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New York schools see a big disconnect between spending and test scores. Why?

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A student draws on a piece of paper during the second to last day of school as New York City public schools prepare to wrap up the year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on June 24, 2022. New York State schools as a whole spend more than any state in the country, but students perform only average on national exams.

Michael Loccisano / Getty Images

This is the second in a two-part project on school funding. Read the first piece — focusing on national data on whether students in poverty receive adequate funding for their education — here.

New York state leads the country in spending on public schools, and it’s not particularly close. In 2020, the state spent over $25,000 per public school student, $4,000 more than its closest competition, Connecticut. 

For many of the state’s elected officials, this first-in-the-nation status is a point of pride worth maintaining. The latest state budget, boasted Gov. Kathy Hochul, “includes historic investments that will make a difference in people’s lives now and for years to come, including a record investment in our public schools.”

But New York doesn’t lead the way in educational performance. On national math and reading tests, its students only score in the middle of the pack. 

On their own, the middling scores don’t prove that New York’s high spending is ill-advised or failing to help students. The state might be doing far worse without it. Or the resources might be helping students in ways that aren’t captured on tests. 

But as more and more research has shown that more money typically leads to better schools, New York’s outlier status amounts to a discomfiting puzzle — one that state leaders, education officials, and experts who study this issue can’t fully explain. Figuring out how money can best be used to help students is crucial right now, as officials in New York and across the U.S. have large sums of COVID relief money to spend and large gaps in student learning to close. 

“We spend a lot of money in this state,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor at Syracuse University who has studied New York schools. “The question we should be asking is, are we spending it in the best way to get the most for our kids?”

An Empire State gap between spending and test scores

A recent study asked a crucial but difficult-to-answer question: How much would every school district in the country need to spend to get students to average proficiency in reading and math?

Then it compared that number to what districts actually spend. In many places, particularly high-poverty areas, schools aren’t spending nearly enough, claimed the research, which was released by the Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

Few New York districts had this problem, though. 

Nearly every district in the state was spending enough to get adequate scores, according to the Shanker Institute study. In fact, most were spending far more. 

Based on these spending levels, the researchers predict that most New York districts would perform well above average on national fourth and eighth grade math and reading exams, while New York City would be above average for a large city. 

In fact, students in the state as a whole performed at roughly the national average on federal exams taken in 2019. Students in New York City, the best-funded large district in the country, also scored at about the average for a large American city and below the overall national average.  

The Shanker Institute study is an estimate taking into account a variety of important factors — including student poverty, the share of students with disabilities, and cost of living. But it doesn’t look at what happens when a school loses or gains money. That’s probably a better way of showing whether dollars improve schools, and recent national research taking this approach has generally shown that, yes, money does make a difference.

At least three studies looking at funding changes in certain New York districts have found that, too. “This money doesn’t seem to be wasted,” said Lucy Sorensen, a University at Albany researcher and author of two of the papers.

Still, Sorensen says she’s not sure why New York’s national scores aren’t higher. “I can’t answer the underlying puzzle,” she said.

Money could be buying improvements beyond test scores

New York officials say the Shanker Institute research puts too much emphasis on test scores, missing out on other ways the state’s spending benefits students.

“The authors do not recognize that multiple measures are needed to measure the effectiveness of educational programs and successfully prepare students for college, careers, and civic engagement,” said JP O’Hare, a spokesperson for the state’s education department.

O’Hare, who declined to make someone available for an interview, did not provide any data to indicate that New York performs better using other metrics.

In fact, New York doesn’t excel on one obvious measure: high school graduation. The state’s graduation rate was actually slightly below the national average in 2019. These sorts of comparisons are tricky, though, because different states have different graduation standards. New York, unlike many others, has required students to pass a battery of exams to earn a diploma. 

New York’s spending could be also buying other benefits: more extracurricular activities, school-based health services, new buildings, or a variety of non-academic classes.

