Productivity for Results Series

Learn more about Mark Dynarski.
Mark Dynarski
Advisor, Education
George W. Bush Institute

In early 2014, the Bush Institute released a series of papers that examined the efficiency of schools.

In early 2014, the Bush Institute released a series of papers that examined the efficiency of schools. Some of those papers looked at governance, some at financial and operational management, and still others at teacher pay and benefits, training, and performance.

Today, the Institute is releasing the second and final round of its series of school productivity papers. When you look at all of these studies together, they point to areas where school districts and campuses alike could operate more efficiently. In other words, they point to ways that taxpayers could get the greatest results for the money they invest in schools.

As an example, in this last round of papers (see links below), Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University and Jon Fullerton of Harvard University examine the curious practice of states funding school districts for students that no longer attend school there. The practice of funding “phantom students” has existed for decades and it works this way: States guarantee funding for districts whose enrollments are declining, either because students elect to attend charter schools or the local population is declining.

The public undoubtedly would be outraged if their government gave funds to GM for every car buyer who switched from GM to Toyota. Why the same practice is thought to be appropriate in education is puzzling.

The amounts of money are striking, too. In 2008, Connecticut spent $186 million for phantom students.

That’s one year and one state. As the authors argue, protecting districts against enrollment declines or inefficient sizes buffers them from having to improve, even if students are leaving because of poor performance.

Dan Goldhaber of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research focuses on teachers, who account for most education spending. He summarizes research showing that teachers are substantially different in their classroom effectiveness, and those differences persist for students into their adult lives.

Yet effectiveness is not the focus of the single-salary schedule that guides the pay of many teachers. With that in mind, Goldhaber examines innovations in teacher compensation, such as merit pay and teacher assessment systems.

He concludes that investments in teacher quality are likely to be more effective than investments in more teachers. In other words, he proposes changes in what the system has been doing for the last three decades.

Robert Costrell of the University of Arkansas looks at the issue of health insurance, which is the most significant fringe benefit that districts offer  their instructors. He finds that health insurance is a quarter-to-a-third higher for teachers than similar private-sector professionals.

As Costrell explains, efforts to reduce the cost of health insurance through the design of a plan and sharing of costs already have resulted in lower costs in Wisconsin. It is possible that other states may follow.

In their paper, Cynthia Brown of the Center for American Progress and Raegen Miller of Teach for America point out that both the left and the right have an interest in improving productivity in education. Better education outcomes reduce poverty while making America more competitive in a global economy. Current debates about growing income inequality only highlight the importance of improving education.

Each of these papers contributes to the larger study of school productivity. This field matters most of all because productive schools improve student achievement.

Productivity for Results: Volume II

Productivity for Results: Volume I


Mark Dynarski, president of Pemberton Research, is an education reform fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.