School & District Management

Sweeping Study Weighs School Districts’ ‘Educational Productivity’

By Christina A. Samuels — January 19, 2011 3 min read
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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.”

Return on Educational Investment

A district-by-district evaluation of educational productivity.

SOURCE: Center for American Progress

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.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2011 edition of Education Week

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