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Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · June 24, 2004

What Does It Take To Build A Successful School?

Principals’ Priorities Differ Widely; Higher Budgets Needed To Raise Test Scores Of Disadvantaged Students To State Standard

SAN FRANCISCO, California, June 24, 2004 — What would it take for the majority of California’s public school students to meet the state’s rigorous academic standards? School principals have a wide variety of ideas about just what the right mixture of resources should be to meet that goal, according to a unique analysis released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The report presents the results of workshops conducted with a total of 45 elementary, middle, and high school principals across the state. In them, principals were given three budgets (low, medium, and high) and asked how they would use them to run two schools – one with a more affluent student population, and one with a high-poverty population – in order to maximize academic performance.

Principals agreed higher budgets would improve performance among disadvantaged students. In fact, about half predicted that the highest budget scenario would lead high-poverty schools to attain the state’s goal of 800 on California’s Academic Performance Index (API).

But beyond linking specific levels of funding to specific test scores, principals expressed very different ideas about the “package of resources” they would purchase with their budgets in order to get the best academic result. On average, elementary school principals spent the largest share of their funds on ensuring small class sizes, and as their budgets grew, focused on student support programs such as after-school tutoring and full-day kindergarten. Both middle school and high school principals compromised on small class size in order to spend more on student counselors and security guards. And high school principals, more than their elementary and middle school counterparts, emphasized professional development for teachers and increasing teacher quality.

No matter how differently they structured their schools, on average, the principals predicted that high-poverty elementary schools would achieve a score of 588 using the low budget and a score of 750 under the high budget. Likewise, principals predicted scores for high-poverty middle schools would rise from 668 under the low budget to 738 under the high one, and from 665 to 761 for high-poverty high schools.

Most principals believed that with the high budget scenario, schools with a more affluent student population would attain the state goal: For elementary schools, they predicted a score of 840, and for middle schools and high schools, a score of 800.

Principals also predicted substantial differences between what high- and low-poverty schools would achieve under identical budgets. For example, using the low budget for both, principals forecasted that high-poverty elementary schools would score about 120 points lower on the API than more affluent ones; under the high budget, they estimated a score of about 90 points lower.

“On average, principals associated higher budgets with better scores,” says PPIC research fellow Heather Rose, who co-authored the study with PPIC Senior Research Fellow Jon Sonstelie and Peter Richardson. “And given the additional challenges faced by schools that have high-poverty student populations, those schools would need significantly more resources to achieve the same outcome as schools with more affluent student populations.”

Perhaps more important to policymakers, however, is that the workshops refocus attention on a basic question: Which resources, and how much of them, do various kinds of California schools need to be successful? “The link between resources and achievement is notoriously unclear, and it is probably not possible to create a model school that, if replicated, would get a specific academic result,” says Rose. “Workshops like these show what principals believe certain funding levels can buy, and how that funding might affect the likelihood of student’s performing better at different kinds of schools.”

The study, School Budgets and Student Achievement in California: The Principal’s Perspective, used a low budget based on California’s 1999-2000 per pupil spending, a middle budget that was 15 percent higher and based on per pupil spending in states such as Minnesota and Illinois, and a high budget that was 30 percent higher and reflected per pupil spending in states such as Michigan and Vermont.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.