Art Woolf: How good are Vermont schools?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Art Woolf, an economics professor at the University of Vermont. A slightly different version was first published in The Vermont Economy Newsletter.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Vermont’s per pupil spending was about $17,400 per year in school year 2010-11. That’s 45 percent above the U.S. average. The National Education Association estimates that Vermont’s per pupil spending in 2011-12 was 71 percent above the U.S. average. Vermont spends a lot on education and more than all but a small handful of states.

How well do Vermont students perform, given this high level of spending? The recent Picus report to the Vermont Legislature, most legislators, the Vermont Department of Education, and just about everyone in the state believes that Vermont students’ performance is better than almost any other state in the nation. This article challenges that assessment by looking at the only measure of education performance that exists on a state by state basis, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results. We use the 2013 NAEP math and reading test scores for fourth- and eighth-grade students and examine the percent of students who scored proficient or better, meaning they mastered what should be expected at their grade level.

We don’t think anyone would say that Texas schools are better than Vermont’s, so we’ll compare Vermont performance to Texas, as well as to the U.S. average.

The first thing to note is that Vermont’s student body is very different from the U.S. and from Texas in several dimensions, as the table below shows. Vermont has almost no minority students. More than one-third of all students enrolled in American schools are black or Hispanic, as are nearly two-thirds of Texas students. Vermont is a slightly above-average income state while Texas is slightly below average, but the differences are not huge, so on average, students in Vermont, Texas, and the U.S. come from households with similar average incomes. However, Vermont has a lot fewer children living in poverty than either Texas or the nation. Finally Vermont spends more, on a per student basis, than just about any other state in the nation. In contrast, Texas’ spending is well below the U.S. average.

Vermont’s education system’s performance is, at best, about average for the nation and a case could be made that it’s not as good as the national average.

If we look at students at the aggregate level, Vermont’s students perform better on all four NAEP tests than students in U.S., and much better than Texas. But, as noted earlier, Vermont’s student body is very different from Texas’ or the U.S. as a whole so that comparison is misleading. Minority student populations, especially blacks and Hispanics, have worse education outcomes than white students, and it is important to account for that.

A smaller share of white fourth-grade students in Vermont achieved proficiency on the NAEP math and reading tests than white students in Texas or the U.S. as a whole. On the fourth-grade test, there were so few black students in Vermont that no statistics are reported, and on all tests, that’s also true for Vermont Hispanic students so we can’t compare those students.

On the eighth-grade tests, we find similar results. In the aggregate, Vermont students’ performance looks exceptional compared to both Texas and the U.S. But that disappears when we control for race and ethnicity. On the eighth-grade math test, Texas’ white and black students outperform Vermont’s white and black students. Both states, however, do better than the national average for both black and white students.

On the eighth-grade reading test it also appears that Vermont students do much better than students in Texas or the U.S. as a whole. But again, when we look more deeply at the data, Vermont’s white students don’t do as well as white students in Texas and also slightly underperform the nation. Black students in Vermont do better than black students in Texas or the U.S.

Vermont’s student spending is well above the U.S. average and double that of Texas. Yet Vermont’s non-minority students, which is virtually all students in Vermont, do worse than non-minority Texas students on every one of these tests at both grade levels. They also underperform non-minority students nationwide on three of the four NAEP tests. And Texas’ better performance occurs in a state that spends far less than Vermont. We’re not surprised by that: Most economic studies find no relationship between spending and student performance.

Vermont’s education system’s performance is, at best, about average for the nation and a case could be made that it’s not as good as the national average. That’s far below what most Vermont policymakers, parents, and taxpayers believe to be the case. Vermont does not get a better performing education system in return for its very high education expenditures. We should all be concerned about why that is the case.

Woolf chart

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38 Comments on "Art Woolf: How good are Vermont schools?"

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Seth Jensen
2 years 5 months ago
How racially segregated are schools in Texas? Are black and Latino students primarily enrolled in certain school districts? By only looking at white students, is the author effectively removing the Texan schools with the lowest performance from the comparison. If so, shouldn’t the comparisons of per public spending only be based on majority white schools in Texas as well? Otherwise it does not seem to be a valid statistical comparison (all schools in Vermont vs. all schools in Texas as it relates to spending, but only a certain segment of schools in Texas as it relates to achievement)
Tony Redington
2 years 5 months ago

It is not complicated–Vermont which spends 60-100% more per pupil on schools has its predominantly white children score in seven of eight groups below both Texas and the U.S. average in math/reading for 4th and 8th grades. Time for us and Vermont parents to demonstrate at the school houses doors? The NAEP tests which are actually reputable tests and have been undertaken since the 1960s tell us simply: Vermont fails. So what do we do now?

