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Posted at 1:25 PM ET, 01/19/2011

New report on educational productivity: a waste of resources?

By Valerie Strauss

You can’t argue with the general notion of a new report by the nonprofit Center for American Progress that some school districts waste money and shouldn’t. Any teachers who spends their own money to buy erasers and notebooks for their students know that.

Beyond that, I’m trying to figure out what else of great value is in the report released Wednesday, which is, perhaps ironically called “Return on Educational Investment,” and which was a year in the making.

The details district-by-district how much school systems spend and what they get in terms of student achievement for their money. Student achievement, in this case, is measured by standardized test scores, which, any reader of this blog knows, is not a valid indicator for any high-stakes decision. That would include whether a school district is getting a bang for its buck. I'm not much of a fan of framing the educational enterprise through a business model, either, but let's pretend it's a good idea for now.

The report says one of its aims was to “draw attention to the large variance in productivity within states.” For example, it says, the range of spending among the school districts in California that scored in the top third of achievement (with, the report says, family background and other issues factored in), was $8,000 per student.

But the report makes clear -- as did the main author, Ulrich Boser, at a panel discussion Wednesday at the Washington-based center -- that the spending and achievement data the report's authors were working with were sometimes so flawed that “we caution against making firm conclusions about the ratings of an individual district.”

Why, then, spend time devising firm conclusions -- as in the precise numbers in the report -- if nobody is supposed to believe them?

The caveats continue:

The literature on productivity is limited, and there’s a lot we don’t know about the relationship between spending and achievement.
Because of the limitations of the research, we could not evaluate the efficiency of a district against an external benchmark. We therefore rated districts based on their relative performances.
Our measures also cannot account for all of the variables outside the control of a district, in large part because the field of education suffers from a lack of high-quality data.
The available data are also problematic. State and district data often suffer from weak definitions and questionable reliability.
Other data released by NCES appear to be simply flawed.
There are problems with achievement data, too.

(It should be noted that the Education Department under Secretary Arne Duncan has in fact made an issue of bad data and has provided funding for new data systems to be developed.)

The report then says, “Despite these caveats, we believe our evaluations are useful.”

I don’t, but that’s just me. Decide for yourself. Here’s the report’s summary of findings:

"Many school districts could boost student achievement without increasing spending if they used their money more productively."

"Low productivity costs the nation’s school system as much as $175 billion a year."

"Without controls on how additional school dollars are spent, more education spending will not automatically improve student outcomes."

"Efficiency varies widely within states."

"More than a miliion students are enrolled in highly inefficient districts."

"High-spending school systems are often inefficient."

"Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be enrolled in highly inefficient districts."

"Highly productive districts are focused on improving student outcomes."

"States and districts fail to evaluate the productivity of schools and districts."

"The quality of state and local education data is often poor."

"The nation’s least-productive districts spend more on administration."

"Some urban districts are for more productive than others."

And the summary of recommendations:

  • Policymakers should promote educational efficiency.
  • States and districts must reform school management systems.
  • Education leaders should encourage smarter, fairer approaches to school funding.
  • States and districts should report far more data on school performance.

If this report does anything, it at least signals that we are now moving from the era of accountability to the era of productivity. I’m predicting the same lousy results.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 19, 2011; 1:25 PM ET
Categories:  Accountability, Research  | Tags:  center for american progress, education, educational productivity, educational research, productivity, research and education  
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Comments

"Student achievement, in this case, is measured by standardized test scores, which, any reader of this blog knows, is not a valid indicator for any high-stakes decision"

Any reader of this blog knows that you offer no alternative for making high-stakes decisions. You offer no positive plans except, keep paying your friends more.

Posted by: staticvars | January 21, 2011 11:34 AM | Report abuse

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