Resource Deprivation in High Need Districts? (& CAP’s goofy ROI)

This post provides a follow-up on two seemingly unrelated topics, both of which can be traced back to the Center for American Progress.

First, there was that wonderful little Return on Investment indicator series that CAP did a while back.

Second, there’s the frequent, anecdotal argument that creeps into CAP/Ed Trust and AEI conversations that high need districts all have enough resources anyway and just have to stop wasting them on things like Cheerleading and Ceramics.

In this post, I provide an abbreviated version of some of the findings one of my recent conference papers.

The goal of the research study was to first identify those districts which fell into various regions or quadrants, applying a framework similar to that used by CAP in their ROI and second, explore the differences in personnel allocation in each group of districts looking for insights into what makes them tick (or not). It’s not a very good framework to begin with, but at least provides a common starting point:

The idea is that districts may fall into four groups. Some are high spending high performers and some are low spending low performers. Others are high spending low performers and still others are low spending high performers. What would be interesting from a policy perspective is whether we really could identify those in Q1 above and those in Q3 above and determine what makes them tick (Q1), or not tick (Q3).

As I discussed in a previous post, CAP took a particularly egregiously flawed approach to correcting/adjusting for various factors and laying out districts across these four quadrants. Here’s a snapshot of their Illinois findings:

The CAP IL snapshot shows plenty of districts in those green and red quadrants. Of course, the CAP snapshot a) fails to full correct for poverty related costs or ELL related costs and b) doesn’t correct at all for economies of scale or population density. If one were to believe the CAP findings, one would assume that there are similar proportions of districts that are in each group – both the expected groups (upper right and lower left) and the less likely groups (upper left and lower right). Of course, CAP also blew it in their interpretation of what’s going on in the lower left. They seemed to chastise these low spending low performing districts for their low performance, rather than acknowledge that these are actually the districts that have been screwed on funding, and are producing exactly what is expected of them in terms of outcomes.

Of course, if one more fully corrects for differences in costs across IL school districts, the actual distribution by quadrant comes out more like this (see conference paper for details on cost adjustment model):

The reality is that there aren’t a whole lot of districts – at least in the Chicago metro area that fall in the upper left and lower right quadrants. In fact, districts are largely where they are expected to be – Some have plenty of resources and do quite well, and others have limited resources and are doing poorly. Now, there is plenty of variance in the lower left and upper right which could be explored for interesting patterns.

Note that Illinois (along with PA and NY) is among the most regressively funded and racially disparately funded systems in the country!

How do resource constraints relate to curricular offerings?

Much of the  conversation of the past few days/weeks by pundits on twitter and in blogs has been on the question of what’s good for the “rich” and what’s good for the “poor.” Let me reframe that issue in this post in terms of what kids have access to in districts in the upper right quadrant of the above figure versus what kids have access to in the lower left quadrant.  Of course, the anecdotal assumption laid out above is that there are actually a whole bunch of districts in the lower right that have elaborate cheerleading and ceramics programs. Say it ain’t so! Okay… it ain’t!

What is so is that students attending districts in the lower left hand quadrant tend to have much less access to advanced curricular opportunities and boutique electives courses than children attending districts in the upper right hand quadrant. Here are a few figures, based on individual staffing assignment data:

Children attending districts in the upper right hand quadrant are nearly 3 times as likely to have access to a teacher assigned primarily to advanced math courses, nearly twice as likely to have access to a teacher primarily assigned to advanced literature or advanced science, and significant more likely to have access to a teacher assigned primarily to advanced social sciences or even seemingly more basic offerings like Algebra and Geometry. Moving deeper into the extremes of the upper right and lower left quadrants magnifies these disparities.  Further, while these distributions are expressed as a percent of total staffing, high spending high outcome districts tend to have significantly more staff per pupil.

Students in the lower left hand quadrant do have more of some stuff. They have a greater density (as a share of total staffing, but NOT on a per pupil basis) of elementary classroom teachers, and teachers in bilingual, alternative and at risk education. They also seem to have marginally more school site administrators. They have only comparable shares of staff allocated to basic level courses.


Analyses in the full paper provided little evidence in Illinois or Missouri that high need and low performing districts were squandering their resources on things like cheerleading or ceramics, or, for that matter that there were large numbers of high need low performing districts that really had enough resources to begin with but weren’t using them productively. The classic emergent profile of a high need low performing district in Missouri and Illinois was of a district with highly constrained resources after adjustment for costs, and a district that had largely forgone assigning teachers to advanced content areas and elective courses for which they perhaps expected few students to enroll. Lack of a rich curriculum in high need settings is a significant policy concern and is a concern that cannot likely be remedied by reshuffling deck chairs.  These districts in fact need more total resources than high spending high outcome districts because they must be able to offer both the basic course work to prepare students to gain access to higher level courses, and to offer the higher level courses. Under present circumstances in many states, those resources just aren’t there, and it is very counterproductive to pretend either that they are or that it’s the districts’ fault they aren’t!



  1. I’d love to see this done for RI where they have expenditure data available for 2010 by subject for every district available to the public.

    1. I’ve used the RI IN$ITE data before… and they may actually be problematic for doing this type of analysis. But, I’ll take a look back at them, because they present some unique analysis options.

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