My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Education Week Study on School Districts' "Educational Productivity"

One of my blog readers sent me this fascinating study from Education Week, which I've posted below.  I've also found the summary of the research this article was based on, and have pasted all the highlights of those recommendations at the end of this piece.  I found this study very thought-provoking and believe some of my blog readers will as well.  I look forward to hearing thoughts!

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.”

Three Perspectives

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:   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.


Anonymous said...


Interesting piece. Of course I wished to see Amherst listed in the results, but is that because it includes K-12 districts only?

Anonymous said...

We all knew this. Thank you for posting this.

Ed said...

Three points:

Let's keep it simple and just say "left & right" rather than all the other adjectives - this think tank is on the left. I know some on the right that are saying pretty much the exact same things.

When the left and right agree on something (which isn't often), I am inclined to say it is more than just a consensus but quite likely solid fact.

Second, it is interesting that most of the truly relevant educational research is now coming from fields outside of Education. Psychology, Economics, Political Science (aka Government) -- these fields are now saying more to the field of Education than Education itself is saying. (There is historical precedence for this: John Dewey.)

Third is what Hopkins Academy is attempting to do with the virtual high school and if they are successful, the implications of that are immense.

I will end where I started: when the right and the left are saying the same thing.....

Michael Jacques said...

Great report. I also wish Amherst could have been included but we have 2 local towns with Belchertown and Hadley. More important we have seven of our SC Benchmark districts of Arlington, Brookline, Cambridge, Framingham, Longmeadow, Newton, and Northampton. Thank you.

LarryK4 said...

"...there was no clear relationship between spending and results;” or "make potentially unpopular decisions, like closing underenrolled schools."

Yeah, they MUST have included Amherst.

Ed said...

LarryK4 said... "...there was no clear relationship between spending and results

I am trying to behave myself, but the right is actually quite a bit more explicit on this -- there actually is a fairly clear inverse relationship between spending and results-- some of the districts that spend the most are also some of the absolute worst. The District of Columbia comes immediately to mind, although there are quite a few others.

And the flip side are the Catholic schools which spend far less than the median public school but almost always have a vastly superior educational outcome. The untold story of the '90s (before the Priest abuse settlements started drying up the finances) were the Catholic schools in neighborhoods with changed demographics and the non-Catholic Black parents who were putting their kids into these schools for the education and the schools who were quite happy to do this because they believed in teaching children.

I don't think this was the class Beth Graham was in, but I remember one class where someone was doing some research into Hartford and the "Lighthouse" school concept and the thing that keeps coming to mind is that just because you spend a lot of money doesn't mean that your children actually have a good school.

Anyone remember the $500 toilet seats and the $200 hammers that the military had a hard time explaining back in the late '80s???? Just because you spend a lot of money doesn't mean that you actually get something for it...