Return on Educational Investment

The Center for American Progress notes that per-pupil education spending has tripled over the past four decades, even after adjusting for inflation. There are clearly some serious issues as to how effectively this money is being spent.

The CAP has done an extensive analysis of educational productivity at a district-by-district level, attempting to control for the effect of non-school factors influencing cost and performance. Here’s a nifty interactive map–note that you can select from three different variants of the calculation methodology.

I’ve looked at the methodology and results only at a very cursory level, but this study–which clearly involved a lot of work–looks worthy of attention.

(via Joanne Jacobs)

10 thoughts on “Return on Educational Investment”

  1. It’s pretty clear that there is little correlation between spending and outcome. I think it’s probably just like business i.e. similar businesses or even different instances of the same business (chain stores) have much different outcomes based on the skill of their management.

    The problem with socialized education is that there isn’t any market force to compel a change in managment. Instead, it all comes down to whether the current political and professional management can market themselves to the voters or not.

    I did find the differences between Texas and California instructive. There are a lot more good and cheap schools as well as fewer expensive but crappy schools in Texas.

    I’m still trying to figure out how we managed that.

  2. When the debate on health care reform was peaking, a common complaint from its lefty supporters was that “the U.S. spends more per person on health care than any other country with relatively poorer outcomes, like life expectancy.”

    While I never really accepted that argument (things like life expectancy depend on lifestyle choices far more than medical care), I am puzzled that the lefties are not using the same logic for education. The U.S. spends far more per pupil than any other country in the world, and our educational outcomes are demonstrably worse. In standardized tests, year after year, the U.S. students rank way down the list, behind such educational powerhouses as Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine.

    So, if the supporters of health care reform were intellectually honest and consistent, they would be demanding the immediate dismantlement of the Department of Education and wholesale dismissal of many, many teachers and school administrators, and other similar “reforms”.

    I won’t hold my breath.

  3. Hi David-very interesting study. As a teacher fresh out of the system, the results are not surprising to me. There is plenty of money in education. Sure, some of it has been for hiring more teachers, building new and updating facilities, and updating technology. But, I think people would be amazed at some of the things money is spent on. Let’s just focus on the sports area, for instance.

    The last district I worked for had 6 ultra deluxe motor coaches for traveling. Who for, you ask? Mainly, the student athletes. These luxurious coaches have cd systems, flat screen tv’s and dvd systems, reclining seats with personal lighting and air vents, and of course has the district’s name and logo displayed across each side. All this for a measly $200,000 each.

    However, when the girls volleyball team competed at state, the district rented a plane for them. Nice, huh?

    I’ve seen some state-of-the-art football arenas, practice fields, and weight rooms through out my years. Usually high schools have their own athletic director that comes with an administrative income, and does no classroom teaching, just oversees the sports programs. There are multiple coaches, trainers, and usually a few secretaries that help run just that department within the high school. If a district has more than one high school, then you will see an entire administrative staff at the district level.

    I have nothing against the sports programs with our public school system, but I think it is one area where there is a lot of misuse of taxpayer money.

    Another? Administrative trips. They LOVE going to conferences, conventions, and retreats. One district I worked for had an 18-day summer retreat for all district administrators and their families every summer, at a luxury resort. We were always told it was a working vacation, but puhleeze!

    Last year, the administrators at my high school attended a week long retreat at a private beach compound. Cool, huh?

  4. Re administrators: there’s been a lot of discussion, and rightly so, about performance measurements for teachers. But there also need to be performance measurements for administrators.

    In business, I’m not going to put the sales reps on a commission-based comp plan with tough targets to keep their jobs, and then give the sales manager lifetime tenure. The same principle should apply in education. Indeed, it’s probably easier to establish performance measurements for a principal or a district superintendent than for individual teachers, given that the numbers of students are substantially larger.

  5. “notes that per-pupil education spending has tripled over the past four decades, even after adjusting for inflation. There are clearly some serious issues as to how effectively this money is being spent”

    Yes. This spending explosion correlates with the early 1970’s SCOTUS decisions related to a) Special Education and b) Bilingual education as being programs with *mandatory* spending implications from rights students possess the 14th Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This in turn led to the passage and continual reiteration (and usually, expansion) of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act) which later was folded into the reauthorization of NCLB.

    When state and school district officials complain about “unfunded mandates” from Washington, this is the area is primarily what they are talking about.IDEA is enormously expensive in it’s requirements and paperwork compliance and the Feds provide something like 13 cents for every dollar of SPED/ESL/BL expenditure required, and then only at best to the neediest districts.

    Every point of special programs, as they are done through IEP’s ( Individualized Education Program) are potentially open to litigation, if parents feel the program is not “appropriate”, which is how a school district might end up spending $ 50,000 -200,000 on a single student’s education. I personally know of instances where parents demanded major medical care for their student be paid for by a district as an “educational” right or that the student be sent away to out of state boarding schools with a tuition topping $ 100,000 a year on the taxpayer’s dime. These litigants prevail in court as often as not.

    As a result, public school litigation is usually one of the largest cluster of cases up for review by SCOTUS annually.

  6. The school administrator problem is due chiefly to the slow accretion, over many years, of feel-good legislation (almost always by Democrats in California) which assigns a small task to public schools to satisfy one of the legislators’ many special interest constituencies. The tasks almost always involve reporting of something or other unrelated to instruction, but which pleases the special interest group in question. Often training of some sort is involved.

    Few of these feel-good tasks, individually, involve more than a trivial expense but, in vast numbers over a 40-year period, their totality requires armies of administrators beavering away on utter crap which eats budgets and significantly detracts from the time and energy teachers can spend on instruction.

    The chief advantage of public charter schools in California is that they are exempt from many of these useless administrative reporting requirement, can spend a greater proportion of their budgets on teaching, and their teachers don’t have to comply with so many useless reporting requirements.

    Given that these feel-good tasks generally, if not almost always, create mandatory reporting duties, cuts in public K-12 education budgets in turn whack away at the few discretionary items, of which first in line is always actual instruction of students.

  7. I am no fan of public education as it now operates. I think there are a great many things wrong with it.

    That said, I would be a bit skeptical of some of the conclusions drawn from this study. Forty years ago, the overwhelming majority of public school teachers were women, who faced a lot of artificial barriers to employment elsewhere. This drove the supply of competent teachers up and the cost of employing them down.

    With many of those barriers removed, public schools have a lot more competitors for women with the skills needed for effective teaching. It’s thus entirely unsurprising, from a strict economic standpoint, that they are paying a lot more for lower quality.

    Still, a factor of four increase in spending for what I subjectively evaluate as a lot poorer productivity is hard to explain by this effect alone.

  8. Vader….I don’t think there is any question that the expansion of other career opportunities for women has removed a source of relatively cheap high-quality labor for the schools. At the same time, the seemingly-ever-increasing mindlessness of ed-school criteria surely acts as an inhibitor to many intelligent and spirited people thinking about entering the teaching field. So does that chaotic environment that exists in many school resulting from court decisions and administrative lameness concerning the handling of misbehaving students…after all, if you’re going to face physical danger you should at least get combat pay!

    These factors, though, act as partial *explainers* of the efficiency reduction; they don’t negate the conclusion that it has happened.

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