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Tom | February 10, 2013

Should We Expect a Return on our Education Investment?



If there was any doubt about what education funding in Washington will look like when the legislature finally gets around to complying with the McCleary Decision, that matter has been put to rest.

Steve Litzow, the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, published an op-ed in the Seattle Times this week outlining the ever-popular opinion that education funding should be tied to results. The background for his piece appears to be a study by the Center for American Progress which examined data from school districts all over the country, looking at the correlation between money spent on education and student achievement.

The apparent goal is to be a low-spending, high-achieving school district. An efficient, results-based district. Obviously, this is a goal borrowed from the business world. People who spend money want to see results from that expenditure. People who spend even more money want to see even more results. And while that sort of thinking certainly stands to reason, I think we need to think it through before assuming that this fundamental economic principal is applicable to education.

First of all, the results clearly show that there is currently no correlation between spending and achievement. I'm not necessarily saying there shouldn't be, but there just isn't. And it's not just in Washington State; all across the country the results are the same: more money doesn't produce better results. When you look at the fifty different scatter-plots, they're just that: scatter-plots. There's nothing even remotely linear going on.

Which begs the question: how can it be that we spend money on education without getting a corresponding return? Are we, as a country, really that inefficient?

Frankly, I don't think so. I don't think education spending strictly follows the same pattern that investing follows. Investing, it seems to me, is a pro-active endeavor. When I take my car to Grease Monkey, I'm investing; I'm hoping that an oil change now will pay off in the long run, by preventing a costly repair later on. Spending is more reactive. When I take my car to Les Schwab, I'm just spending; I'm buying new brakes because the brakes I have now are making a horrible grinding sound.

Education tends to follow the same pattern. Sometimes we invest. We invest money on early childhood education in the hopes that these kids will be high-achievers later on. We invest in computers because we believe that those computers will lead to higher achievement later on.

But sometimes we just spend. Sometimes we have kids showing up in our schools who need more resources than their classmates. They need to get pulled out by the reading specialist every morning and by the math specialist every afternoon. Or maybe they need to see the principal or dean of students twice a week because they're having trouble on the playground.

Or maybe they're like the kid in my class, struggling with a cruel combination of ELL, Asperger's, a speech impediment, poor eyesight, a propensity towards violence and a lack of adequate parenting. This poor little guy has a one-on-one para-educator for two hours every day, plus half of my attention during the other five hours. And unless something startling happens in the next three months, he will not pass his fourth grade MSP. What's worse, if I were to pick one student in my class of 28 who I think is most likely to drop out of high school, it would be him.

He is, in fact, the very worst investment anyone could possible make. When it comes to education spending, he's sucking us dry, and yielding very little in return. He is not a $50 trip to Grease Monkey. He is a daily $800 trip to Les Schwab for new brakes.

He is, however, the kid who shows up. And because he shows up – and because we're educators, not investors – we do what we can to teach him. That's why we call him a "high-needs student," instead of a "bad investment."

This, of course, is an anecdote, and educational policy shouldn't be based on anecdotes. But here's the thing: this same anecdote has played out every year of my career. In every class I've taught, one or two students require an astronomically disproportionate amount of resources. And the same is true – and has been true – for every one of my colleagues. After a while, those anecdotes become data.

And here's the other thing: kids like this little guy aren't evenly distributed throughout the population. In my district, for example, the property value goes down and the frequency of high-needs students goes up the closer you get to Aurora Avenue, with its seedy mélange of Denny's restaurants, tattoo parlors, "hotels," and pawn shops.

The economists and policymakers can talk all they want about high-achieving, low-cost school districts. I have no quarrel with that aspiration. I do, however, work with real students in a real classroom that exists in the real world. I teach the kids who walk in that door, no matter how much it costs.

I truly wish Steve Litzow all the success in the world in his new role as education chair. He seems like a bright, conscientious guy. He has a strong background in the private sector, which has probably given him every reason in the world to expect education spending to be sort of like investing. It would be wonderful if there was a strong correlation between education spending and student achievement. It would be great to get exactly what we paid for.

Sadly, however, that's just not the way it is.


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Kristin, you're so right. There is a huge disconnect between lawmakers - who are trying to do the right thing - and classrooms, where what they do plays out. This is just one example.

Legislators are making the best decisions they can with the information they have. It's really important that there's dialogue, and that teachers take the time to share these stories. If we don't, legislators are looking at numbers and trying to help kids and taxpayers and, sometimes, there is an aspect to their plan that needs revision. But the intention is there, and that's important. These are the same legislators who are fighting for a way to fund education, too. Let's be sure to have a say in how that money is spent.
You're so right that much of the spending is either an expensive effort to minimize the effects of parental and societal damage or an expensive effort to cherish our most vulnerable children. This spending doesn't always result in test scores.
It boggles my mind that there isn't a bigger effort to invest in K-4.

This makes sense. I think even the "investment" piece is hard to reconcile. In a business, if you invest wisely, it pays off with a measurable and tangible return on investment to the business itself. The return on the education investment doesn't always appear in the education system. Let's take the early ed investment... the dividends that investment pays might not be measurable on a state test, but might manifest in habits and skills of workers a decade-and-a-half later when those five-year-olds turn into twenty-year-olds entering the workforce. The benefit there is even harder to pin down and draw the direct cause-to-effect relationship that is much easier to define in a manufacturing model.

Your point that it is incredibly complicated is the most important point, but is one that people can easily resist by being reductionist and pointing to simpler models that simply make "sense" somewhere else. Even the Finland comparisons... if we had a social identity and homogeneity of culture like Finland tends toward, then that model would be a fair comparison. American Public Schools are neither Finnish nor Business, so our solutions will have to be ours, not theirs.

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