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Want to Improve K-12 Productivity? Avoid Baumol’s Disease Like Plague

It’s not uncommon for me to tell you about the great need for public schools to spend dollars more productively. A recent brief, colorful paper written by my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow makes the point with some great local significance for school districts asking voters for tax increases this fall.

But, you may ask, why is this a problem in the first place? Why does the productivity of school spending tend to deteriorate over time? The answer, as Matt Ladner ably points out in a couple new posts, is Baumol’s disease.

Wait a minute, I see some of you ready to run and hide. No, it doesn’t mean you’re going to break out with red blotches on your skin, develop a high fever, or experience bouts of memory loss. It’s not that kind of disease! Ladner points to a lecture by the brilliant education policy scholars Paul Hill and Marguerite Roza to explain the phenomenon: “the tendency of labor-intensive organizations to become more expensive over time but not any more productive.”

Now that you’re over any potential hypochondriac panic episodes, take just a minute and absorb the graphics Ladner has posted, especially if you doubt the phenomenon. Contemplate:

  • Over 60 years the number of public K-12 students per employee fell from 19 to 8
  • During the same time, the share of employees who are NOT teachers has grown from 23 percent to 49 percent
  • From 1973 to 2008 student achievement scores, as measured by the gold standard NAEP test, have made only “very small” gains

My first response is to wonder just how much these dramatic statistics are caused by a growing body of laws, federal mandates, and the bureaucratic requirements to comply with them. Not that I’m nearly smart enough to argue that Baumol’s disease isn’t real, or that its effects aren’t significant in K-12 education — which really may be the Mother of All Baumols (MOAB).

Ladner’s sequel highlights some other economic examples outside example to show how productivity has benefited consumers massively. Read this piece, too, if for no other reason than to marvel at the creativity that challenges my little, growing edublogging ego.

Anyway, regarding the issues raised, I still have more questions than answers for all of you. Fortunately, Ladner has promised more episodes to come. Any other edu-geeks out there who are interested in sparing taxpayers, benefiting students, and solving the productivity issue ought to join me in staying tuned. Meanwhile, be sure to avoid Baumol’s like the plague….