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Synthesis of educational productivity research paper

Those who argue that improvements in educational productivity require close attention to institutional influences do not disagree with the second-wave reformers about the importance of focusing on teaching and learning at the school level and giving individual schools the autonomy to adopt effective practices and adapt them to their local contexts. Rather, they argue that these ideas by themselves are insufficient, because they ignore the key question: not "what works?" but how the desirable characteristics of schools can be developed and nurtured. In this view, central features of the way American schools are governed, especially the dispersion of control over educational policy among many actors and the political pluralism of a constitutional system that encourages "conflict as an antidote to the concentration of power" (Elmore, 1997b:41), inhibit the emergence of effective organizations. In other words, what Chubb and Moe call the "institutions of direct democratic control" undermine school autonomy, fail to support successful schools, and put insufficient pressure on schools whose performance in unsatisfactory (Chubb and Moe, 1990; Smith and O'Day, 1991; Elmore, 1997b; Brandl, 1998). Viewing schools in terms of the environment in which they operate gives yet another perspective on the productivity problem in education and its solution.

these changes are making a difference in the academic performance of students. This is not to be critical, but rather to acknowledge two important facts about the status of knowledge on the effects of recent reforms. First, evidence of effectiveness will be complicated to find for some of the same reasons that bedevil input-output research: methods of analysis are contested; it is difficult to isolate the effects of particular changes because numerous things tend to change at the same time; and context may matter importantly in how reforms play out in different places, complicating the explanation of effects and limiting generalizability.

Synthesis of educational productivity studies.

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Much has been learned from the investigations of these researchers. The issue of educational productivity remains a complex one, however. For a number of reasons, the concept itself is elusive and difficult to measure. There is as yet no generally accepted theory to guide finance reform efforts; rather there are multiple theories, each of which is incomplete. The various theories do not generate consistent strategies for action. In addition, empirical studies seeking to determine the best ways to direct resources to improve school performance have often not produced consistent findings. This is not surprising, given the conceptual difficulties and data limitations.

All of this is not to argue that there is no useful theory or evidence about promising avenues to pursue to increase educational productivity: there is a great deal. Shortcomings in current scientific methods for studying educational productivity, however, mean that much of existing knowledge is best viewed as tentative and contingent. The chief implication of this fact for school finance is that good policy will reflect both the best knowledge available to date and the need to continue experimenting and evolving as new knowledge becomes available.

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How important the institutional environment is as a barrier to educational productivity depends on the extent to which bureaucracy and direct democratic control affect school systems as the foregoing arguments suggest they do. Chubb and Moe (1990:64) argue that environments that are relatively homogeneous and problem-free are likely to be the least bureaucratic, while urban environments ("teeming with diverse, conflicting interests of political salience" and home to deeply troubled schools) are more likely than suburbs or rural areas to suffer from the negative consequences of bureaucratic controls and political pluralism. These are, of course, the places where productivity problems are the worst and where the need for exceptionally effective schools is therefore the greatest.

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While bureaucracy can be a force to promote fairness and quality, it also can interfere with the efforts to improve educational productivity in a number of ways. Bureaucratization can whittle away discretion and autonomy at the school level (Chubb and Moe, 1990; Hill et al., 1997; Brandl, 1998). Policy makers increasingly act to reduce the discretion permitted at the school level. They do this (1) to reduce compliance problems that can result from school personnel who may or may not be inclined to act in accordance with policies determined at higher levels of the system; (2) to reduce the possibilities of other actors in this system of multiple authorities using the existence of discretion left in local hands to impose their own (possibly competing) interests; and (3) to insulate their decisions from change by future policy makers. Bureaucrats have incentives to expand their budgets, programmatic authority, and administrative controls; and so their increasing presence, too, serves to reduce the discretion and autonomy left to school personnel. Teachers unionize to gain influence in an environment increasingly characterized by powerful, organized interests outside the school; collective bargaining results in detailed contracts that further formalize public education and reduce or eliminate managerial discretion.

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everyone accepts the premises of standards-based reform. For example, some people may believe that the control over knowledge involved in national or statewide standards is inconsistent with personal liberty or pluralism. As an earlier National Research Council report noted, "though standards-based reform was conceived as a way to compensate for the fragmented system that governs education in the United States, the institutional arrangements it espouses still reflect that fragmentation. All three levels of government are involved, with the federal government essentially serving as a 'bully pulpit,' exhorting states and localities to move in a new direction, states choosing to play roles that range from strict regulator of local behavior to cheerleader for reform, and local communities responding to federal and state initiatives while still trying to maintain their own agendas" (National Research Council, 1997:31).

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standards (i.e., examples and definitions of what proficiency in the content standards would look like) together defining what students should know and how well they should be expected to perform, authority for determining how these goals should be met can be decentralized down to the district or (preferably, in the eyes of many) the school level, in keeping with the tradition of local control of education and consistent with both economic and "good practice" research, which suggests that those closest to the "production site" are in the best position to make efficient and effective decisions about meeting the needs of students in specific classrooms and schools.

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Smith and O'Day (1991) noted that school-by-school reform engaged primarily those who already had a history of reform experience and interest, not necessarily those whose practices were most in need of change. They also pointed out the changes in content and pedagogy being called for by second-wave reformers implied rethinking the knowledge and skills that children are expected to learn and the nature of the teaching and learning process itself. They judged that "[s]uch a reorientation is not likely to happen on a widespread school-by-school basis among educators who have themselves been schooled in a philosophy and settings that embody fact-based conceptions of knowledge, hierarchical approaches to skill development, and a near total reliance on teacher-initiated and teacher-directed instruction." They called for "a coherent systemic strategy that can combine the energy and professional involvement of the second wave reforms with a new and challenging state structure to generalize the reforms to all schools within the state" (p. 234).

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Evaluation of SBM has been hampered by the multiplicity of objectives and practices that have been pursued, by the fact that real devolution of decision making to the school level has been far less than the rhetoric around SBM would imply, and by the failure of most of the research on SBM (as revealed in a literature review by Summers and Johnson, 1996) even to address the question of effects on student achievement. Assessments based largely on SBM as it was implemented in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that it seldom had the positive benefits predicted for it, either in terms of improving student achievement or changing the behavior of schools and school participants (Malen et al., 1990; Murphy and Beck, 1995; Newmann and Wehlage, 1995; Summers and Johnson, 1996; Wohlstetter and Odden, 1992). More recent research (Odden and Busch, 1998; see Chapter 6) suggests that older strategies of SBM lacked the necessary organizational conditions for it to lead to improved student achievement.

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