Getting more brains for the buck

Education productivity — the return on our investment in schools — varies widely from one district to another, concludes a study by the Center for American Progress.

Education spending per student has nearly tripled over the past four decades, after adjusting for inflation, the report notes.  Student achievement has remained about the same.

In more than half of the states included in our study, there was no clear relationship between spending and achievement after adjusting for other variables, such as cost of living and students in poverty.

Some districts spent thousands of dollars more per student to reach the same level of academic achievement. For example, Baltimore spends $2,500 more a year per student than Austin, Texas, after adjusting for the cost of living and student poverty. Yet Baltimore’s students are much less likely to score at or above the proficient level.

. . . 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.

Not surprisingly, the most productive districts make student achievement a priority. Leaders are willing to make tough choices, such as closing schools with low enrollment. The least productive districts spend more on administration, operations and other non-instructional expenditures.

Only Florida and Texas evaluate school-level productivity, the report finds. Often nobody knows which schools are spending money effectively and which are not.

Among the recommendations are improving data analysis, creating “performance-focused management systems that are flexible on inputs and strict on outcomes” and directing funding to students based on their needs.

Here’s a cool interactive map showing the return on education investment in various districts. In California, I see that San Francisco and San Jose rate fairly high in productivity, while Los Angeles is quite low.

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  1. And just how much of this increased spending is on staffing that doesn’t directly provide services to students? Such as “content coaches” whose entire rationale for being is to impose data tracking schemes on classroom teachers who already are swamped with heavy student loads, or who have the luxury of time to surf the net and come up with useless research that grossly misstates the implementation of the latest edufads? Or HR staff? Or PR staff that turns out glossy brochures touting the latest edufad ?

    Oh wait, that would reveal the inefficiency of most of the so-called education “reforms.”

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Several years ago, the local paper did a bang-for-buck survey in what might be considered the greater Flint area. The two best schools had some of the lowest admin expenses. The worst school had the highest travel expenditure for the school board and admins per pupil.

  3. I clicked over to the interactive map and took a look at my local districts. Those schools with a higher ROI were in large part those areas that has few minority or low income students. Those that scored lower in ROI had larger pupulations of low income students. I guess what we want to see is those areas with high achievement, high ROI and low income, but I saw none. Sad, really.

  4. Yay… my district is in the bottom 5 of per-pupil spending for NY…yay (or not). We often refer to ourselves as the Walmart of public schools. The conservative tax payer is happy that we are able to succeed on less, the employee is sad that we have on of the lowest salary scales in the state.

    I’m also amazed (I guess I shouldn’t be), that you really don’t see any districts with green ROI’s in the top half of the spenders.

  5. Calling these differences “productivity” is misleading. Productivity assumes that the input is the same and then measures and compares output. The more productive organization is the one that is better at transforming the input to the desired output.

    This makes no sense for schools where the biggest variation usually *is* the input. I’m sure that suburban schools in Chicago get a lot better results than urban Chicago schools. But this has nothing to do with the quality of the teachers, and everything to do with the quality of the students.

  6. Did the study look at overall spending or just regular-education spending? Special education spending needs to be factored out IMHO because having a greater number of severely disabled kids now compared to a decade ago (which is the case in my local district) can cause costs to shoot through the roof without any increase in the overall student achievement profile.

  7. Bill Leonard says:

    I noticed in the California roundup that every low-
    ROI district had a high percentage of low-income families. Compare Arcadia, an affluent area, with neighboring Pasadena — the towns and the districts share a common border — which is far less affluent (although there is a heritage, now largely gone, of old monied residents.)

    Saddest of all were the ROIs for small-town and semi-rural districts in California’s south Central Valley, where there are great pockets of poverty, a great many minority kids, many of whom also are illegals, and a real unemployment rate of at least 20 percent.

  8. That suggests an easy way to improve the schools:  enforce the immigration laws.