'Dollar Figure for Excellence' Remains Unknown

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One of the major questions remaining about the various reform recommendations contained in recent national studies of education, said participants at last week's Spring Hill conference, is how much they would cost.

Of the major national reports, speakers noted, only that of the National Science Foundation's Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology estimated costs.

Commissioner Ambach, among others, warned against an unrealistic assessment of costs. "Frankly, I haven't seen too many people trot out a dollar figure for excellence in health or excellence in highways or excellence in infrastructure," he said. "It doesn't work that way. You figure out what you can afford and you set priorities."

That process, he suggested, cannot be carried out at the national level unless the federal government pays the entire bill, but is of utmost importance to state and local officials.

Indeed, so many strains of research, opinion, political persuasion, and tax policy have entered into the school-improvement discussion that, as Senator Gordon said, "This is like standing in Grand Central Station at rush hour and trying to figure out who's going to what train and why."

Suggested School Reforms

Nonetheless, finance researchers increasingly are applying their methods--particularly economic analysis--to the questions raised by suggested school reforms.

"There's been a lot of talk about quantity--more hours, more standards, and the like--and that's not necessarily the same as more quality," said Gary Sykes, a researcher who recently left the National Institute of Education for Stanford University. "Most time is lost through inattention, so it's important to hold kids' interest. Rather than add time, it may be better to train teachers to manage it better.

"Also, we're fixated on thinking of the school as the unit of change and improvement. We must add to that district-level constraints. The critical thing has to do with organization and management of personnel, and those are usually centrally determined."

Among the other research questions raised for finance researchers:

"Costing out" the differences between various curricular offerings and examining the equity of course offerings and academic tracking. Mr. Kirst, for example, has found that the poorest districts in California were most likely to cut back from seven periods to five when fiscal problems hit, suggesting a strongly disproportionate impact on disadvantaged students.

Examination of the various strategies for instructional improvement, their costs and effects, and how policymakers choose between them. Mr. Sykes identified four strategies--reducing class size, raising salaries, increasing supervision, and increasing training--and concluded that "nobody has looked at how superintendents make decisions about these things."

Examination of effective schools in high-, medium-, and low-spending districts to determine the extent to which improvements can be made with marginal funds. "I think the researchers would find that inputs do make a difference," said Allan M. Odden of the Education Commission of the States.

Tracking the distribution of "dollars for excellence" over the next five years to determine whether they are indeed going primarily to gifted or advantaged students.

Analysis of teacher characteristics and how they are distributed across districts, to determine whether the wealthiest schools get the best teachers.--pc

Vol. 03, Issue 05

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