Return on Educational Investment: A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity

Perilous economic times—and the inevitable
budget cuts that accompany them—beg for solid research on education
productivity. This remarkably comprehensive report from the Center for American
Progress gives states and districts strong quantitative ammunition in the education efficiency debate. In it, CAP
evaluates the productivity of more than 9,000 districts in forty-five states
according to three different return-on-investment (ROI) measures. To determine
these, analysts used two measures: an achievement index (based on average
proficiency scores on state assessments) and spending data (from the 2008
school year reported by NCES). Via the ROI models, CAP identified districts within states with
low, medium, and high productivity levels (e.g., high achieving districts with
low costs are “high ROI”). Each measure of ROI (basic, adjusted, and predicted
efficiency) has its advantages and disadvantages; but all are methodologically
sound. That said, there are important limitations to the study, including
unreported—and potentially arbitrary—productivity-level cut scores and a host
of potential confounding variables which currently cannot be systematically
collected. As for the top-line findings: Analysts found, not surprisingly, that
no clear relationship between spending and achievement existed in more than
half of the studied states, even after adjusting for student and demographic
variables. Further, the least efficient districts were more likely to spend
more, especially on administration. Finally, the study’s author estimates that
low productivity is costing the nation’s school systems up to $175 billion per
year. This would be a fantastic call-to-arms, but this ambitious study stops
short when it comes to fully disclosing results: It identifies by name neither
the most nor the least efficient districts (of the latter, we’re told there are
400). It conducts a supplementary examination of urban districts that
participate in NAEP but then tells us precious little about it. And it includes
a nifty accompanying website but not a summary of the three ROI
measures or a ranking of the districts in it. If we’re going for transparency
around district spending—and looking for ways to improve said spending—shouldn’t
we, at a minimum, call out the exemplars? Texas recently did; others should too.

Ulrich Boser, “Return
on Educational Investment: A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S.
Educational Productivity
,” (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress,
January 2011).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.