The Baltimore City school system ranks slightly below the state average when comparing its education spending to student achievement, according to a report compiled by a progressive Washington think tank that examined the efficiency of Maryland's school districts.
The Center for American Progress released the findings last week of the first-ever attempt to tie school districts' expenditures and test scores to gauge "educational productivity."
"It always feels like we're talking about achievement on one hand, and expenditures on the other, and we need to be having that conversation at the same time," said Ulrich Boser, senior fellow at the center and author of the study. "We need to keep our eyes on the prize, which is achievement, but we need to make sure we're getting the bang for our buck."
In a "basic return on investment" rating, school systems were measured on academic achievement based on each dollar they spent, relative to other districts in their state. The study took into account factors that a district cannot control, such as cost of living and the number of students in poverty.
The study uses achievement and spending data from the 2008 school year, the most recent available when the center started its year-long research. The report, which examined the productivity of 9,000 school districts across the country, concluded that districts did not need to spend a lot of money to garner high achievement, a fact that education leaders should take notice of as school budgets tighten across the nation.
Boser found that Baltimore was spending about $14,000 per pupil — not adjusted for outside factors — but that academic results had not measured up to its spending, with proficiency numbers in the 60th percentile for state reading and math assessments in middle and high school.
Michael Sarbanes, spokesman for city schools, said the study is problematic primarily because it relies on old data and does not reflect the academic gains and reforms that have taken place in the district since 2008.
The methodology, Sarbanes said, underestimates the challenges of educating students in high poverty areas who receive free and reduced-price lunches — which has increased in Baltimore since then — and relies too heavily on test scores, disregarding other factors like the city's dropout rate, now at a historic low.
"You would expect that we would be significantly better than the three-year-old data," said Sarbanes, adding that he believes spending money well and producing academic results are "incredibly important."
Other Maryland districts highlighted include Howard County, which Boser said achieved high student test scores but did so by spending a "surprising" amount and ranked "average to below average" in the state. In comparison, Montgomery County had a higher percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches and spent more per pupil but was ranked among the highly productive districts in the state. Baltimore County fell in the slightly below average category with Baltimore City, while Kent, Somerset, Dorchester and Prince George's counties were among the least productive districts.
Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County public schools, said the report drew an "interesting" correlation between spending and student outcomes. Forbes Magazine made a similar comparison in 2007, but ranked the county in the top 10 of the best values for taxpayer funds, she said.
"The bottom line is we work very hard to be extremely accountable in Howard County for the taxpayer dollars we spend on education," Caplan said. "One of the No. 1 reasons people move to this county is the reputation of the school system, and they come here without consideration for what it would cost them to live here to get that education."
Boser said that the study provides a snapshot that can be used in discussions about education reforms. Since 2008, Baltimore has implemented several reforms that the study found in highly productive districts — such as tying salaries to teacher effectiveness and scaling back on administration. But reforms aimed at raising achievement don't have to fold because of the economic crisis, Boser said.
"The point of this conversation is to say, 'We have sagging revenue; we need to keep making reforms like [Baltimore] has, but we don't have to keep spending more money,'" Boser said.