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Do School Districts Matter?

According to a new study, their quality has little effect on student performance.


America's 14,000 school districts control nearly all of the $500 billion in annual public education spending. Though they wield outsized influence on how money gets spent, their quality varies widely (just ask any parent considering a move out of a city to a suburb). But how much does district quality actually matter to student performance?

Not very much, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution.

Researchers looked at the 4th and 5th grade state math and reading test scores between 2000 to 2010 of every student in a Florida or North Carolina school district. They found that districts accounted for a tiny amount of variation in student achievement. Factors like schools, teachers, and demographics played a much bigger role in achievement.

The quality of teacher, for example, was seven times more important to how well a student tested than the school district. Overall, demographic differences play the biggest role in how a student will perform.

This doesn't mean school districts should be ignored altogether. The best school districts are about nine weeks ahead of the worst districts. According to the report:

if students educated in the least effective school district in North Carolina or Florida had been educated instead in the most effective district, the evidence suggests that their academic performance at the end of 4th and 5th grade would be higher by an amount equivalent to having attended school for at least a half - year more.

Still, these results suggest we don't need a Michelle Rhee or a Joel Klein at the helm of every district. Instead, we'd be better off emphasizing teacher training and building quality education systems on a school-by-school basis.

Top image: Flashon Studio /Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.