American Schools October 2012

A National Report Card

A visual look at the educational successes and failures of the past year
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Graphics by Kiss Me I'm Polish

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More Money, More Problems?

Alaska, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia spend more money per pupil, on a regionally adjusted scale, than almost any other state, yet they get D's or F's in achievement. Seventy percent of the District's students are poor, a factor that drives up its costs, whereas Alaska and Wyoming both struggle to distribute resources to a relatively small number of students spread across vast and isolating geography.

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The Case of New Mexico

In 2011, researchers at the Center for American Progress calculated educational return on educational investment (ROI), district by district. They found wide variation within states, both in terms of money spent and results obtained.

New Mexico’s suburban Rio Rancho district has the best ROI in the state, spending just $6,658 per pupil for an achievement score of 61, which cap calculated on a scale of 1 to 100. Just two districts away, rural Jemez Mountain had the worst ROI, spending $13,983 per pupil for an achievement score of 25.

Students in the Roswell and Silver City districts—both small, remote, and majority Hispanic—achieved at similar levels. Yet Roswell, despite having 81 percent low-income students compared with Silver City’s 51 percent, spent $2,589 less per pupil.

Rebirth on the Bayou

After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana transferred most New Orleans schools to the authority of the state-run Recovery School District. With the teachers union effectively obsolete, reform has flourished—about 80 percent of New Orleans students now attend charter schools, the highest proportion in the U.S.—and the city’s historically rock-bottom test scores have shot up.

Cities Bounce Back

City schools—dogged by poverty and overcrowding—have traditionally lagged behind schools in other parts of the country. Achievement in most American cities still trails the national average, but in recent years, urban districts have seen significantly more improvement.

Smart Spending Pays Off

Atlanta’s reading gains and Boston’s math gains may be partly attributed to decade-long initiatives in literacy and math, respectively. Boston’s program may also have helped narrow its achievement gap: in 2011, the district’s black, Hispanic, and poor students all outperformed their national peers in math.

Next page: How far we've fallen behind the rest of the world—and the economic benefits of catching up

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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