Aug 22, 2011

School Spending And Student Learning [Or, Money Is More Important Than Children, And You Can Pay Us To Say Anything]

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through ideas and action. He is the author of the CAP study "Return on Educational Investment: A district-by-district evaluation of U.S. educational productivity." In this blog, Mr. Boser answers questions from StudentsFirst about the study.

SF: Why did the Center for American Progress decide to commission this study?

Mr. Boser: We hoped to kick-start a national conversation about educational productivity. Second, we wanted to identify districts that generate higher-than-average achievement per dollar spent, demonstrate how productivity varies widely within states, and encourage efforts to study highly productive districts. Third, and most important, we wanted to encourage states and districts to embrace approaches that make it easier to create and sustain educational efficiencies.

SF: You analyzed spending and student achievement data from more than 9,000 school districts in this study. How did you use that data to determine a district's "educational productivity?"

Mr. Boser: In the business world, productivity is a measure of benefit received relative to spending. This project adopts that concept to measure public school districts' academic achievement relative to their educational spending, while controlling for cost of living, student poverty, the percentage of students in special education, and the percentage of English-language learners.

SF: According to the study, to what extent are school districts focused on improving educational productivity? What tools do districts need to improve productivity?

Mr. Boser: While some forward-thinking education leaders have taken steps to promote better educational efficiency, most states and districts have not done nearly enough to measure or produce the productivity gains our education system so desperately needs. Some fear that a focus on efficiency might inspire policymakers to reduce already limited education budgets and further increase the inequitable distribution of school dollars. We understand that, but in education, spending does not always equal success. Countless studies have shown that how a school system spends its dollars can be just as important as how much it spends. But our country's education system lacks the proper incentives, support, and accountability structures to ensure that resources deliver the most efficient results. This section explains how we arrived at this point and what we must do to reform. We also detail our methods of evaluating educational productivity.

SF: Many scholars have noted that schools serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds receive less funding than schools in wealthier districts. In your opinion, what impact would more equal funding have on student achievement?

Mr. Boser: More equal funding would do a lot to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education. Our nation's system of financing schools is unfair. Low-income and minority students are far more likely to attend schools that don't receive their fair share of federal, state, and local dollars. But while the issue of fairness must be central to any conversation about education finance, efficiency should not be sacrificed on the altar of equity. Our nation must aspire to have a school system that’s both fair and productive.

SF: You conclude in the study that "low productivity is costing the nation's school system as much as $175 billion a year." How is that possible?

Mr. Boser: After adjusting for variables outside a district’s control, we looked at districts with below-average productivity, and it turned out that they spent over $950 more per student than did above-average districts. This estimated loss in capacity equals about 1 percent of the nation's GDP, or $175 billion. To be sure, inefficient districts are not necessarily "wasting" the lost capacity. Our approach cannot account for all the factors outside of a district’s control, and the extra money spent by some districts might be supporting outcomes beyond the scope of this study. But our estimate might also be low since it does not cover the cost of poorly prepared students entering college and the workforce. Far more research needs to be done in this area in order to better understand the scope of the productivity problem.

SF: What are some of the ways that model school districts have dramatically increased productivity?

Mr. Boser: Highly productive districts reported a laser-like focus on student performance. "The biggest driving force [here] is first and foremost the question: 'How will this enhance learning?'" said Michele Campbell, superintendent of Pennsylvania's Fort LeBoeuf School District. "Expenditures need to fit into our vision and overarching educational objectives." The districts used a variety of ways to increase student achievement. Some emphasized low-cost strategies, such as requiring principals to visit every classroom each week to give feedback on instruction. Some tried to create a more collaborative teaching culture. Waverly-Shell Rock Community Schools in Iowa has been building "learning communities" of teachers to ensure student learning is taking place and help educators develop their curricula.

SF: How can individuals reading this blog find out more about the productivity of their own school district?

Mr. Boser: Accompanying this report is an interactive website, Educational Productivity, that allows anyone to compare the relative productivity of thousands of school districts and find out more about their spending and achievement. Because we cannot control for everything outside a district's control when calculating its productivity evaluation, the site makes it easy to compare similar districts based on their demographics and enrollment. It also allows users to see how districts fare under different approaches to measuring productivity.

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