Would Putting Teachers in Charge of Buying Lead to Smarter Spending in Schools?

By Daarel Burnette II — February 07, 2020 3 min read
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Every year, districts buy a ton of stuff through their procurement processes: laptops, books, software, after-school tutoring services and professional-development programs.

These decisions are typically made at the district headquarters and are influenced by many factors, including federal and state mandates and what administrators perceive their teachers need. But so much of what gets bought goes unused, administrators, principals, and teachers regularly admit.

In a paper recently published by the American Enterprise Institute, Mike Goldstein, a consultant and founder of a charter school and teacher residency program, suggests that maybe it’s time to hand the purse strings over to teachers. By giving individual or groups of teachers a sizeable budget to purchase things they think will actually be useful and lead to more student success, Goldstein argues, administrators will see more teacher engagement and significantly increase their return on investment.

“If done well, individual teacher choice could lead to higher teacher satisfaction, lower teacher attrition, and increased student engagement—all without any loss in student achievement and likely resulting in achievement gains in the subset of teachers actually trying to accomplish that,” Goldstein wrote. “And just as importantly, this would offer one overlooked response to the education procurement challenges that schools face today.”

Goldstein theorizes several ways districts can engage teachers more in the procurement process, from providing each teacher with a budget and setting up a marketplace where they can decide what they need, to encouraging groups of teachers to decide what instructional materials or professional-development programs they need for a given amount of time.

The budgets would have to be more than $1,000, Goldstein points out, since anything less than that would inevitably be spent on school supplies.

Procurement can be a complicated process and the rules dictating how much districts can purchase without school board approval or putting out a bid varies widely, as my colleague Stephen Sawchuk wrote. But, if done well, it can directly lead to boosted test scores, new studies have shown.

School funding advocates for years have been encouraging districts to give principals more say over what districts buy for their schools, arguing that it would allow for millions of dollars to be more directly targeted toward students’ needs. Those efforts have returned mixed results and many principals have pointed out that they lack the expertise or time to make purchasing decisions, as my colleague Denisa R. Superville wrote last year. Teachers could likely face the same sorts of hurdles.

But, as our tech reporter Alyson Klein has written, so much of what districts purchase has gone unused, leading to millions of wasted dollars which could instead be used on teacher raises, for example.

Goldstein points out in his paper that during budget cuts, districts often slash away at promising new programs, practices, and products because it’s a lot easier and politically saleable than laying off teachers. During good times, districts hire more teachers and support staff since teachers generally “like the sound of ‘more help': another counselor, dean, literacy specialist, math coach, social worker, paraprofessional, librarian, art teacher, or nurse,” Goldstein wrote.

“In healthy organizations, ‘what works’ gets more money,” he said. “It grows. But in schools, ‘what works’ doesn’t stand much chance against the voracious appetite around class size and head count.”

Several districts are now relying more on third-party reviews by educators in order to decide whether or not to purchase curriculum and instructional materials, my colleague Sarah Schwartz wrote.

Goldstein readily admits that his idea is pretty “radical” and would probably get pushback from jittery administrators nervous about breaking some obscure purchasing rule. But he says it’s worth trying.

It’s no secret that teachers are getting fed up with all the new initiatives and ideas being thrown their way. Getting teachers engaged, my colleague Madeline Will wrote, is a science.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.