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Education Funding Opinion

Do We Need to Improve Productivity in Public Education?

By Sara Mead — February 07, 2012 2 min read

Marguerite Roza and Paul Hill put the smack down on critics of their work on educational productivity in this post on the CRPE website. In December, a Colorado-based think tank issued a report challenging Secretary Arne Duncan’s calls for schools to focus on doing more with less in response to “the new normal,” as well as a set of resources--including work by Roza and Hill--that the Department of Education highlighted on its website to help schools do this. Hill’s and Roza’s response reiterates why it’s important to focus on productivity (hint, lots of school districts are facing budget shortfalls today, and if they don’t focus on productivity, we’ll end up seeing draconian cuts, like more 4-day school weeks). They also argue that, given these pressing needs and the current state of the evidence, it’s better to help districts to think smart about productivity using reason and what we currently know, rather than waiting for perfect “cost-effectiveness” and cost-benefit studies before offering counsel to districts.

But it’s not just that we can’t wait for perfect evidence to implement productivity strategies like those Hill and Roza (and others) have written about. Implementing these strategies is essential in order to obtain rigorous evidence about their cost effectiveness. If we don’t know the most cost-effective way to do something, the best way to find out is to allow/encourage schools and districts to experiment with a variety of strategies that make sense to them and to rigorously evaluate the results. If we wait for rigorous cost-effective analyses before implementing new models, we may never identify the most cost-effective approaches.

One final thought: While there are a lot of reasons to believe that we need to improve productivity in education, I do wish the conversation around productivity engaged a bit more with some of the issues that Baker and Welner raise: To wit, while it’s demonstrably true that real per pupil education spending has risen tremendously in real terms over the past 50 years, there is a legitimate question of whether that’s the right metric--or whether we should instead be looking at trends in education spending relative to per capita income. Similarly, there’s some evidence in international and historical context that as people and countries grow wealthier they tend to choose to devote an increasing share of income to education--something not taken into account in most discussions of education productivity. There’s a reasonable debate about these things--and since we’re talking public dollars here, it’s critically important to take the political dynamics into account--that is both interesting and worth having, but unfortunately recent contributions to the discussion aren’t getting us there.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.