reported in this study likely represent a lower bound of the total costs that might be identified if evidence-based studies were done in each of the 50 states.

Nor does this research address how the funds should be allocated once they are sent to school districts. This is an important point, Odden says, because some states currently spend more than identified in this model, yet do not appear to show the gains in student performance the model suggests are possible.

Finally, in some states, the cost of implementing this, or any other, adequacy model might be quite high, Odden says. “But states do not have to do this all at once,” he says. Instead, they can establish a multiyear implementation plan and fund the increase over time. “If they do that,” he says, “we recommend that they start with the professional development components including instructional coaches, additional resources for trainers, and additional days for teacher professional development. Then they can focus on strategies for struggling students, which are relatively low-cost options with larger effect sizes.