School District 55 rated among most efficient in state

Sean C. Morgan

School District 55 was one of three Oregon school districts to receive top marks in a Center for American Progress study on the efficiency of school districts across the nation.

The Center for American Progress identifies itself as a progressive, nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action.

The CAP released its findings on Jan. 19 in a report that was the culmination of a yearlong study of the efficiency of the nation’s public education system, including what it claims is the first-ever attempt to evaluate the productivity of almost every major school district in the country.

“It’s a real honor to have an organization identify how our school district is doing a really good job considering the resources we have,” said District 55 Supt. Larry Horton. “It does show we’re trying to be fiscally responsible in this district.”

Horton told the School Board about the report at the February School Board meeting. He said Curriculum Director Tim Porter located the report on the Web.

“One of the things they identified was how well you’re using your money in comparison to test scores,” Porter said. “What it says to me is Sweet Home does a very good job being efficient with our resources.”

It’s something good to know in a budget era where the word of the day is “austerity,” he said.

One of the findings was that inefficient districts were top-heavy with administration, Porter said. One of the things that Sweet Home is not is top-heavy.

“I think we put a lot resources into the classrooms to get the best bang for the buck,” he said. “The fact their report showed we wre being efficient is a positive thing. It feels great because, again, we’re in a budget crisis.”

The project measures the academic achievement a school district produces relative to its educational spending, while controlling for factors outside a district’s control, such as cost of living and students in poverty.

After adjusting for inflation, according to the CAP, education spending per student has nearly tripled during the past four decades. While some states and districts have shown significant improvements in student outcomes, overall student achievement has largely remained flat.

Exceeded only by Luxembourg, the United States spends more per student than any of the 65 countries that participated in a recent international reading assessment, according to the CAP. While Estonia and Poland scored at the same level as the United States, the United States spent roughly $60,000 more to educate each student to age 15 than either nation.

CAP hopes to kick start a national conversation about educational productivity, identify districts that generate higher-than-average achievement per dollar spent and encourage states and districts to embrace approaches that make it easier to create and sustain educational efficiencies.

CAP does not endorse “unfettered market-based reforms,” such as vouchers allowing parents to direct public funds to private schools, nor does it argue that policymakers should spend less on education. It does argue that transforming schools will demand both real resources and real reform.

The research was conducted under the auspices of the Center’s Doing What Works project with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, and the website was created in partnership with OMB Watch and ESRI.

CAP warned that the individual district evaluations on the site should be interpreted with caution.

The connection between spending and achievement is a complex one, and its data does not capture everything that goes into creating an efficient school system.

Methodology for the study may be found at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/01/educational_productivity/methodology.html.

A copy of the report may be found at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/01/educational_productivity/report.html.

Among the findings:

In more than half of the states included in the study, there was no clear relationship between spending and achievement after adjusting for other variables such as cost of living.

Over 400 districts around the country were rated highly inefficient on all three of the study’s productivity metrics.

n Efficiency varies widely within states. Some districts spent thousands more per student to obtain the same broad level of academic achievement.

The analysis showed that after accounting for factors outside of a district’s control, many high-spending districts posted mediocre productivity results.

Based on the analysis, the study includes a detailed list of recommendations, including the following:

Promote educational efficiency. Education policymakers should encourage further research as well as convene a national panel to recommend how state and federal governments can better support policies and programs.

Reform school management systems. Education policymakers should create performance-focused management systems that are loose on inputs and strict on outcomes.

Encourage smarter, fairer approaches to school funding. Education policymakers should develop funding policies that direct money to students based on their needs, so that all schools and districts have an equal opportunity to succeed.

Report far more data on school performance. States and districts should develop data systems that report reliable, high-quality information on educational outcomes, operations, and finance.

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