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Douglas County, Falcon 49, Eaton Top Colorado in K-12 Productivity

For some people, the term “productivity” doesn’t belong in K-12 education discussions. They think it’s too scary because it sounds like businesses that make money by selling goods or services. And we know that while education could learn a few more things from the competitive world of independent businesses, the two spheres don’t perfectly equate.

But let’s not freak out here. We’re talking about large sums of public tax revenues in K-12 education. Having a good way to measure how effectively that money is being spent recognizes an important reality. It’s not the be-all and end-all of the K-12 world, by any means, but it does provide a valuable indicator.

Come on now, don’t think it’s just me harping on about measuring “productivity” in education. Ask the Center for American Progress (CAP), which just released the 2014 update of “Return on Educational Investment: A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity”:

…with this project, our hope is to shine a light on how productivity differs across districts, as well as to identify key areas of reform. Moreover, for the first time, we conducted a special analysis of educational fiscal practices, diving deep into state budgeting approaches. We believe that if our education system had a more robust way of tracking expenditures, it could do more to increase productivity.

Hey, that’s two uses of productivity in one paragraph! Anyway, CAP elsewhere found only Florida and Texas among the 50 states “regularly analyzed the productivity of their schools and districts.” In other words, following CAP’s model, they’re looking at the results achieved for the dollars spent, while considering challenging student factors to overcome. Maybe there’s something for Colorado to learn.

CAP also humbly points out there are real limitations to trying to measure school district productivity, not the least of which is having to grade districts on a curve against others in their own state rather than against a clear standard. And in Colorado, some rural districts get dinged because of the extra money they get through the funding formula’s “size factor.” But it’s a good conversation to have.

Given all that, I found it very interesting that exactly three Colorado school districts walked away with CAP’s highest productivity rating:

  • Douglas County: The cutting-edge local reformers also are happily in the news this week for the Colorado Department of Education rejecting a union complaint and validating DCSD’s teacher evaluation system, and for opting out of federal lunch program mandates that are not serving district high schoolers’ nutritional needs well.
  • Falcon 49: (yes, featured for the second straight day) The innovative and productive district, even in its proposal for extra local school construction bond dollars, is able to pitch itself in far more frugal terms than Boulder Valley.
  • Weld County Re-2 (Eaton): Interestingly, nearly every Colorado district of the same student population size got a significantly lower productivity rating. I also confirmed that in the long history of Ed Is Watching, I have never once mentioned this school district before. So welcome to the club, especially given the distinct honor!

That may add up to a few helpful examples to follow. In the meantime, I will continue to laud the efforts to refine and improve the formula to measure school district productivity, all while keeping it in perspective. One thing we can say for sure is this report reminds us there is no rational, direct connection between spending more money in K-12 and getting better results.