Now, he’s finding that bigger is not necessarily cheaper, either.
As superintendent of Piedmont City Schools, Akin runs a small-town school district with 1,150 students –- not much bigger than a lot of rural K-12 schools.
A couple of weeks ago, Akin opened up Education Week –- a widely read newsletter for teachers and principals –- and read about a nationwide study that ranks schools for their cost-efficiency. Akin looked up the study, and was surprised by what he found.
Piedmont was ranked as one of the most cost-efficient school systems in the state. And it was in the top tier of school systems across the country.
The numbers came from the Center for American Progress, a think tank that identifies itself as “progressive.” But this particular study doesn’t fall so neatly under a political label.
Taking a cue from the corporate world, the study looked at the “return on investment” provided by the nation’s school districts.
The center looked at the per-pupil spending in school districts. Then it looked at test scores and other indicators of academic achievement -– adjusted, of course, for the effects of varying levels of poverty.
They were looking for schools that provided the biggest educational bang for the buck.
“Administrators tend to focus on student achievement, and they may place less emphasis on spending money efficiently,” Ulrich Boser, the study’s author, said in a telephone interview.
Boser said the center did the study because, in an age of budget cuts, school districts need to take a serious look at whether they’re spending money efficiently. That’s something that has never been done before on a national scale, he said.
There’s just one problem. Schools around the country are in budget trouble now, and Boser says that with only a few years of data, the study hasn’t offered a lot of take-home lessons yet.
Boser did survey many of the high-ROI schools, and found they had a couple of things in common. One was a lot of community support. Parents were involved, and community organizations had a lot of buy-in with the schools.
The other major factor was data. High-ROI schools spent a lot of time with testing data to determine what they really mean.
Talk to Akin, and you’ll hear another theme emerge.
“Everybody does the data-driven approach now,” he said. “What makes us special is our size.”
The Piedmont system is less like a school district, and more like a single K-12 school with its own superintendent. Piedmont Elementary and Piedmont Middle are adjacent, and Piedmont High is a stone’s throw away. Any teacher can walk into Akin’s office and talk about a specific student’s progress.
In big cities like Los Angeles, there has been quite a bit of controversy about ranking teachers based on their students’ test performance.
No need for that in a tiny system like Piedmont.
“We’re small enough that, when we post scores for, say fifth-grade reading, you know exactly whose class that is,” he said.
Administration costs are relatively low, too. Akin’s district has 117 employees. Three are involved in district-wide administration – five, if you count an IT person and a school nurse shared by all three schools.
Akin says the close quarters also lead him to be careful with his cash. A couple of months ago, Piedmont provided every single one of its students with a laptop computer. Akin says he wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t developed a robust plan to assure that the computers lead to actual learning gains.
“In a town this size, you don’t spend a million dollars unless you know exactly what you’re doing,” he said.
Money in the tank
Again, the study is young, and Boser advises that results be used with caution.
But if they’re correct, the Piedmont example flies in the face of what, in other districts, has become conventional wisdom. In recent years, many school districts –- especially rural ones –- have tried to save money by consolidating multiple small schools into big ones.
It’s the economics of scale. One building and one principal for a couple of thousand kids is more cost-efficient than four buildings and four principals for the same number. Right?
Well, if you look at ROI –- bang for the buck -– that theory doesn’t work quite as well.
“Our numbers would suggest that at some point there are dis-economies of scale,” said Boser. He said there are a number of consolidated schools that don’t do so well on ROI, despite their lowered costs.
Boser also pointed out that his study might also contain a bias against rural schools in general – not small-town schools, but genuinely rural systems like Calhoun County’s.
Due to the way schools report their financial numbers, he said, it’s impossible to account for how much money schools spend hauling kids to class. Buses are almost always a bigger cost for rural districts, because of the long drive to pick up kids.
For most purposes, Piedmont is both a small-town and a rural system. The district covers Piedmont –- which is in Calhoun County -– and also a large and sparsely populated swath of nearby Cleburne County.
But the district spends only about $40,000 of its $8 million budget on transportation. Cleburne County and Calhoun County buses transport students to Piedmont’s schools.
That speaks well of Calhoun County Schools, which did well in the rankings, but didn’t have the impressive ranking Piedmont had.
Boser notes that Calhoun County and Piedmont have similar demographics – a little more than half of the students in each district are living in poverty, according to the center’s numbers. And district-wide achievement numbers are about the same, by Boser’s calculations. But Calhoun County has slightly higher per-student costs.
When asked about the possibility that Calhoun County might be getting a raw deal, Assistant Superintendent Bobby Burns said he doesn’t care for the basic premise of the study.
“It may not be a good idea to talk about schools in terms of ‘productivity’ and bottom line,” he said. “There are a lot of variables that affect costs and outcomes.”
Aiming for the sweet spot
For the most part, Alabama’s numbers prove what educators have said about education for some years. Most of the state’s low-performing systems –- including Anniston’s –- are also among the worst-funded. The state’s highest-performing systems, like Mountain Brook, are also among the best-funded, even though those systems don’t score so well on ROI.
Four of Calhoun County’s five school systems -– county schools, Piedmont, Oxford and Jacksonville -– hit the sweet spot, posting better-than-average scores with lower-than-average funding. Still, Piedmont is the only real return-on-investment standout.
And then there are the schools that get a lot of money and still post dismal scores. There aren’t that many, at least in Alabama. But Boser said those are the ones most in need of a close look.
“We’ve found that students in high-poverty communities are often stuck in the most inefficient schools,” he said.
He cautioned that the study shouldn’t be read as an excuse to de-fund those schools – but it should prompt efforts to look closely at spending and make it more effective, he said.
Again, Burns, the Calhoun County administrator, is skeptical.
High-poverty districts, he notes, often get additional funding through federal grants. And schools often don’t have a choice about how they spend that money.
“That federal dollar is always supplemental,” he said. “You can’t use it for your core programs.”
Akin said his school’s smallness may have helped him make the best use of federal funds in the past year or so. Other schools have used stimulus money to prevent layoffs and shore up programs. Akin says Piedmont has been able to target that money, applying for stimulus cash mostly for one-time capital spending. He says that when he looks at the post-stimulus future, he’s not as worried as some other administrators.
“I don’t know that we could have done this in a larger system, or with larger schools,” he said. “It would have been a lot harder.”
A Teachable Moment is assistant metro editor Tim Lockette’s weekly look at schools. Contact Lockette at 256-235-3560.