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Educational Productivity and the Reform Wars

We can improve education without solving poverty first. Demographics are no excuse for ineffective education spending.
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Since education reform debates are too frequently bereft of data, everyone with an interest in improving student outcomes should celebrate this new report from Ulrich Boser at the Center for American Progress.

Titled "Return on Educational Investment: A district-by-district evaluation of U.S. educational productivity," the report investigates which American school districts are getting the best results per dollar of education funding. The impetus behind the study is intuitive: if we look at the nation's most successful school districts and see compelling patterns in how they spend their money, perhaps this will help us improve the practices of less successful school districts.

If you are an active participant in the education reform wars these days, you're already looking for the red meat: what does this report suggest about teacher accountability? Is poverty the most powerful factor preventing low-income students from succeeding at the same level as their wealthier peers? Hang on one second, we're getting there.

As the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss notes, Boser unveiled the report last week along with a number of caveats. Among these: data was hard to come by in some districts, it was untrustworthy in others and controlling for all relevant variables when comparing school districts is really, really difficult.

Fair enough. It pays to be cautious about making sweeping, "silver bullet" statements about solving education problems in the United States. On the other hand, data difficulties in "some" cases hardly eviscerate a study of "more than 9,000 districts that enroll more than 85 percent of all U.S. students." Furthermore, while we might be cautious about making national policy recommendations, the report is great for relative, local comparisons (Incidentally, the interactive map for the report is addictive. Want to know if your school district is productive? How about its rivals? Be true to your school!). Take one of the report's featured examples (emphasis added):

The Wisconsin school systems of Oshkosh and Eau Claire are about the same size and serve similar student populations. They also get largely similar results on state exams -- but Eau Claire spends an extra $8 million to run its school system.

So with apologies to Strauss, let's try to see anyway what the report suggests for the education reform debates.

As a former urban teacher -- I taught first grade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn as a Teach For America (TFA) corps member -- I'm especially encouraged by some of the report's findings. While "the most productive districts were generally larger and more privileged than the inefficient districts... highly productive districts do vary widely in size, location and demographics." Translation: Poverty does not make productive, efficient education impossible.

After identifying the most productive districts, Boser reached out to identify what they have in common. He found that they:

  • maintain "a laser-like focus on student performance."
  • work "closely with their communities to help maximize education spending."
  • depend upon "fiscal acumen, political savvy and a willingness to make hard choices.
  • devote "3 percentage points more of their budget to instructional costs than did the least efficient districts."
  • and maintained "sophisticated data systems that provided detailed information on a variety of school outcomes."

Why is this encouraging? It's because not one of these "best practices" has anything to do with low-income students' backgrounds. Efficient, productive districts appear to be focused on putting students first in education by improving their schools. They work with their communities, rather than complaining that their communities cannot improve without demographic shifts. They make instruction (teachers, curriculum, other classroom resources) a funding priority and use data to make sure that they're getting the best results they can.

It's probably worth noting (reiterating, in full disclosure: I was a TFA corps member from 2005-2007) that this focus on student performance, instructional quality, working with communities and tracking data has much in common with TFA's teaching approach. Just look at their "Teaching as Leadership" guidelines here.

So what does Boser's study mean for education reform warriors? Should we ignore poverty's effects on educational outcomes? Certainly not. As Boser made clear at the panel discussion, education reform must be comprehensive if it's going to be effective. It's true that it may be difficult to follow these district-level best practices where funding is short. However, the report shows that we can improve education without solving poverty first. Demographics are no excuse for ineffective education spending.

A previous version of this post appeared at Thought News.

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