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Productivity is sometimes seen as a dirty word in education. But it doesn’t have to be.
After studying education finance for more than two decades, I'm still humbled when I see the data. When schools with the same demographics get the same amount of money, some achieve better outcomes for students than others. Simply put, some schools are more productive. Too often policymakers' immediate response is to declare, "What matters is how that money is spent." They then frequently institute policies to make sure resources are spent across all schools in uniform ways that better reflect "best practice."
But that reaction ignores an even more astonishing finding in the data. Often those schools do spend their money in roughly the same way and still get wildly different outcomes!
Why? Those who work in schools know that the many human variables at play matter a lot when it comes to student learning. Relationships between staff and students matter. Community factors matter. And individual teachers and staff matter. Maybe there's that one teacher who is amazingly talented at what she does; or the teacher's aide who serves as a de facto grandmother to half the student body; or the chess club leader who manages to keep young boys engaged in school through early adolescence; or the superstar math teacher who seems solely responsible for a middle school's stellar math scores. (Lucky for me, my kids benefitted from his super-human effect). This is the stuff the financial datasets don't capture. Yet these human aspects are critical to any school beating the "productivity odds" - doing more than expected with the resources at hand.
So how is a school system supposed to improve productivity when so much of what matters can't be centrally managed and scaled across schools? The biggest mistake is to establish policies as if all this human stuff didn't matter. This thinking has prompted some systems to push a one-size-fits-all set of expenditures for every school, even if that means making budget tradeoffs that completely override a local school community's priorities. (In my own hometown of Seattle, students, staff and parents at a local high school staged a walkout in 2014 to protest the district's move to eliminate a critical Latin teacher.) The net result is a top-down approach where schools are told what to do and how to do it with accompanying funding systems that put principals in a virtual straitjacket. In essence, such policies work to cripple schools' ability to harness the human element that matters so much in learning.