Seth Jensen
2 years 5 months ago
Moshe Braner provided an illuminating obsevation below: ” I did find some correlation between one year’s 4th grade scores and the next year’s 4th grade scores within the same district. Those are obviously different students. Why a correlation then? I think it’s because the same grades, in consecutive years in the same district, have mostly the same teachers.” Teacher turnover in low income, inner city schools is well documented. If Texas has concentrated black and Latino students in such schools, it stands to reason that the performance of these students will be lower. By removing these students from the comparison,… Read more »
Sean-Marie oller
2 years 5 months ago

Thank you Art for this perspective. We could definitely be doing better at educating all our VT students.

Carl Werth
2 years 5 months ago

So, what we really get for spending way above the national per pupil average is not better educated children – just over-paid administrators?

Wm Lee Sease
2 years 5 months ago

I do not believe the issue is overpaid administrators but rather the excessive number of personnel required to operate our small schools.

Jim Shields
2 years 5 months ago
I agree with Wm Lee Sease about small schools. Vermont has made a conscious choice to support small schools, because there are other societal benefits beyond NAEP scores, but this choice means that school is more expensive in VT, since small schools cost more to operate since you lose the “economy of scale.” So it is interesting that the author chooses Texas for comparison, since Texas is a large state with a standardized school curriculum. Texas has chosen to remove local control from their schools, Vermont has chosen to defend local control for their schools. Are NEAP scores the only… Read more »
Ilene Levitt
2 years 5 months ago

You need to compare the scores of children living in poverty to those not living in poverty. These are available based on Free & Reduced Lunch participants.

Jamie Carter
2 years 5 months ago

Why do they go to different schools? Do they take different tests? Do they have different teachers?

Is there some reason our teachers do not know how to teach low income students but do know how to teach higher income students?

Jason Farrell
2 years 5 months ago

You’re kidding, right?

I suspect there are qualitative difference that could explain the disparate outcomes in academic achievement between these two groups other than different schools, different tests, or teachers knowing how to teach them, or not.

Jamie Carter
2 years 5 months ago
Kidding? Not really. Why should we segregate students based on their parents income? Isn’t that discriminatory? These comparisons are uninformative and useless and serve only to promote class warfare. A better comparison would be to look at year over year scores. If 35% are proficient in 4th grade, how many are proficient 4 years later in 8th grade. That should be the measure of how we are doing… did VT increase 5% compared to Texas’ 2%? Not all schools started at the same place, so looking at a single time point is invalid and more so trying to break that… Read more »
David T. Gross
2 years 5 months ago
Having lived in “The South” for 10 years and also having volunteered in Houston Schools, I can answer your first questions: Yes, these students go to different schools and have different teachers because the neighborhoods in southern cities and towns are de facto segregated as to race. Having taught in Vermont for 15 years, I can answer your last question. Yes, Vermont teachers know how to teach students from lower income families. In fact, in the more rural schools, these students constitute a very large portion of the school population. Here is a free answer. Stop looking at “THE TEACHERS”… Read more »
Jamie Carter
2 years 5 months ago

Stop passing the buck.

Will Adams
2 years 5 months ago

Please expand on this comment. In what way, specifically, is Mr. Gross passing the buck?

David Schoales
2 years 5 months ago
Children who live in poverty come into school with deficits in literacy and numeracy compared to those who do not face poverty. They are also much more likely to have emotional and behavioral needs not seen in their more fortunate peers. Thesse are very expensive to deal with because they require human intervention. Canned curricula will not help. Probably the only positive outcome from the NoChild Left Behind law has been demonstrating with overwhelming evidence that the effects of poverty are the most consistent cause of poor school performance. Many schools have recognized this and are beginning to work on… Read more »
Jamie Carter
2 years 5 months ago

“Thesse are very expensive to deal with because they require human intervention. Canned curricula will not help.”

So why not create a curricula to help them? Why are all students mixed together?

“overwhelming evidence that the effects of poverty are the most consistent cause of poor school performance. ”

Or is poor school performance due to poor intelligence evidenced by poverty?

