Friday, July 11, 2014

U.S. School Districts and Funding

From the Center for American Progress, a fascinating (and sobering) look at districts across the country.  The name of the study is Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes: A Twin Study of Academic Productivity in U.S. School Districts. (It's not light summer reading, to be sure.)

For this report, “twin districts” have very similar sizes and they have the following in common:
  • The proportion of students who are from low-income families
  • The proportion of students who have limited English proficiency or are English language learners
  • The proportion of students who receive instruction through individualized educational programs
Our twin districts, however, differ in terms of per-pupil spending and revenues.

 The goal of this paper was to study twin districts and use the data culled to provide recommendations for how districts can best leverage their school funding investments—in other words, achieve a bigger bang for their educational buck.

This paper accompanies a CAP report on a much larger set of U.S. school districts, titled “Return on Educational Investment: 2014. A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity.” For that report, we compared almost 7,000 districts across the United States in terms of their expenditures and levels of student achievement. This shorter analysis builds off of that work and relies on data from 2009-10 school year.  

Based on our in-depth look at twin districts and our subsequent analysis of the data, we came away with the following findings:
  • When it comes to education, spending does not always equal results.

  • There are significant funding inequities between demographically similar districts.

From our research, a few things are clear. Perhaps most importantly, it is plain that some districts can get more bang for their buck. We also found numerous districts that had the same demographics and the same spending levels, but one district achieved more than its twin in terms of student outcomes. Furthermore, we also found twin districts that had the same achievement, the same demographics, but one of those districts spent less than the other for the same results. (The former category was more common than the latter.)

Part of the issue is that districts with similar demographics perform very similarly, regardless of how much they spent per student. More importantly, though, is the fact that some districts spent at the same level but had higher achievement rates for those dollars.

Consider, for example, two suburban school districts in Michigan. Both served about 6,000 students and spent about $9,700 per student. In each district, about 30 percent of students were economically disadvantaged. But there were significant gaps in achievement between the two districts measured over the same period of time. In one district, around 80 percent of students were proficient in math. In the other district, around 90 percent of students were proficient in that subject.

Given the nature of our dataset, we were not able to identify how or why this occurred, but it does make clear that some districts can do more with the resources that they have.

  • Move away from rigid funding systems

In order to increase academic productivity, federal and state policymakers should think more broadly about ways to give local leaders more freedom to try new things. States should relax requirements that lock up districts’ resources in ways that do not lead to improved student performance.

  • Support districts more equitably

They cite California's "weighted student funding" but, as I previously reported, a lawsuit has been filed against the state for not funding schools properly (especially around the issue of teacher assignment).

  • Ensure districts spend money on what matters  

    - Be held accountable for spending instructional dollars productively 

    - Be transparent and make valuable financial information available to the public


Anonymous said...

When you learn that a school's teaching staff is turning over all the replacements are all new teaching school grads there is economic inequity from school to school.

Or when a new school starts up and it is able to recruit experienced teachers from other schools, there also is inequity there.

Ann D

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that if they could figure out *why* different schools achieved different results with the same funding, or more with less funding, they would be in a better place to make recommendations on what actually works Does one just pay less with a lower cost of living? Have newer schools so less (for now) maintenance? Or is one school actually investing less in say a smart board in each classroom (that rarely seem to actually get used, but providing more workbooks for elementary (vs haphazard worksheets), manipulatives vs having to wait for a turn, etc? I don't see how you can recommend changes to funding when you have no idea why similar schools are getting different results.

NE parent

Charlie Mas said...

I'm reading this article, but it's hard to get through because it is really pissing me off.

First, it constantly refers to "productivity". That not only reflects a business-oriented perspective, but it's simply wrong. There is no productivity in schools because there is no product. Student outcomes are not a product. Test scores are not a product. Learning is not a product.

They could have just as easily (and more accurately) written about "student outcomes", or "test scores", or "academic achievement", but they didn't. They chose the word "productivity" and that tips me off about their perspective, costs them credibility, and pisses me off.

Second, there was this sentence:

"About 60 percent of districts’ budgets are committed to instructional costs, which are primarily educators’ salaries. That does not leave much room for district leaders to invest their financial resources in more productive ways."

What?!? When the goal is student learning, what more productive use of funds can there be other than instruction? Instruction is the work that gets the job done. There is no "more productive" work. The idea that these people think that instruction isn't particularly productive costs them all of the credibility they had left.

Anonymous said...

Funny how salary seems to be all-important for CEO effectiveness. But educator's salaries do not constitute a "productive" investment of educational resources.


Anonymous said...

I didn't bother reading the report but the quote Charlie highlighted is hilarious!!!

Damn teachers.... Geeze, so much of the damn education budget goes to pay teachers. If it wasn't for that, heck, we could really get down to brass tacks and make that whole system hum! We could make it like a ferocious beast of learning!! We could be über-"productive".... If only we could get rid of those damn pesky teachers!!!!

I gotta wonder, what are they thinking? Have they ever stepped foot in a school? Have they ever seen a child, you know, up close? And in person? What exactly do they think is a more productive way of helping students learn by teaching them... with, you know ... teachers?

I am picturing "Clockwork Orange", where kids would go to school and sit sedated in a dentist chair with their eyelids pried open and Khan Academy blaring on huge plasma screens in front of their faces for 8 hours! Zero cost for teachers! Just shop at Best Buy for huge screens, and pay the tab for the electricity.

Maybe Hospitals could be more "productive" if we didn't have to pay so much of health care budget to doctors and nurses! What a waste!!

This priceless drivel gave me a great laugh. Thanks.

Maybe consultants' reports could be way more productive if they didn't have to spend so much damn money on those pesky consultants' salaries. Now, there's a thought.