New Measure Calculates Cost Per Prepared Student

Published September 1, 1998

The annual cost of producing a proficient fourth-grader in Connecticut schools ranges from $8,317 in Simsbury to $67,684 in Hartford, according to the 1998 Connecticut Public Schools Guide published by the Hartford-based CPEC Foundation. The notion of measuring school performance in terms of cost per prepared student is rapidly gaining popularity as taxpayers seek to determine the effective contribution of their schools to the good of society and the community.

Although spending per student is the statistic most often summoned to demonstrate how much an individual community values its schools, the figure provides no information about how much value schools deliver to the community. Cost per student is an effective measure of the resources invested in education, but it is not an accountability measure: It tells taxpayers nothing about the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning process taking place inside the schools.

“When the organizations fail to measure what they have achieved, we lose influence over them,” says Leon M. Lessinger, a former Associate U.S. Commissioner for Elementary and Secondary Education. Lessinger calls for the introduction to education of the industrial concept of cost per operable unit.

“When we measure organizations in terms of what they achieve for society for our investment of resources, we control them,” he adds.

Noting that about one in four college freshmen in 1995 required at least one remedial reading, writing, or mathematics course, Lessinger contends that schools must find efficient and effective ways to sharply increase the number of prepared students. In today’s economy, he warns, high school graduates with third-world skills can earn only third-world wages.

“We have not been including the cost of our ‘scrap’–students who cannot function in today’s society–and therefore we do not arrive at the full cost of our education system,” says Lessinger.

Working independently of Lessinger, the CPEC Foundation has included in its latest guide to Connecticut schools the statistic “Spending Per Proficient Student.” Research Analyst Susan W. Beckman says the new figure is calculated by dividing each school’s spending per student by the percentage of students in that school who met or exceeded state goals on the Connecticut Mastery Test for fourth grade mathematics, reading, and writing.

Although spending per student varies by less than a factor of two, from $5,874 in Union to $10,909 in Greenwich, spending per proficient student varies by a factor of over seven, from $8,317 in Simsbury to $67,684 in Hartford. Even among towns or districts with comparable wealth and education in the same region, large differences in cost per proficient student are often observed: for example, $8,767 in Union, $11,958 in Coventry, and $20,673 in Scotland.

While some forty states require reports cards at the school level, none yet publish the extensive comparative information provided by CPEC’s Connecticut Guide, which groups municipalities into six regions to facilitate comparison with neighboring communities and also provides information on demographics, school enrollments, and average teacher salaries. However, newspapers and commercial publishers are rapidly filling this information void as awareness of school choice widens.

On July 2, School Wise Press publisher Steve Rees made available a new Web site ( to provide California parents with school-to-school comparisons of Stanford-9 test results together with demographic information on students and teachers. The Seattle Times has had a similar Internet for Seattle schools data since 1996 (see “Consumers Have New Guide to Seattle Schools,” School Reform News, January 1998).

“It used to be accepted that only educators knew where to find facts about schools,” said Rees. “We want to take this insider’s knowledge, strip away the jargon, and deliver it to parents. Why shouldn’t parents have the benefit of the same tools, the same information?”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].