The Good News: New Jersey’s public schools were again ranked tops in the nation by Education Week. New Jersey got a B+ overall (1st) and a B for student achievement (2nd to Massachusetts). All New Jersey can be proud of this and thankful for the hard work and dedication of our educators.
The Not-So-Good-News: Predictably, the NJEA used the EdWeek rankings to justify New Jersey’s very high level of education spending, which underscored the fact that New Jersey gained the top overall ranking largely due to our very high level of education spending. In addition, New Jersey ranked poorly when it comes to the achievement gap between poor and non-poor kids, so unfortunately not all students are getting the same quality public education.
The We-Can-Do-Better News: According to EdWeek‘s own data, Massachusetts got better and more equitable student achievement while spending less, while Florida got similar and more equitable student achievement while spending much less.
EdWeek’s Methodology Remains Flawed
As EdWeek noted last year: “New Jersey retains its crown as the top-ranked state largely due to its continued strength in school finance” – that is, spending. In the 2021 study, New Jersey’s spending was even more of a factor: New Jersey was ranked #1 in spending (after being second in 2020), with a 93.5 rating and the only “A” grade among the states. And like 2020, New Jersey edged out second-place Massachusetts only because it spent more.
But per the Cato Institute, this highlights that there continue to be two major flaws in EdWeek’s methodology.
1) EdWeek treats the amount of education spending as an absolute positive: more is better. This creates a bias whereby the highest-rated states tend to be the big-spending, unionized states in the northeast like New Jersey (1st in spending), Connecticut (6th), Maryland (4th) and Massachusetts (9th).
2) EdWeek measures many variables that do not directly relate to K-12 student achievement, such as the amount of spending, adult employment, graduation rates and pre-K enrollment.
Cato’s own 2020 study removed all the variables unrelated to student achievement, looked at the efficiency of the education spending rather than simply the amount, and disaggregated student performance so states with high minority population were not penalized. In Cato’s study, New Jersey came in 21st. Florida came in first, because Florida actually provided a slightly better quality of education to ALL its students (3rd) to New Jersey (4th) for less than half the price.
EdWeek’s Own 2021 Data Undermines Its Methodology
Remarkably, EdWeek’s own data supports Cato’s critique and its high ranking of Florida.
EdWeek described Florida as one of two states that “punch above their weight by posting academic performance scores that rise above their weaker results for school finance and socioeconomic factors that can impact learning.” Florida’s overall student achievement of 80.2 (3rdbest) is only slightly below New Jersey’s 83.5 (2d best), but Florida got a 43.4 for spending (bottom 10) while New Jersey got a 93.5 (1st).
This was even more true when it came to equity between poor and non-poor kids in both spending and student achievement. New Jersey received a finance equity grade of 88.8 – versus a US average of 88.4 – so New Jersey did a slightly-better-than-average job of ensuring that education spending was distributed equally across both poor and non-poor districts. Florida got 93.6 for spending equity, meaning that it spread its fewer dollars more equitably than New Jersey.
But when it comes to K-12 Achievement (4th-and 8th-grade reading and math scores), New Jersey scored quite poorly when it comes to equity – that is, the difference in academic achievement between poor and non-poor kids. New Jersey scored a 76, which is 8th-worst among the states and well below the US average of 82. New Jersey’s achievement gap in math was the worst among all the states. Meanwhile, Florida’s student achievement equity rating was 90.5 (3rd-best). (Massachusetts scored a better-than-average 84.1)
So according to EdWeek‘s own data, Massachusetts got better and more equitable student achievement while spending less, while Florida got similar and more equitable student achievement while spending much less. This data suggests that the amount of spending should not be seen as an absolute positive.
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1) EdWeek’s data undercuts its own methodology: as both Massachusetts and Florida show, strong student achievement does not require New Jersey-levels of spending.
2) When it comes to making sure ALL students get a quality education, Florida did a much better job than New Jersey while spending a lot less. Massachusetts also did better while spending less.
3) For a state like New Jersey, with its perennial budget deficits, the goal should be to provide a quality education for ALL students while not spending excessively, like Massachusetts and Florida do.
4) The NJEA wants New Jersey to continue to spend excessively, regardless of the fiscal consequences for the state, and will use EdWeek rankings to push for that.