Finance Experts Debate Role of Equity in Excellence Movement

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Wayzata, Minn--Some of the leading figures in the school-finance-reform movement met here last week to discuss the place of equity concerns in the current push for improvement of elementary and secondary education.

Wary of the possibility that the "excellence movement" will direct a disproportionate amount of attention and resources to high-achieving students at the expense of the disadvantaged, the researchers and advocates agreed to seek ways to influence the debate--and to broaden their own research agendas to include issues of school quality and productivity.

A number of participants spoke of a "window of opportunity," opened by the recent national reports on education, that could lead to both lasting reforms and substantial increases in funds for the schools. "We're in a period something like Earth Day, at the peak of the issue-attention cycle," said Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University. "You're on stage for only a short period of time."

And most of the approximately 80 participants invited to the three-day conference at the Spring Hill Center--a private, nonprofit conference center--concluded that equity and quality are not necessarily mutually exclusive. "We should look at [the excellence movement] as the logical next step rather than as some massive shift in values and perspective," said Michael Timpane, dean of Columbia University's Teachers College. Accordingly, disagreements centered on where the goals diverge, and on what the implications of divergence are.

"If excellence has any meaning it has something to do with standards," contended Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. "And if standards have any meaning, it is very unlikely that everybody will be able to meet them. Nonetheless, the equity and excellence people can make common cause."

But Arthur E. Wise of the Rand Corporation wondered, "How was it possible to go from $35 million to $135 billion [spent annually on schools nationwide] while preserving the kinds of inequalities that some of us have been complaining about for years? We can re-invent the kinds of inequalities we have always had, but in more subtle and insidious forms."

Defining Excellence

Although the conference participants grappled with several approaches to defining educational excellence, their own definitions generally focused on improving the performance of students whose achievement is low or who have been excluded from the most challenging programs.

That approach is consistent, several participants pointed out, with the effective-schools research, which began as an attempt to identify school practices that made a difference for economically disadvantaged students.

"Are we going to invest everything in engineers and nothing in the people who will assemble and use the computers?" asked Rachel B. Tompkins, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund. "Are we going to use it all to raise teachers' salaries, leaving nothing for supplemental programs?" Later, when another speaker was discussing the difficulty of defining excellence, Ms. Tompkins offered: "How about, 'Every child at grade level'?"

Similarly, Donna Shalala, president of Hunter College in New York City, referred to schools that counsel female and minority students out of upper-level science and mathematics programs. "That is not the pursuit of excellence, no matter how well managed it is," she asserted.

James A. Kelly, president of the Spring Hill Center, urged the par-ticipants "not to get tangled up" in definitions of excellence, and suggested that the simple definition of State Senator Jack D. Gordon of Florida may be the best: Can students write a coherent, logical paper? "I don't think blacks wanted into the educational mainstream in order that only whites be able to write a paper," Mr. Kelly noted.

Up to a point, most participants appeared to concur that "equity in a programmatic sense is more important than equity in a dollar sense,'' as New York State's commissioner of education, Gordon M. Ambach, put it. There was considerable interest in examining the allocation of resources other than money--resources such as course content, time, and teachers' ability, which bear more directly on achievement.

But longtime reform advocates warned that they will continue to hold states accountable for the fair distribution of educational resources, however they are defined. "Finance reform is concerned with inputs--dollars, staff, curricular offerings, facilities," explained David Long, a Washington lawyer who has represented plaintiffs in most of the state-level challenges to school-finance schemes. "The focus is on the state. The assumption is that the state cannot guarantee outputs, but it can guarantee resources."

Paying the Bill

Mr. Timpane noted that researchers accustomed to devising mathematical formulas and constitutional arguments to ensure fair distribution of funds--who, typically, are economists and political scientists rather than educators--may be less at home with the "mushier" questions of effective educational practices. "There is some discomfort with the quid pro quo implied by all this. We've been involved in distributive issues for some time, questions of right, questions of access. Now people are asking, 'What are we going to get for it?' That question makes us squirm."

Particularly discomfiting to the finance-reform advocates is the assertion, often made by partisans of the effective-schools and excellence movements, that schools can make substantial improvements for no money. Acknowledging that some strategies are indeed low in cost or can be implemented by redirecting existing resources, participants nonetheless asserted that poor districts cannot make much progress without more money.

"Rich districts can hire better people, they have better facilities, their administrators are less pressed, they can have more clerical staff and more inservice training," Mr. Long said. "Does anybody seriously contend that the effective-schools research can be implemented as easily in a hard-pressed urban district as in an affluent district?"

Senator Gordon of Florida noted that even low-cost strategies may require some funds as political leverage: "With all the interest groups, you need money to make things happen even if the things you want to happen most don't cost anything. You in effect have to buy them off to get the level of enthusiasm up."

The issue of student testing took on a new urgency because of suggestions that test scores be used in allocating funds. Participants uniformly rejected the idea of tying school aid to students' test scores, citing, among other things, the poor "fit" between test content and the goals of schools, including the curriculum.

Added Commissioner Ambach of New York: "I haven't found anybody who has devised a reasonable system for allocating educational funds for pupil achievement. It's easy to construct for one year, but over five or six years it falls apart. We'd do better to pool our judgment on what the best bets are and put our money into those programs and practices.

"People in New York aren't talking about whether we ought to put a formula in place based on achievement instead of need. It will continue to be based on need. The question is, 'How does the increase get directed?"'

But some agreed with Mr. Kelly, who asserted that schools "are the largest set of connected institutions with absolutely no incentives for performance."

One way to add some incentives to the system, suggested F. James Rutherford of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, would be to provide funds for programs that are demonstrably effective. ''The unit of accountability ought to be the individual school," he said. "We should apply what we know, give funds for reform, and reward them if they do well. And the goals should be achievable."

Although most of the national attention came too late to influence legislatures this year, a number of speakers remarked on a clear trend toward tying new money to a specific set of educational reforms, as happened this year in Florida and California.

Steven Gold, an intergovernmental-finance specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, noted that, despite tax increases this year in 36 states, most states still have lower tax burdens than they did before the tax revolts of the 1970's--suggesting the possibility of more increases for elementary and secondary schools.

Furthermore, the political will to promote change appears to be build-ing, with much of the impetus coming from governors and key legislators.

Observed Mr. Timpane: "Twenty to 30 percent in new money, if it's anywhere near what state-level politicians are thinking about, is far more than we ever got in one year through finance reform."

Virginia, for example, is looking at large state and local increases over the next biennium to pay for increased teachers' salaries, to create a master-teacher program, and to rework the curriculum. "When you try these things," said John Casteen 3rd, the state's secretary of education, "the equity problem emerges immediately. Local funding is increasingly unable to assume this kind of cost."

Much as the movements to limit property taxes and to increase state funding for schools were mutually reinforcing in the 1970's, he suggested, such coalitions of disparate interests may be possible now. "Tax reform and education reform are natural bedfellows," Mr. Casteen said. More to the point, he and others added, the relationship between the two will ultimately attract the attention, and likely the support, of business interests.

Despite the fears expressed by many conference participants that school-improvement money would be distributed in disequalizing ways, Mr. Timpane sized up the state-level actions so far and concluded that "our arguments are being heard."

"I see those issues being held in good balance and I see those gains that we strive so much to preserve being preserved. The tradeoffs are not over. But these issues are being attended to."

Vol. 03, Issue 05

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