Money Is the Answer

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It's time to stop the often pompous and generally esoteric philosophical speculation about school reform. The political, social, moral handwringing that has produced the huge education-reform industry is largely perpetuating itself by ridiculous claims that change in schools will come only through overly intellectualized schemes spouted by self-styled reinventors, reformers, renewers, rebuilders, re-creators, etc. There's a lot of money to be made in the school-reform biz, but precious little money is available to actually reform schools.

Here is an example of a typical news report about a typical reform success: "Washington High School was mediocre in every way and nobody much cared. Then the Mega Buck Corporation gave it a half a million dollars and presto-chango the phoenix takes off." (There's almost always some reference to mythology.) Casual observation seems to show that virtually every reform success story thrust upon us by the reformers as a model of what everyone could or should do involves more money. When schools, teachers, parents, or school systems get more money, then they change what they do because they have the resources to change and, then, school achievement improves. It really is not magic or mysterious.

Positive change almost always follows money. Why was the automobile industry able to make such remarkable changes? Was this magic? What did the top executives who are taking credit for changing things do? First, they came up with some new ideas about quality, people, and service, and about how to build cars. Then, they invested billions and billions of dollars to make the ideas a reality. If they had just preached and talked and studied and lamented, we would still be driving updated versions of the 1980 Plymouth Belvedere. If there is a clear message that comes from the private sector, it is that change requires money.

Well, what about the money that has been poured into education over the past 10 to 12 years? Comparatively, all this money aggregates to not much more than a drop in a bucket. The billions that have been spent on education over this time have primarily gone to salaries--for the most part so teachers would not fall so far behind inflation. Still, most teachers make the same or less now than they did a decade ago in terms of purchasing power.

Here is why schools do not change. Schools do not change because teachers do not have the resources. This is a problem that cannot be fixed without money. Portraying teachers as enemies of change is neither accurate nor fair.

When I talk to teachers, they express interest in new ideas, new methods, new materials, and new conceptions of school. They also confront reality every day. Here are two typical examples:

A teacher of Advanced Placement courses uses multiple-choice tests and requires few written assignments. He primarily lectures in class and uses few supplemental materials to a standard text. This teacher must be a pedagogical dinosaur, right? No. This teacher readily admits he is not doing what is best or most useful or most advisable. He has tried other methods and is eager to use some new techniques like portfolio assessment, cooperative projects, and multimedia presentations. He even becomes almost agitated discussing the possibilities that are available to make learning more active and meaningful.

So, why hasn't he changed? Well, he has four a.p. classes and one regular class. The A.P. classes have from 28 to 35 students each. For someone who wants to have at least some semblance of a life outside of school--spouse, children, hobbies, friends, recreation, etc.--the "reform" methods are just not possible. Essays, for example, require time to prepare, revise, advise, correct, discuss, and produce. Time that is not available with such a class load and with so many students. The solution is to employ more teachers, reduce loads, purchase materials, and create appropriate spaces. In other words, spend more money.

Then, consider the school known for its students' low achievement-test scores, high dropout rates, violence, and lack of concern. Physically, the school plant is a victim of neglect. Its library lacks books, assistance, and resources. Dark halls and poorly equipped classrooms betoken the low morale of teachers and students. Often these schools are in neighborhoods where violence is commonplace. But they are also in rural and poor districts. Reform in these situations is meaningless without significant amounts of money to repair, replace, and restore the physical and spiritual necessities of good education. In other words, spend more money.

I live in a state in which some school districts spend over twice as much per pupil than others. Guess which schools have the highest achievement, best schools, and most reform. This is far from unique; most states have large disparities in the funding provided for school districts and a similarly wide disparity in the pace and impact of school reform.

Well-financed districts are most often the hotbeds of innovation and reform. From creative and energetic supervisors who support new ideas with grants and advice to impressive displays of technology hardware and software, these districts seems to be alive with excitement. Students' achievement is well above average, teacher morale is great, parent satisfaction is high, and reform is a vital issue on the local education agenda.

The real challenge for reformers is not to create more new ways to change; these will emerge naturally from research and practice. When new ideas are practical, possible, and beneficial, they will be shared and adopted. There is a plethora of good ideas now, and the inventory is growing all the time. The real challenge, the crucial ingredient reformers and critics ignore, is how to finance implementation. Until the financing problem is solved, the reform critics' talk is as empty as their pocketbooks.

Vol. 14, Issue 17, Page 36

Published in Print: January 18, 1995, as Money Is the Answer
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