Parental engagement & personalized learning can help bridge achievement gap between rich & poor districts

Reports from the Union Leader show that higher spending is linked to better test scores, but that's not the whole story.

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According to an analysis by the New Hampshire Department of Education, school districts that spend the most money per pupil typically get the best results on standardized tests. But educators in districts that spend less say that early childhood education, a deep commitment to their students and educators, and parental engagement make a big difference, reported the Union Leader.  

“What the data will tell you is that the schools that are spending more money are getting a higher average outcome,” said state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. “But be careful of correlation versus causation.”

Edelblut agrees that the numbers show a direct correlation between dollars spent and better academic outcomes, but he’s reluctant to say there is a direct cause-and-effect.

“Why is it that some districts can spend a lot of money and their results are down here, whereas another district is spending a lot less, and they are doing really well? We have to find those and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ and let’s do more of that,” says Edelblut.

Then there are taxpayers who will look at a district like Stratford, with a high cost per pupil of $25,646, and test results that fall below many of the districts making a similar investment.

What makes the difference? The Union Leader asked several districts that have low per-pupil spending, but high test scores, what they’re doing differently. Josiah Bartlett Elementary School Principal Joe Voci credited this school’s high scores to “team teaching,” personalized learning, and early education:

The school uses a “looping” model: teachers keep their students for two years. Voci said research shows that by doing so, schools can pick up three to five months of extra learning time.

“So I think those scores come from really getting to know your kids, really knowing what they’re good at, their strengths, and kind of concentrating on those things they need to improve on,” he said.

The town was one of the first to fund full-day kindergarten and at the recent town meeting, residents voted overwhelmingly to fund a public preschool program. “That early intervention is huge,” Voci said.

It’s about “equalizing the playing field,” he said. In the past, kindergartners who did not attend preschool “came in behind and stayed behind.”

Superintendent Mark Halloran, who oversees nine school districts with a mix of property-rich and poorer towns, says that parent engagement makes the difference in student engagement: 

To him, the key is parental engagement. “I don’t think there’s any magic to it,” he said. “If your parents are engaged and the kids are involved in the school, I think kids do well.”

His local communities also set high standards for student achievement, Halloran said. “A lot of them make a lot of sacrifices with these property tax rates,” he said. “I think the expectation of the communities is: We’re supporting you, we say yes to these warrant articles; make sure that we’re doing well.”

It’s not about how wealthy a community is, Bousquet said. “I think there is an advantage to having a lot of resources, but I think there’s a lot to be said for … the work ethic, the commitment, the total laser focus on individual students,” he said. “I think that’s a big, big part of it.”

But, according to the Commissioner, some districts do face substantial challenges. High rates of poverty affect student outcomes, and students with disabilities face unique challenges to learning:

“You have to factor that into it,” says Edelblut. “You may have a district where the demographics are affecting the outcomes. Take math as an example. My statewide average is 44 percent proficient, but among the free and reduced lunch population, only 21 percent are proficient. In the population with individualized education programs (IEP), it’s 8 percent.”

Learn more about how New Hampshire funds its schools by listening to our webinar.

Sources: Spending and student achievement linked, but that’s not the whole story and Granite State schools reveal their ‘special sauce,’ both published by the Union Leader.