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Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes: A Twin Study of Academic Productivity in U.S. School Districts

Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes: A Twin Study of Academic Productivity in U.S. School Districts

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Some school districts are more productive than others, but district leaders might have little control over spending their funds in ways that can improve outcomes.
Some school districts are more productive than others, but district leaders might have little control over spending their funds in ways that can improve outcomes.

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Published by: Center for American Progress on Jul 01, 2014
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1 Center for American Progress | Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes
Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes
A Twin Study of Academic Productivity in U.S. School Districts
By Robert Hanna and Bo Morris July 9, 2014
win sudies in he social sciences are powerul ools. When we ollow wins raised in differen places, we can explore he role ha environmenal influences play in heir developmen compared o wha is inheren and unique o he individual wins. wins  wih differen lie oucomes reveal a grea deal abou wha acors help some people achieve success.Tis paper applies a similar ype o research mehodology o explore wha happens o similar groups o children educaed in differen school disrics. In his case, our “wins” are groups o sudens who live in he same sae in similar geographies and who share cerain demographic characerisics. For his repor, “win disrics” have very similar sizes and hey have he ollowing in common:Te proporion o sudens who are rom low-income amilies Te proporion o sudens who have limied English proficiency or are English language learners Te proporion o sudens who receive insrucion hrough individualized educaional programs Our win disrics, however, differ in erms o per-pupil spending and revenues. Te goal o his paper was o sudy win disrics and use he daa culled o provide rec-ommendaions or how disrics can bes leverage heir school unding invesmens󲀔in oher words, achieve a bigger bang or heir educaional buck. Tis paper accompanies a CAP repor on a much larger se o U.S. school disrics, iled “Reurn on Educaional Invesmen: 2014. A Disric-by-Disric Evaluaion o U.S. Educaional Produciviy.” For ha repor, we compared almos 7,000 disrics across he Unied Saes in erms o heir expendiures and levels o suden achievemen. Tis shorer analysis builds off o ha work and relies on daa rom 2009-10 school year. Our analysis adjuss or cos-o-living differences.
 Suden achievemen daa comes rom he Deparmen o Educaion’s ED
daabase o sae assessmen resuls, and financial daa comes rom he deparmen’s Local Educaion Agency Finance Survey.
 More on our sudy approach is in he mehodology secion below.
2 Center for American Progress | Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes
Based on our in-deph look a win disrics and our subsequen analysis o he daa, we came away wih he ollowing findings:
When it comes to education, spending does not always equal results.
Our findings sugges ha󲀔a leas when i comes o mah and reading scores󲀔money is no always spen in ways ha boos hose oucomes, even when holding demographics consan. O he more han 400 win disrics sudied, we ound he higher-spending win spen on average $1,600 more per suden o educae similar groups o sudens o similar achievemen levels.
 o pu i more simply, some o he disrics were geting a bigger bang or heir educaion buck han ohers. We also ound a number o disrics ha spen equal amouns o money, had he same demo-graphics, bu ended up wih differen levels o suden achievemen. Tis again sug-gesed significan differences in produciviy among disrics.
There are significant funding inequities between demographically similar districts.
 Disrics rely heavily on local financial resources and ha means ha unding is ofen inequiable. In he Unied Saes, a disric’s schools are primarily unded hrough axes on local propery values, which have a lo o do wih a communiy’s affluence.  Wihin each se o wins, one disric ypically colleced on average more han $1,000 more per suden rom local resources, primarily propery axes. Saes and he ederal governmen generally do no fill his unding gap, and as a resul, some disrics have ar ewer resources han ohers, even hough hey serve similar suden populaions.
Districts have limited control over their own expenditures.
Disrics have litle auhoriy when i comes o exacly how unds will be spen, which significanly influences how hese disrics can󲀔or canno󲀔boos produciviy.  As William Crocket, superinenden o Mound Bayou Public Schools, a small rural disric in Mississippi, pu i: “We don’ have ha flexibiliy … I’s kind o a simple  budgeary hing ha we have o do. We don’ have ha flexibiliy o say we’ll do his or  we can do his and i’ll save a whole bunch o money. Wha explains his lack o spending flexibiliy? Firs, here are srings atached o sae and ederal grans, and disrics mus regularly demonsrae ha hey have indeed spen money on allowable expenses. Second, mos o disrics’ budges are allocaed o employee salaries and benefis. Abou 60 percen o disrics’ budges are commited o insrucional coss, which are primarily educaors’ salaries. Ta does no leave much room or disric leaders o inves heir financial resources in more producive ways.
3 Center for American Progress | Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes
So why are some districts more productive than others?
Te quesion is no easy o answer. For one, our approach o school produciviy akes a  very limied view o suden oucomes. Mah and reading es scores do no come close o measuring all ha sudens should learn in school. Sudens should also, or insance, develop knowledge o American hisory and a oreign language along wih criical hink-ing skills. For anoher, he ederal survey we used or our produciviy analysis did no include financial inormaion a he programmaic level, so we could no explore how disrics differed in he programs or services ha hey provide.Finally, he daa we used in his analysis canno speak o he qualiy o eachers in schools. We can ideniy, or example, how much disrics spen on aciviies relaed o insrucion, including eachers’ salaries, bu we have no inormaion ha could help us meaningully disinguish beween eachers in erms o heir effeciveness in classrooms. Te superinendens inerviewed or his repor undersood his dilemma. When asked abou he relaionship beween spending and achievemen, Rober Avossa, superin-enden o Fulon Couny Schools in Georgia, said: “Tey are absoluely relaed, bu [only] i you are sraegic in your human capial sraegy. … You may have more appli-cans, bu i you’re no picking he righ people, i’s no going o help kids. So we’ve  been very sraegic abou ha.”
Using data available from the U.S. Department of Education, we compiled a dataset with over 7,000 K-12 districts from over 15,000 local education agencies across the county. All data on spending and achievement was from the 2009-10 school year. In our analysis of spending and achievement evaluations, we only include regular K-12 districts that had more than 300 students taking tests in either math or English language arts during the 2009-10 school year. Data on student characteristics were mostly from that school year, but we substituted missing demographic information with data from surrounding years; for example, 2008-09 or 2010-11.In this analysis, we identified 424 pairs of districts to analyze from this larger dataset. We restricted our analysis to districts with fewer than 50,000 students. We assigned districts to one of several bins in a few cat-egories—student enrollment and selected student characteristics—and we also matched on their urban or rural designation. Districts ranged in size and urban characteristics. See Table 1 for descriptive statistics about the sample. Given that tests and proficiency definitions differ across states, we only identify and compare twin districts within the same state. We distinguish between twins based on which one spends more per student. We refer to a twin as being more productive if it spends less money to support the same level of student achievement.Additionally, we also completed interviews with 20 district superin-tendents from across the United States.
 Most of the interviews were conducted by phone, but two were done via email exchange. Some superintendents were from our set of twin districts, and others were not. During the interviews, district leaders offered their perspectives on the relationship between spending and academic outcomes. Moreover, they discussed what control they have over their districts’ spending and what spending constraints they face from outside governing bodies—the state, the federal government, and school boards.

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