Sweeping Study Weighs School Districts' 'Educational Productivity' (Education Week, January 20, 2011)
By Christina A. Samuels
A report from a progressive think tank measuring the “educational productivity” of more than 9,000 school districts around the country shows that districts getting the most for their money tend to spend more on teachers and less on administration, partner with their communities to save money, and have school boards willing to make potentially unpopular decisions, like closing underenrolled schools.
The study, from the Washington-based Center for American Progress, attempts to measure district productivity nationwide, according to its authors. Almost every K-12 school district in the country with more than 250 students was included, and the information has been included in a website that allows users to compare districts within states.
The attempt to drill down on productivity—what districts are getting in terms of student achievement in math and reading for their education dollar—is particularly appropriate now, as relief to districts from federal economic-stimulus dollars is petering out, and an economic upswing is not on the horizon, said John Podesta, the center’s president and chief executive officer.
“The results we found were striking. There was an enormous productivity gap among districts,” said Mr. Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. “Even controlling for demographic factors, there was no clear relationship between spending and results.”
This report is part of a series of reports from the center examining government accountability and efficiency. The analysis is intended to encourage a more sophisticated discussion rather than just suggesting district funding should be cut in the name of encouraging efficiency, said Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the center and the report’s author.
“Do we pretend that this problem [of inefficiency] doesn’t exist, so we don’t enter into this conversation? I think the answer is no,” Mr. Boser said. “In education, we think about achievement on one side, and spending on the other, and we need to marry that.”
The center’s analysis offers three ways of looking at district productivity, each of which offers slightly different results.
The report uses 2007-08 spending data, and state reading and math test results for the 2007-08 school year. Because state assessments vary across state lines, district efficiency can only be compared within any one state. Also, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Alaska, Montana and Vermont were not included in the analysis. The District of Columbia and Hawaii are single-district jurisdictions; Montana and Vermont did not have enough comparable districts, and Alaska was excluded because the authors could not sufficiently adjust for cost-of-living differences within the state.
The basic return on investment measure rates school districts on how much academic achievement they get for each dollar spent, relative to other districts in the state. Adjustments are made for students who are deemed more expensive to educate than their peers in general education: special education students, students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and English-language learners.
The “adjusted return on investment” is similar to the basic measure, but it uses a different form of analysis to be more sensitive to spending differences within states.
Finally, a “predicted” efficiency rating attempts to gauge how much more or less achievement a district produced, compared to what would be expected of a district with the same amount of spending and student demographics. By this measure, a district that is doing better-than-expected could get a high ranking.
The interactive website that accompanies the report allows some interesting comparisons. For example, the Eau Claire and Oshkosh districts in Wisconsin are about the same size—Eau Claire has around 10,800 students, and Oshkosh around 10,200 students. They serve similar student populations, and get largely similar results on state exams. However, Eau Claire’s total expenditures are about $8 million more per year than Oshkosh, which spends about $110 million a year to run its district.
The measures also show that high-spending districts are often inefficient. The report notes that only 17 percent of the Florida districts in the top third in spending were also in the top third in achievement.
Also, students from disadvantaged backgrounds nationally were more likely to be enrolled in highly inefficient districts, even taking into account that such students tend to cost more to educate.
Donna Cooper, a senior fellow at the center, who assisted with the report, said she hopes that state and district officials move past defensiveness to seek out real change. “If you address these challenges, you can boost achievement,” she said.
Note from Catherine: You can read the full report by going to: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/01/educational_productivity/.) And here are the summary points:
- Many school districts could boost student achievement without increasing spending if they used their money more productively. An Arizona school district, for example, could see as much as a 36 percent boost in achievement if it increased its efficiency from the lowest level to the highest, all else being equal.
- Low productivity costs the nation’s school system as much as $175 billion a year. This figure is an estimate; our study does not capture everything that goes into creating an efficient district. But the approximate loss in capacity equals about 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
- Without controls on how additional school dollars are spent, more education spending will not automatically improve student outcomes.
- Efficiency varies widely within states. Some districts spent thousands more per student to obtain the same broad level of academic achievement. After adjusting for factors outside of a district’s control, the range of spending among the districts scoring in the top third of achievement in California was nearly $8,000 per student.
- More than a million students are enrolled in highly inefficient districts. Over 400 school districts around the country were rated highly inefficient on all three of our productivity metrics. These districts serve about 3 percent of the almost 43 million students covered by our study.
- High-spending school systems are often inefficient. Our analysis showed that after accounting for factors outside of a district’s control, many high spending districts posted middling productivity results. For example, only 17 percent of Florida’s districts in the top third in spending were also in the top third in achievement.
- Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be enrolled in highly inefficient districts. Students who participated in subsidized lunch programs were 12 percentage points more likely to be enrolled in the nation’s least-productive districts, even after making allowances for the higher cost of educating lower-income students.
- Highly productive districts are focused on improving student outcomes. We surveyed a sample of highly productive districts to learn more about their principles and practices. The districts that performed well on our metrics shared a number of values and practices, including strong community support and a willingness to make tough choices.
- States and districts fail to evaluate the productivity of schools and districts. While the nation spends billions of dollars on education, only two states, Florida and Texas, currently provide annual school-level productivity evaluations, which report to the public how well funds are being spent at the local level.
- The quality of state and local education data is often poor. In many instances, key information on school spending and outcomes is not available or insufficiently rigorous, and this severely impedes the study of educational productivity. For instance, we did not have good enough data to control for certain cost factors, such as transportation. So a rural district with high busing costs might suffer in some of our metrics compared with a more densely populated district.
- The nation’s least-productive districts spend more on administration. The most inefficient districts in the country devote an extra 3 percentage points of their budgets on average to administration, operations, and other noninstructional expenditures.
- Some urban districts are far more productive than others. While our main results are limited to within-state comparisons, we were able to conduct a special cross-state analysis of urban districts that recently participated in a national achievement test. After adjusting for certain factors outside a district’s control, we found that some big-city school systems spend millions of dollars more than others—but get far lower results on math and reading tests.