Does Philly Really Have One of America’s Most Efficient School Systems?

What a new education ranking really means — and what it omits.'s list of most- and least-efficient cities and their spending on public education.’s list of most- and least-efficient cities and their spending on public education.

Get this: A new study from says Philadelphia has the ninth most-efficient school district in the nation.


The study compared 90 of America’s most-populated cities, then compared their per-pupil education spending with their math and reading test scores for fourth- and eighth-graders, then adjusted the final ranking for socioeconomic factors. When all is said and done, WalletHub concluded, Philadelphia actually is one of the country’s leaders in getting bang for the educational buck.

But that doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Three observations about what this study does — and doesn’t — mean:

It doesn’t mean the Philadelphia school district is secretly awesome. The impression among Philadelphians is that our schools are underfunded and deliver lousy results; the impression among non-Philly Pennsylvanians is that our schools are overfunded and deliver lousy results. The study suggests the first impression is more plausible than the second: It’s possible to deliver lousy results, yet still deliver better results than would be suggested by your investment. All the study says is that we’re delivering better results than would be suggested by our investment.

The obstacles facing Philadelphia educators are huge. The study’s authors adjusted the final rankings to account for four socioeconomic factors: Each city’s poverty rate, median household income, rate of single-parent families and rate of households that speak a language other than English at home. It’s only on the last category — the language rate — that Philadelphia comes close to matching the national average. Our poverty rate and single-parent rates are much higher than the national average; our median income is much lower than the national average. That’s before the kids get to school.

The result? In the study, Philadelphia’s unadjusted “return of investment” rank among the 90 cities — just comparing expenses and test scores — was a middle-of-the-pack 36th. When you account for the socioeconomic factors facing the the city’s educators, the ranking improves by 27 spots.

That said, the study doesn’t say Philadelphia is producing the results it should. School districts aren’t ultimately measured by the number of smart fourth- and eight-graders they produce. What matters more? The rate of high school grads it produces — and sometimes, the rate of college attendance among those grads. Philadelphia’s dropout rate is relatively high; and Philadelphia’s rate of college attainment is relatively low.

In other words: All the study really tells us is that we’re doing a better-than-expected job educating our youngest students. That’s a good achievement, but it’s not the destination.

One other note: Without adjusting for any factors but size, WalletHub’s estimate of per-pupil spending puts Philadelphia — at $1,474 per student — eighth out of the Top 10 most-populated cities, and just 32nd overall. (San Jose and Phoenix fared worse among the biggest cities.) The median per-pupil spending among the 90 cities studied was more than $1,600 per pupil. It’s no surprise Philly schools are always in catchup mode.

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