Jim Shields
2 years 5 months ago

This is an important point. As others point out, why did the author choose not to compare Texas students who live in poverty to those in Vermont? Also, the cost of education is no different than the cost of anything else, in that there is a cost-of-living factor. I don’t think this would account for all the differences in spending in Vermont, but it is relatively expensive to live here, so wages tend to be higher than elsewhere.

Karl Riemer
2 years 5 months ago

Excellent observation. Instead of focussing on skin shade and 1st language (though in passing it might be interesting to note how many of these students are ESL students), more illuminating would be correlating student academic achievement with parental academic achievement, parental academic encouragement, even parental presence. Schools, regardless of spending levels or spending strategy, have an uphill battle without strong parental support at home. Vermont students, I’ll wager, enjoy on average relatively high expectations, encouragement and educational opportunities outside of school.

Pete Novick
2 years 5 months ago
Thirty years ago, a senior official from the US Department of Education provided a Senate committee with a chart comparing public high school graduation rates across the country. The states on top were (and mostly still are) Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont and other states in the northern part of the country. After taking this all in, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) quipped, “So, the solution is to move all the high schools closer to the Canadian border!” The Vermont Department of Education provides a highly readable guide to understanding K-12 public education funding and here’s the link: http://education.vermont.gov/laws/2003/act-68#overview Once there,… Read more »
David Schoales
2 years 5 months ago
The costs keep going up because schools are asked to do more and more with each child. This year alone we are implementing a bullying education programs, dual-enrollment tuition for high school students to earn college credit, and personalized learning plans for all middle and high school students. These all require staff and lots of time, and lots of money- which comes from our property taxes. We are also required to spend millions across the state on implementing the new Common Core. Aside from reading materials, it requires the tests be taken on computers, so we are seeing a large… Read more »
Leslie Nulty
2 years 5 months ago

Art Woolf’s analysis would have had more legitimacy if he had done his comparison by income levels amongst white students. Educational performance is at least, if not more, highly correlated with income levels.

Tony Redington
2 years 5 months ago

So, Vermont, which has average incomes comparable to the U.S. (slightly higher actually in recent years) fails to outperform Texas where incomes are less? The comments here seem to re-enforce an atmosphere of complete denial of Vermont’s schools non-performance. Remember the best performing State–Massachusetts which set itself on a course some years ago to deal with non-performance on tests like the NAEP tests, and, yes, actually succeeded even with sizable numbers of minority students.

Pete Novick
2 years 5 months ago
Thirty years ago, a senior official from the US Department of Education provided a Senate committee with a chart comparing public high school graduation rates across the country. The states on top were (and mostly still are) Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont and other states in the northern part of the country. After taking this all in, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) quipped, “So the solution is to move all the high schools closer to the Canadian border!” The Vermont Department of Education provides a highly readable guide to understanding K-12 public education funding and here’s the link: http://education.vermont.gov/laws/2003/act-68#overview Once there,… Read more »
Gabe Epstein
2 years 5 months ago
Parental involvement isn’t free. It takes either great privilege or great sacrifice to step in and do for your child what a public school cannot. Equality of opportunity means paying to provide everyone with a safe place to be after school, access to extra-curricular activities, exposure to the arts, industry, and technology. Low-tax states like Texas likely see a great deal of investment in children by individual families, making up for the shortcomings of underfunded school systems, and broadening the disparities seen between the privileged and those who struggle beneath them. Economists are prone to missing the hidden and soft… Read more »
Steven Farnham
2 years 5 months ago
Mr. Woolf, I’m as happy to hop on this bandwagon as anybody, but there are (at least) a couple considerations you overlook. A big school in Vermont has 500 students – a school in Texas with only 500 students would likely be considered to be quite small. Economies of scale matter, and increasing class size in Vermont may yield negative returns. There are Federal Standards which drive up the cost of education, but may drive it up more so here in Vermont, again, because of the economy of scale (or rather, lack thereof). Our state standards likely differ from those… Read more »
Moshe Braner
2 years 5 months ago
A while back (some 15 years ago?) I got hold of Vermont data by school district, both test scores and spending. I then found no correlation, within Vermont, between the per-student spending and the test scores. I also found no correlation between the 4th grade scores and the 8th grade scores, so you can’t say that some districts as a whole are clearly better than others. But I did find some correlation between one year’s 4th grade scores and the next year’s 4th grade scores within the same district. Those are obviously different students. Why a correlation then? I think… Read more »
Ed McFarren
2 years 5 months ago

I have been a third grade teacher for 18 years. I’ve lived through any number of miracle cures that promised to improve student results. All require tons of paperwork and lots of non teaching time, meetings, conferences, etc. Maybe the education department needs to stop looking for the magic bullet and let teachers get back to the business of teaching.

