When Educators are the Learners: Private Contracting by Public Schools

Issue/Topic: Education Research; Privatization
Author(s): Forbes, Silke; Gordon, Nora
Publication: National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper
Published On: 2012

The question of how school administrators use data to inform decision is more salient now than ever due to the magnitude of federal funds currently available to education contractors via Title I, Investing in Innovation (i3), and Race to the Top programs, among others.

To examine the role of social learning by assessing the extent to which school and district administrators choose to contract with private vendors with whom their peers previously had particularly good experiences.


The authors find strong evidence that schools tend to contract with providers used by other schools in their own districts in the past, regardless of past performance. The authors even found no evidence of social learning among schools that share similar demographic characteristics (high percentage of ELL, low pass rates, or being a particularly large school district).

  • This finding is especially significant, given the increasing demand for goods and services sold by private vendors following the implementation of federal accountability policies such as No Child Left Behind, and the more recent incentive programs such as Race to the Top.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:

More research must be conducted in order to determine the extent to which policymakers can help school and district administrators optimize their purchasing decisions through dissemination of information versus more direct limitation on choice.  How government can help depends largely on how administrators choose (or choose not) to access and use information - a question that must be answered through experimental research using random assignment.  Findings will indicate that either administrators would make use of highly accessible information to make evidence-based decisions or be unresponsive to such data, so that policymakers might consider more active policies such as setting defaults or regulating choices.

Research Design:

433 Texas Schools that received federal Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) grants.

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
Data obtained from the federal CSR Awards database, from the Texas Education Agency's Academic Excellence Indicator System which contains annual information on student pass rates in math and reading, and on the 20 Education Service Centers (ESCs) within Texas


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