Effectiveness v. Resources

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In an irony unforeseen by effective-schools researchers, lawyers in a school-finance suit in New Jersey are using the concept to argue that poor districts can improve their schools at little or no extra cost to the state.

And in this and other developments, according to school-finance experts, research findings on effective schools are reopening an old debate over the extent to which money and resources affect student achievement.

The five-year-old New Jersey case, Abbott v. Burke, is thought to be the first legal use of effective-schools research as an argument against changing a state's school-finance formula to make it more equitable.

But to many, including Marilyn J. Morheuser, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the case, the use of such an argument by the state represents a dangerous diversion of attention away from basic equity concerns and toward the far murkier area of school efficiency. And, says Ms. Morheuser, if the argument prevails in New Jersey, it will be used in similar suits elsewhere.

For now, however, most school-finance experts consider that the flawed and incomplete nature of most effective-schools research will preclude its successful legal application. They note, for example, that the research has never really compared the effectiveness of schools in districts with differing financial bases, but has focused primarily on individual schools.

New Wrinkle, Old Debate

The long debate over the role of material resources in children's academic progress quickened in 1966, with the publication of a landmark report by James S. Coleman, Equality of Educational Opportunity. The most extensive study of student achievement ever conducted in this country, the Coleman report concluded that differences in school facilities and resources accounted for relatively little of the variation seen in students' test scores. What mattered more, said the report, was whether the pupils themselves were rich or poor.

In school-finance lawsuits since the report's publication, courts nonetheless have generally continued to accept the notion that money does affect students' access to equal educational opportunity. And some, in their decisions, have forced states to overhaul their financial systems to provide more equitable distribution of education funds.

The introduction of effective-schools research into the debate, however, represents a new challenge to those who argue that equity cannot be achieved without equal resources.

"It's basically a new wrinkle on an old argument," says David C. Long, a lawyer who has represented plaintiffs in many school-finance cases. "One of the defenses to justify inequitable school-finance systems has always been the argument that money doesn't make any difference. That's an argument the state has made in most school-finance cases. Interestingly enough, it has usually been rejected, even by those courts that have ruled against the plaintiffs."

"There is certainly no conflict between school effectiveness and school-finance reform in the minds of those that are seeking school-finance equity," Mr. Long asserts. "That conflict is pushed by the states that try to distort the research to preserve the status quo."

Part of Reform

Lorraine M. McDonnell, a political scientist with the Rand Corporation and associate director of the new federally funded center for policy research in education, says states initially may have been anxious to use findings about effective schools as a substitute for putting new money into education, but that that is no longer true.

"I think in the short term what was happening was that people were assuming a lot of the school-improvement research wouldn't cost anything," she says. "It became a substitute for other kinds of initiatives that would cost money."

"Now most of the school-improvement initiatives are usually embodied in larger reform initiatives that have finance implications," Ms. McDonnell notes.

New Jersey Suit

But to some observers, substituting effective-schools efforts for a substantial new influx of money may be exactly what the state is attempting in the New Jersey lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in Abbott v. Burke are low-income, black and Hispanic schoolchildren from New Jersey's property-poor urban districts. Their suit contends that the state's school-finance formula produces wide financial disparities between districts, which result in the denial to some of a "thorough and efficient education."

The suit grows out of a previous case, Robinson v. Cahill, in which the courts closed the New Jersey schools and forced the state to overhaul its school-finance system. Plaintiffs in the current case charge that financial disparities between districts have widened, not disappeared, since the Robinson decision.

The state, however, is arguing that educational achievement depends on factors that are not primarily financial in nature: the age, ability, and motivation of students; the amount and quality of instruction; and the nature of influences from the home and school environments.

State officials have devised a six-point program to eliminate inequities in the plaintiffs' school districts; the plan involves not additional revenues but aspects of effective-schools research.

"To the extent that these and other remedial programs cost money," noted Judge Samuel D. Lenox of the New Jersey Superior Court in a July 23 ruling, "defendants claim that plaintiffs' school districts have enough money available."

