Return on Investment in Education

A "System-Strategy" Approach

Recently, there has been growing interest in adapting Return-on-Investment thinking to education—sometimes called educational productivity, or academic-ROI. Education leaders do not seek a monetary return on their spending, but rather greater student learning, or other outcomes like student citizenship, higher graduation rates, or increased lifetime earnings and career options. 

But most ROI analysis misses a big opportunity. It is often used to evaluate programs and initiatives, such as comparing two professional development programs. This process leaves out some of the biggest cost drivers in the district’s budget and never addresses some of the fundamental resource issues that may actually drive student success.

Education leaders need a new approach—one we’re calling System-Strategy ROI. This approach starts with a fundamental student need and asks not “Which program is better?” but “What resources will meet this need?” School system leaders can help their teams take a System-Strategy ROI approach by structuring the planning conversation around five key steps:

  1. Identify the core need: What fundamental student performance need are we focusing on, and what’s our theory of change for addressing it?
  2. Consider a broad range of investment options: What are the investments we currently make to address this need, and what else could we do?
  3. Define ROI metrics and gather data: What are the relative returns (costs weighed against benefits) to the set of current/potential options?
  4. Weigh investment options: What other factors do we need to consider, in order to select from among the options?
  5. Make investment decisions: How can we free resources to do what we want to do?

It is important to note that ROI—in any form—is not a magic formula. But the System-Strategy approach is a powerful tool for adding structure, rigor, and data-backed evidence to the difficult decisions a school system must make on behalf of its students. Ultimately, the fundamental question we must ask is, “How can we use all our limited resources strategically to improve student achievement and meet our goals?”


"Return on investment" thinking needs to be incorporated in the annual budgeting process. Budget Hold'em for Districts is an interactive exercise, modeled after a card game, that allows players to choose a "hand" of investments and savings options that together advance student learning and meet a budget target. The exercise is fun and engaging, and brings different stakeholders together to redesign the budget as a reflection of the district's true priorities.