Return on Educational Investment: A district-by-district evaluation of educational productivity.

Add this report by the Center For American Progress (CAP) to the
mountain of evidence disproving the notion in American public education that
more money is incontrovertibly better (or even necessary to achieve greater
productivity).  And add it to the slowly
growing pile of work that attempts to measure educational productivity, or
“return on investment” – a concept CAP warns does not signify their endorsement
of “unfettered market-based reforms” or a call to spend less on K-12 education. 

Rather, after decades of constant growth in education spending with no
real corresponding gains in achievement, it’s time to look at the bang we’re
getting for all those bucks. The austere fiscal climate facing most states
lends urgency to the task as policy makers and lawmakers figure out what to
cut, what to preserve, and how to maximize scarce public resources. This study
shows that many districts could actually boost student achievement
significantly without spending a dime.

In the most comprehensive examination of public school productivity
seen yet (it looks at 9,000 districts in 45 states), CAP not only measures
productivity, or the “academic achievement a school district produces relative
to its educational spending, while controlling for factors outside a district’s
control,” but also hopes to inspire districts and states to undertake similar
efforts to think about ROI, collect and make transparent such data, and put
systems in place that will identify  and
sustain educational efficiencies. Productivity is defined in three ways (and
with a helpful interactive
, one can look up any district in the study and see how in rates
according to each).

Basic Return on Investment
This rates districts on how much achievement they get for each
dollar they spend – relative to other districts in the state. It controls for
cost-of-living differences, as well as demographic variables like percentage of
students who are low-income, limited English proficient, or special education.

How Ohio fares: There are over 285,000 Ohio students attending
districts in the very lowest category of ROI. Many of these highly inefficient
Ohio districts also spend a lot per-pupil compared to their peer districts.
Large urban districts, as well as suburban and rural districts of all sizes,
fall into this tier.

Adjusted Return on Investment
This applies a similar approach as the Basic ROI, but uses
regression analysis to control for variables and is possibly more precise than
the Basic index, which may not be “sensitive enough to account for spending
differences within states.”

How Ohio fares: Results for the Buckeye State are even worse than
under the previous index , with almost 322,000 children attending districts
that are the most inefficient. Several large and small city districts – like
Akron and Mansfield – appear for a second time in this tier, as do rural and
suburban districts of various sizes.

Predicted Efficiency index:
This index accounts for a district’s per-pupil spending and demographic
variables and then predicts how that district’s students should achieve; the
index shows whether achievement is higher or lower than that prediction.

How Ohio fares: Interestingly, more Ohio districts do poorly
according to this index than the others, with 406,000 students in districts at
the bottom of the productivity barrel.

Nationwide, there are over 400 school districts –serving about 3
percent of total student population – rating as highly inefficient (appearing
in the lowest tier on all three metrics). And low levels of productivity cost
the nation as much as $175 billion a year.

In Ohio, four districts appeared in the lowest tier on all three
rankings: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Youngstown. Over 150,000
students, or 8.7 percent of the state’s student population, attend a district
on CAP’s most inefficient list. That means the number of kids attending a
highly inefficient district is more than double the number nationwide. And
regardless of which productivity index used, there are anywhere from 385,000 to
406,000 kids in inefficient districts (16 to 23 percent of the total public
school population).

Not all the news is bad. Some districts consistently appear in the top
tier of productivity, such as Perry Local School District (suburban) or
Marlington Local School District (rural). CAP finds similarities between highly
efficient districts, such as: smart use of data; a focus on outcomes (not
inputs); and “willingness to make tough choices.”

Despite some important caveats about the data (CAP reminds us that the
study’s methodology could not possibly capture every variable related to
spending and achievement, and warns about the reliability of self-reported
district data), the warehouse of information is well worth perusing. Finally,
Ohio should heed the recommendation to follow in the footsteps of Florida and
Texas, and produce school-level productivity measures with which to hold
schools accountable and inform taxpayers of their return on investment.

on Educational Investment: A district-by-district evaluation of US educational

Center for American Progress
Ulrich Boser
January 19, 2011