But Ms. Morheuser, who also directs the Education Law Center Inc. in New Jersey, says experts in the field will testify for the plaintiffs that effective schools actually do cost money--for training, technical assistance, and materials--and that the state's poor urban districts do not have such funds available.

Unanswered Question

In addition, she and a growing number of other school-finance experts say effective-schools research has never really addressed the question of resources.

Although Ms. Morheuser anticipates a "big fight" over the validity of effective-schools research in the Abbott case, she says there is little in the research "that would argue that equal resources aren't needed if you are to have effective schools."

"I think it's a question the research has never asked and therefore never answered," she says.

Arthur E. Wise, director of the Rand Corporation's Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession and author of Rich Schools, Poor Schools: The Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity, agrees.

"How well school systems spend their money is of course important," he says. "But the introduction of this issue--of a look at outcomes--into litigation forces the litigation to look into areas of education research that are hardly settled."

The introduction of educational outcomes into the New Jersey litigation, says Mr. Wise, has distorted the basic purpose of the lawsuit and stalled progress.

"If anything, the degrees of inequality of educational opportunity have increased in the years since the initial litigation," he says.

Allan Odden, professor of education at the University of Southern California and director of the Center for Policy Analysis for California Education, notes that effective-schools research has never systematically studied schools drawn from districts with low, medium, and high resources to see what difference those resources made.

"Such a study would show the degree to which effectiveness might vary by level of funding as well as by resource use and allocation," he says.

New Avenues

But even though the research has not clearly addressed resource disparities between schools, says Mr. Odden, it has encouraged experts to look more closely at how money is spent within individual schools.

"The effective-schools research begins to lay out the important characteristics of schools and how resources are used to improve student performance, teacher performance, and schools as organizations," he says.

Included in the American Educational Finance Association's last yearbook, he notes, was a series of articles on the relationship between school-finance systems and school-improvement efforts.

To Rand's Ms. McDonnell, a new, broader view of resource equality has replaced a school-finance mindset that "basically stopped at the school door." The older view, she says, "assumed that if you gave equal inputs, you would somehow get more equal outputs."

"Now," she says, "the question is, 'Are the resources being used more equitably within schools?' The definition has changed to include not just money but the quality of texts, the differences in curriculum."

In this respect, effective-schools research has become part of the broader education-reform movement, which is prompting school-finance experts generally to take a closer look at educational outcomes, says Susan Fuhrman, senior research associate at the Eagleton Institute for Politics at Rutgers University and director of the center for policy research in education.

The Connecticut Board of Education, for example, is scheduled to vote in February on a new definition of equal educational opportunity--one that would look at educational outcomes for subpopulations of students in much the same way that early effective-schools proponents Ronald Edmonds and Wilbur Brookover did in their research.

In Connecticut's proposed new definition, "evidence of equal educational opportunity is the participation of each student in programs appropriate to his or her needs and the achievement by each of the state's student subpopulations of educational outcomes at least equal to that of the state's student population as a whole."

Says the state's commissioner of education, Gerald N. Tirozzi: "If 80 percent of the kids in the state can multiply a two-digit number by a two-digit number--and I hope the average is that high--and we find in the poorer districts that only 40 percent of the kids can handle that scale, that's an unequal educational opportunity and something has to be done."

"If we make that statement, and that becomes policy," the commissioner adds, "that's a very strong direction for the state to take."

Although the proposed definition was not taken directly from effective-schools research, Mr. Tirozzi says, it is one way in which the state hopes to support instructionally effective schools.

'Not a Substitute'

Finance experts caution, however, that while effective-schools research may suggest how to make schools more productive, it cannot replace bottom-line concerns about money.

"I think effective-schools research can be fine," says Ms. Morheuser. "In fact, I think it should be used everywhere. But it's not a substitute for equity and can't ever be perceived as a substitute for equity."

Effective-schools research, says Ms. McDonnell, represents "one of the most valid bodies of research we have, and it provides solid, almost common-sensical guidance."

"The problem," she adds, "is that the people who worry about school-finance formulas are not trained in the dynamics of what happens in classrooms in schools. There has to be a lot of translation, and that's only beginning to happen."

Vol. 05, Issue 18

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