Bruce Baker, a professor at the University of Miami and lead author of the Shanker Institute report, acknowledged the limits of focusing on test scores. Schools spending more, he said, often “offer lots of different types of programs — more sports and arts,” he said. “That’s not picked up in the outcomes.”

It’s also possible data quirks in spending or student achievement might be skewing comparisons, Baker said. For instance, New York City students seem to perform relatively better on state exams than national tests. 

Or perhaps there are unique factors in the state that make it harder to account for schools’ costs or student needs.

“The one-size-fits-all approach in this study doesn’t necessarily apply to New York State and in particular to New York City,” said Democratic state Sen. John Liu, who oversees the Senate’s committee on New York City education. He pointed to potentially higher transportation costs in the city.

Still, he said, “We should pay attention to the findings of this study and see what can be done to further improve educational outcomes.”

Segregation, spending choices could hurt New York test scores

Other potential explanations for New York’s less-than-stellar test scores are more concerning. 

One possibility is that something about New York’s school system is pushing down scores. For instance, New York State schools are among the most racially segregated in the nation, which could be hurting students of color. 

Some advocates also point to the state’s limited oversight of school curriculum. “Our policy landscape doesn’t really have strong policies that say math instruction must be [this], or reading instruction should look like [this],” said Dia Bryant, executive director at The Education Trust-New York, a group that focuses on the education of disadvantaged students.   

Another explanation is simply that the state’s schools aren’t spending money as effectively as they could be. 

Some research suggests that students in poverty are most likely to benefit from additional funding. But unlike many states, New York’s high-poverty districts don’t get meaningfully more money than their affluent counterparts. In fact, until recently, those better-off schools tended to get more funding.

The state’s particularly high-spending, affluent districts may feel less pressure to allocate money in a way that improves test scores. “The districts that tend to be most inefficient are small, wealthy, affluent suburbs,” said Baker. “Because they can.” 

New York may also be investing in areas without a clear payoff in student learning. It’s one of the few states that requires all of its teachers to obtain master’s degrees, and districts typically boost pay once they do. But research has found only a tenuous link between master’s degrees and effectiveness in the classroom.

New York also spends larger sums than most other states on teacher benefits, including retirement. Teachers value these benefits, but some research suggests that money for base salaries may be more effective for recruiting teachers.

The list of potential explanations could go on.

“I don’t think we’ve done nearly enough work … digging into the particulars around differences in how dollars are spent and trying to tie that to outcomes,” said Josh McGee, an education researcher at the University of Arkansas. 

That’s a problem in New York and elsewhere. Even researchers who have found that money matters for student learning agree that how it is spent matters, too. But there is little research-based guidance for educators about how to best spend additional funding, like the unprecedented sum of federal aid schools are now using to help students recover from the pandemic.

Meanwhile, New York advocates and officials are approaching the Shanker Institute study, as well as the broader questions about money and outcomes, gingerly.

“The report does point to things that we should be looking out for in both funding as well as the operation for school systems,” said Liu, even as he questioned some of its conclusions.

Jasmine Gripper, executive director of Alliance For Quality Education, an education advocacy organization that has pushed for more school funding in New York, said this research shouldn’t dissuade policymakers from investing in high-poverty schools, particularly since the state’s highest spending districts are affluent ones.

“Are we spending the most on the students in the highest poverty areas? We are not. Are we spending most on the students with the greatest needs? We are not,” she said.

At the moment, New York lawmakers are continuing to pump money into its schools, recently agreeing to fully fund a formula that sends more money to high-needs schools.

They’re also pushing New York City to use its increased state funding to reduce class sizes — an investment with some much-debated research behind it — through a bill that hasn’t yet been signed by Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has opposed it.

“It’s not about just giving New York school districts a blank check — it’s also about making sure they adhere to basic standards that have been set forth,” Liu said of the bill. “The most basic of this standard is a sound, basic education, which includes class sizes and teacher quality.”

READ NEXT: As pandemic aid runs out, America is set to return to a broken school funding system

Matt Barnum is a national reporter covering education policy, politics, and research. Contact him at mbarnum@chalkbeat.org.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

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