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Citizens for Limited Taxation

Boston Herald article (07/26/2002)
A report from the Beacon Hill Institute last week set the education establishment of Massachusetts abuzz with a finding that increasing teacher salaries ``generally worsens'' MCAS scores.  The report provides a useful reminder of how limited the role of money is in improving education as acting Gov. Jane Swift announces what line-item vetoes to impose on the new state budget.

It is one of the oldest established facts about education: Spending has practically nothing to do with student performance.  In this case, the institute concluded that the $7 billion added to education spending since 1993 had little to do with the surge in MCAS scores last year; rather it was the fact that ``the impending graduation requirement is impelling schools and students to pass.''  This is a little like announcing that the sun rises in the east.

The 1993 Education Reform Act enacted a bargain, which the Beacon Hill Institute understands. School committees, administrators and teacher unions were promised much more money if they accepted accountability and testing.  Many of the authors understood that the money was not buying better performance; it was buying acceptance of policies that would eventually produce better performance.

The 44 budget lines used for this purpose add up to $4.1 billion, about the same as last year.  The main account, general aid to local districts, would rise 1.4 percent to $3.26 billion.  Cuts are more likely in other accounts - from new construction assistance ($20.2 million, down from $50.9 million) through kindergarten development aid ($27.9 million, down from $31.1 million).

If the governor does make cuts, it is not clear how much the Legislature would restore. But it is clear that every affected interest group will squeal loudly.  When the noise begins, it will be important to remember that the Education Reform Act is still in place, the policies it produces are sound and the schools are not going to close.

As for teacher salaries, it would be much more accurate to skip any conclusions as to cause and effect and simply say that increased salaries were generally - but not always - found alongside lower scores in the institute's mathematical model that tried to allow for socio-economic and other variables.  Much more research would be needed to solve this new salary question, but the institute's research should not be simply dismissed because of one oddity.  It confirms some interesting findings from other studies - for instance, lower student-teacher ratios generally are not correlated with improving scores. It confirmed that Everett runs some of the best schools in the state, taking into account student backgrounds, even though its MCAS scores are in the middle of the pack.  The analysis found that Chelsea and Holyoke did even better in the fourth grade though their MCAS scores are far worse.

Meanwhile education reform remains a work in progress.

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