War II to the need to expand the school system quickly to cope with rapidly rising enrollments stemming from the baby boom. Scholars and reformers returned to the issue of how best to use education dollars with new vigor in the years after publication of the Coleman report (Coleman et al., 1966), with its finding that resource differences apparently had little effect on the outcomes of schooling. To the traditional efforts of psychologists and educational psychologists to understand learning and how to enhance it were added new efforts by economists and others interested in understanding how the resources purchased by schools were linked to educational outcomes (Monk, 1990:312).
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.
"Educational productivity" is a term with a variety of possible meanings.
When Americans say that they want their schools to perform better, they are saying that they want their schools to be more "productive." This usage of the term corresponds to the dictionary definition of productivity as the ability of an entity to produce abundantly or to yield favorable or useful results.
Productivity also has a narrower definition, however, one drawn primarily from economics. The economic perspective on productivity emphasizes the relationship between outputs and inputs of a firm or organization or economic sector. At its most familiar, perhaps, productivity is a measure of output per unit of labor. Statistics on productivity measured in this way are routinely gathered, especially for private-sector firms, and widely reported. They have also been the subject of much public discussion over the past 30 years, especially because private-sector productivity growth in the United States had suffered a slowdown beginning in 1973 and lasting until the 1990s, reversing the economic conditions that had prevailed and undergirded American prosperity since World War II.