School Matters: Can Public Schools Really Do More With Less?

Posted on 12 April 2011

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By Vivian Po
New America Media

EDITOR’S NOTE: As the U.S. economy continues to falter and states struggle to balance their budgets, cuts in education funding have become ubiquitous. Yet students face new pressures to remain competitive in the global market. Once again, the big question for reformers is: “Can schools do more with less?”

To answer that question, NAM education reporter Vivian Po spoke with Ulrich Boser, author of a recent report by the Center for American Progress: “Return on Educational Investment: A district-by-district evaluation of US educational productivity.” The report, the first attempt to evaluate the productivity of almost every major school district in the country, found that some districts have spent their dollars more wisely than others—and most schools can improve their efficiency, if they try.

What does the report tell us?

We found that many school districts could boost student achievement without increasing spending if they used their money more productively. For example, an Arizona school district could see as much as a 36 percent boost in achievement if it increased its efficiency from the lowest level to the highest, with all else being equal. It is estimated that low productivity costs the nation’s school system as much as $175 billion a year. As a nation, we need to examine how school dollars are spent because more education spending will not automatically improve student outcomes. 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.

Why does spending more not translate into higher achievement?

Inefficiencies are often buried deep within the operation of school systems. The problem might be large expenses on programs that do little to raise student achievement, or salaries that have little or nothing to do with the employee’s effectiveness. Our goal is to kick-start a national conversation about educational productivity and to identify districts that generate higher achievement per dollar spent.

Both the Los Angeles Unified School District and the San Diego City Unified School District educate more than 100,000 students and have around 60 percent students coming from low-income families. According to the most recent data available, from 2008, LAUSD spent $11,357 per student, about $1,000 more than SDUSD. However, San Diego’s students score consistently higher than Los Angeles’ students on state reading and math exams from elementary all the way through high school. In other words, San Diego appears to get a far better return on its investment than does Los Angeles.

After comparing different school districts nationwide, how much should we spend on each student to reach the highest efficiency?

We evaluated each district relative to the performance of other districts in the same state. There’s also wide variance among districts. California generally spends less on education per student than other states, and among the districts in the top third of achievement, there was a nearly $8,000 range in spending per student.

How much are we spending on ethnic minority students around the country?

We found that students from minority backgrounds are more likely to be enrolled in highly inefficient districts. Students who participated in subsidized lunch programs were 12 percent more likely to be enrolled in the nation’s least productive districts. For example, the least-efficient districts were far more likely to have larger percentages of black students—18 percent versus 5 percent—and Hispanic students, 14 percent versus 7 percent, than the most efficient ones. If these students are enrolled in districts that could spend their money more wisely, they could potentially have higher achievement.

Where are the less productive districts spending their money?

The most inefficient districts in the country devote an extra 3 percentage points of their budgets on average to administration, operations and other non-instructional expenditures. After adjusting for students in special programs and cost of living, the least productive districts spend almost $300 more per student than the average district on student and staff support, which includes expenditures on school libraries, media centers and guidance counselors. The least productive districts also spend over $350 more per student than the average district in administrative costs, including dollars spent on central services such as payroll.

With that said, the finding does not mean that high administrative costs cause low productivity. Our study was not able to figure out the exact cause of a district’s inefficiency.

How about programs that do not generate direct impact on scores, such as programs on mental heath or family intervention?

Our study looks only at reading and math test scores, an admittedly very narrow slice of what students need to know to succeed in college and the workplace. Just because something does not directly improve math and reading scores does not mean that it should be cut.

By comparing schools with similar demographics, have you found any silver bullets to increase school productivity?

There are no silver bullets when it comes to school reform. Even reform-minded school administrators often confuse merely novel techniques with successful ones. To increase productivity, school leaders will need to fundamentally reinvent the way that they do business and create an outcomes-based school culture that sets high goals—and gives employees the strategies to achieve them.

Are you suggesting that schools should be run like businesses?

We are not saying that schools should be run like businesses. Nor does our emphasis on productivity mean that we endorse unfettered market-based reforms, such as vouchers allowing parents to direct public funds to private schools. But transforming our schools will demand real change.

The development of academic standards makes it easier to evaluate productivity because all school systems within a state now work toward a common educational goal. The measures also allow educational management systems to better hold schools and districts accountable for their results.

Now that we know that educational productivity varies from district to district, what should be done next?

We must know more about how well school systems are investing federal, state, and local taxpayer resources, and we hope this report launches a thoughtful conversation about educational efficiency. Policymakers should work with state and federal governments to spark a much-needed dialogue about ways for education systems to do more with less, hold superintendents and principals accountable for the productivity of their organizations. Currently, only two states, Florida and Texas, produce school-level productivity measures.

Education policymakers should also develop funding policies that direct money to students based on their needs, so that all schools and districts have an equal opportunity to succeed. Finally, states and districts should develop data systems that report reliable, high-quality information on school finance, operations, and outcomes.


Vivian Po is a staff reporter for New America Media.

I have said before and I will say it now. If I were to interview each of the people reading this blog about the teachers that had the maximum positive impact on them, they would speak about teachers who really connected on a much deeper level than improving the ability to choose the right answer on a multiple choice test about reading and math. Rating efficiency by that narrow definition means we should cut the arts, music, sports, all electives, have no school papers, get rid of most after school clubs, etc. etc. After all, most of those frills do not directly improve scores on multiple choice tests that "rate" achievement in math and reading.

But there are hundreds of books, article, essays, and personal testimonials about failing students, juvenile delinquents, and lost young people being touched by all those "frills" and turning their lives around. I have no doubt that there are ways to improve the efficiency of money spent on education but a report like this is not the way to start the discussion.

What do "productivity" and "achievement" mean in the context of education? I assert that objective measures of true educational effectiveness do not exist. How does one measure how well schools are helping to create good citizens?