A bar chart showing different percentages, depicting ROI.

Is return on investment achievable in K12?

For a rural district in Alabama, the answer is yes

Return on investment (ROI) is an oft-cited goal in K12 arenas, but it is achievable? In Morgan County School District, we’ve found that it is. Here’s how we did it.

The superintendent’s dilemma

As the superintendent of Morgan County (AL) School District for the past eight years, I experience the same challenges as most of today’s school administrators. Every year, our district has to balance the diverse needs of low-socioeconomic rural students with higher-performing feeder patterns, transient student populations, a growing English learner population, educator and student retention, and annual budget pressures. Every year we are asked to do more with less while still maximizing student outcomes with limited resources.

The dynamic needs of Morgan County’s students are not going away. We realized that the key to solving this complicated equation was to put into place a system that captured, tracked, and managed our educational ROI, or EROI. Managing our EROI by identifying ineffective spending and re-deploying those resources back into more effective tools, resources, and programs for our students incrementally boosts student achievement by definition.

Challenges to ROI

All of us like to think we do a great job at managing our EROI, but the truth is, very few of us actually do. In large part, it’s not our fault. Data silos create logistical challenges, and traditional processes and heuristics cloud our ability to extract meaningful insights from our educational activities.

Foundationally, ROI calculations should capture everything you’re doing to impact student outcomes and evaluate these activities in the context of student achievement.

Related: 4 surefire ways to get more for your edtech dollar

This is a paradigm shift away from traditional public education thinking. Traditionally, educators look at our budgets (what we’re doing) and scores (what happened) in isolation. Rarely, if ever, do we look at these two components in the context of one another—mostly because we don’t know how.

The problem is, when you lose the context, you lose the ‘why,’ and that causes us to blindly make decisions without considering how we ended up here in the first place.

Taking control of the ‘why’

Our EROI journey began with a specialist in assessing ROI, Glimpse K12. With hundreds of software programs, OER resources, strategies, and programs permeating our curriculum, making sense of ‘what’s working for our students’ had blossomed into an administrative quandary. Compounding this challenge, our students’ needs change yearly, so finding the best tools, resources, and strategies was extremely difficult.

We started with  a current state and needs assessment analysis.

Here’s what we found:

  • Our district lacked a centralized source of record detailing everything we’re doing to impact student achievement, who exactly benefits from these activities, and what are the predefined goals and objectives for these activities.
  • We had no annual evaluation process correlating these activities to material goals and objectives.
  • We had complete interoperability between the necessary datasets to facilitate an ROI measurement process in a scalable way.
  • We had no centralized source of record capturing strategic alignment and accountability.

Each of these factors caused major pain points as we tried to ascertain what was and what was not working for our students each year. All of the required information existed but was scattered in administrator’s minds and disparate systems.

To overcome these challenges, we implemented an Achievement Investment Matrix. For the first time, district and school administrators had a centralized location documenting what they were doing, who it’s for (exactly), why, what they expect to gain, and what their ROI results are in the context of these activities. Additionally, we had a centralized location that identified ineffective spending and captured corrective actions to eliminate our ineffective spending.

Results Year 1

  • Duplicate and ‘competing’ spending: The ROI process instantly illuminates duplicate and ‘competing’ spending. Like most districts, we have more things to do than we have time in the day. This helped us hone identify our best resources and eliminate distractors.
  • Ineffective spending: Nationally, ineffective spending rates average about 42 percent … every year. We were humbled to find out that we too had hidden ineffective spending throughout our schools. We uncovered 38 percent of ineffective spending during our first pass, freeing up much-needed funds for district priorities.
  • Accountability & alignment: Having a system that captured strategic alignment, ROI, and corrective actions increased my ability to hold various stakeholders accountable across the district.

Year 2 Changes

Our second year of this process is where the ROI tree really bears fruit. Our ROI system captured and aligned all student achievement activities in one central location, monitored the fidelity of these activities, evaluated the efficacy of these activities, and illuminated what’s working and what’s not working for our students.

I am truly amazed at how impactful this data has become to our decision-making process.

We identified one program—a personalized learning platform—that only 25 percent of our students were using. However, it was generating 2x the amount of growth in the students using it as compared to students not using the program. We also identified some programs that were not leading to expected results.

We made some changes based on this data, and I am proud to say that our corrective actions did two things in our second year:

  1. We reduced our negative ROI by 66 percent within the first six months.
  2. We increased student growth by 1.6x in several areas by identifying and eliminating ineffective spending.

Cost savings are a natural byproduct of the ROI process. By eliminating ineffective spending each year, we are able to free up funds to funnel back into the classroom, providing more effective activities that will provide greater benefit for our students.

Related: 5 reasons we switched to financing edtech instead of buying

Identifying actions that are not translating to student achievement are a big win for our students and educators. EROI data empowers our administrators with information (not data) related to where ineffective spending needs to be addressed and our ROI system captures and tracks the necessary corrective actions.

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