Heidi Spear
2 years 5 months ago
Dear Mr. Woolf, It is troubling to see our spending go through the roof and our testing results not follow suit. We have room improvement and beginning to concern ourselves with academic return on our investments would be a good place to start. However, as for the meaningfulness of this analysis that compares us to Texas, I am wondering if there is any information around the comparative education investments. Perhaps they are spending all their time teaching to these tests, as we know that many school systems are criticized for doing. We surely don’t. We spend considerable time and resources… Read more »
Paul Lorenzini
2 years 5 months ago

Every socialist countries government touts their system to be the best, it is no different in VT. The reality is far different from the propaganda. Thanks for the great article.

Art Woolf
2 years 5 months ago

I am somewhat surprised that almost all of the comments are directed to my comparison of Vermont with Texas. Almost no one has commented on the fact that despite spending 70% than the U.S. average, Vermont’s test scores are no different than the national average for non-minority students.

Steven Farnham
2 years 5 months ago

Look at what percentage of the US population lives in sparsely populated areas (like most of Vermont), and what percentage of the US population lives in large cities, and I’ll bet you’ll find your explanation, even if all the comments above didn’t offer one.

Ron Pulcer
2 years 5 months ago
Mr. Woolf, First of all, comparing a small, sparsely populated and more homogenous state like Vermont to a large population and diverse state like Texas is a bit of the old “apples and oranges” comparison. It would probably be more interesting and helpful had you compared Vermont to North Dakota and Wyoming: http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0014.pdf http://censtats.census.gov/cgi-bin/usac/usatable.pl In 2010 Census, Vermont is ranked 49th in population, North Dakota is 48th and Wyoming is 50th. I suspect that both ND and WY have a higher percentage of white residents compared to Texas. At the same time, they are Western States, so that would be… Read more »
rosemarie jackowski
2 years 5 months ago
Sometimes it might be useful to statisticians to classify children by income, but this stereotyping is really a form of prejudice. There are many children from low income households that will not fit the image – and will be harmed by the prejudice. I know a little girl from a low income family. She had a favorite word that she could write by the time she was 2 years old. She knew how to read before she went to kindergarten. She skipped 2 grades, and was one of the youngest students ever accepted to Bennington College. She’s my daughter. (Her… Read more »
Paul Lorenzini
2 years 5 months ago

Having been educated by them
It is no question that the title is nice
but an appropriate question
would be

“How bad are VT schools?’

well
no wealthy youth ever stayed here
and kept the wealth
they went elswhere
wherever that is
and earned their riches
as slaves to corporate or gov
and came back
and bought the land they love
you can’t keep it here
you must go there
and learn the sins
so you can buy here
and feel good again
about VT

wish I had left
and so do you, We
I am still here
me
where are you?
not where you are from
because it had become
like here
so best of luck
making here
less like there
you should have stayed
and made here there

Glenn Thompson
2 years 5 months ago

Rosemarie Jackowski,

“Sometimes it might be useful to statisticians to classify children by income, but this stereotyping is really a form of prejudice. There are many children from low income households that will not fit the image – and will be harmed by the prejudice.”

It has more to do with family values than it does income!

rosemarie jackowski
2 years 5 months ago

Glenn… I agree. Family values are usually the determining factor. How can that be measured and put into language that will convince the ‘experts’. I don’t know.

There also is a cultural problem. When any town offers official proclamations and parades to honor the athletes, and ignores academic achievement, it gives a very strong message about what we value. How can we, as a culture, place a higher value on learning and academics. I don’t know. Some schools honor the sports heroes… do they even have a debating team?

Mary Schwartz
2 years 5 months ago

So Art, what do you think is happening here? Are more white kids in Texas in private schools? Why do you think we’re second in the country in per-pupil expenditures and often second in proficiency in 3rd grade?

John Collins
2 years 5 months ago
Unfortunately, the author of the article is parsing the numbers to match his proposition. He keeps saying “if you just compare this slice of Vt to this slice of Texas… That is the point – we are very different demographics and the stats in the article on “white” vs “non-white” scores (especially when poverty percentages are not tied to race in any measurable way in the original study) creates a false foundation. By that I mean – everyone agrees that the biggest driver of educational success is household income/standard of living, and the high percentage of “white” poverty in VT… Read more »
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