Special Report
School & District Management Commentary

Does Money Matter Most?

By W. Norton Grubb — March 13, 2009 4 min read

These are dreadful times for public schools, and even with President Barack Obama’s economic-stimulus plan, it’s hard to see where the silver lining might be. Schools have become dominated by the money myth: Inadequate outcomes can be explained by inadequate revenues, and any educational problem requires increased spending. Few people are going to look for improving schools in a period of declining revenues.

But the link between spending per pupil and outcomes has always been weak. Since increased revenues are unlikely, this period provides an opportunity to rethink the relationship of money to effective school resources, and to develop new approaches.

States, districts, and schools should pursue at least the following five strategies, each based on a different reason the money myth is wrong.

The first is to eliminate waste, which takes many forms: spending on ineffective resources, such as weak after-school programs or teachers’ aides without a clear purpose; spending money without changing practices (using ineffective professional development, for example); mobilizing resources with potential long-run benefits, but where instability—a new principal, a superintendent with different priorities, teacher turnover—undermines their effectiveness. Often, money is spent piecemeal, when schools respond to categorical and foundation grants without overall plans.

Other waste occurs when what could be termed simple resources are insufficient. Class-size reduction provides a clear example: As California’s failed experiment shows, the effective resource is not smaller classes but a compound resource: smaller classes plus well-educated teachers plus professional development focused on improved teaching plus adequate facilities.

This period provides an opportunity to rethink the relationship of money to effective school resources, and to develop new approaches.

District and school audits would uncover a great deal of waste that could be redirected to other uses.

The second strategy is to avoid spending on expensive but ineffective, even counterproductive, programs. Traditional vocational education is a case in point: It spends much for equipment and materials, while reducing student learning and progress through high school.

Other forms of tracking are similarly counterproductive: the general track with its watered-down curriculum, remedial pedagogy with its emphasis on drill and practice, and many other interventions spending more money (with less success) for students who are behind.

Third, districts and schools should understand the power of complex resources, usually related to instruction. Statistical results from my work show that teachers’ use of time, their control over instruction, a departmental encouragement of innovation, and teachers’ reliance on innovative (or “balanced”) instruction all lead to improved learning and higher test scores. But these complex resources cannot readily be bought, and districts with higher spending per student do not necessarily have them at higher levels. Instead, such resources must be constructed at the school level, by principals and teachers working collaboratively over time, using more-effective professional development.

Many abstract resources are powerful too: a positive school climate, the absence of distractions such as fighting and drug-dealing, overall student commitment, trust among a school’s participants, the coherence of the curriculum, and stability among students, teachers, leaders, and reforms. Like complex resources, these abstract resources cannot easily be bought, and higher spending does not increase them. They are usually embedded in the personal relationships of schools and must be constructed collectively.

Fifth, schools and districts should recognize and eliminate the mistreatment of students of color. Achievements gaps are usually stated in racial or ethnic terms: the differences among white, black, and Latino test scores, for example, or the dropout rates of Latinos compared with those of white and Asian students. These differences cannot be explained away, even by variables describing family background, unequal school resources, or students’ commitment to schooling.

There is substantial evidence of schools’ mistreatment of students of color, ranging from the unconscious to the grotesque. In response, advocates have developed many innovative practices to support these students, including culturally relevant pedagogy and multicultural education; innovative instructional methods with greater student participation and more critical perspectives; systematic classroom observation, so that teachers can learn whether they are unconsciously mistreating students; and different approaches to discipline. These are also complex and abstract resources, requiring not money but understanding, leadership, and cooperation.

Sometimes money is necessary, of course. A list of effective practices that cost more money would include personalizing schools, which requires additional adults; having more counselors per student; providing teacher release time for planning and professional development; maintaining higher teacher salaries to increase the pool of job applicants and reduce turnover. But increased spending is effective only when an activity enhances outcomes and that activity requires specific expenditures.

So there are many activities schools can undertake to help their students achieve more and thrive, even as we wait for this recession to pass. But doing so will require an understanding of the broad range of resources that affect students’ progress, and of how many of these are not dependent on money—contrary to the money myth.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Does Money Matter Most?

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion 42 Percent of Principals Want to Leave Their Position. Will You Let Them?
There are specific reasons leaders cite for reasons they want to leave their positions. What can we do about it? Do we care?
7 min read
42% of Principals are considering leaving their position. Are you one of them?
42% of Principals are considering leaving their position. Are you one of them?
Shutterstock
School & District Management Is the Assistant Principal the Most Overlooked, Undervalued Person at School?
A new research review on assistant principals finds that the role is undefined and that support for these school leaders is inconsistent.
7 min read
 teachers and leaders looking around for direction
Mykyta Dolmatov/iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Opinion Pandemic Recovery Will Be Complex. We’ll Need the Best School Leaders
To face the education challenges of today and tomorrow, we must invest in the principal pipeline, writes Michael J. Petrilli.
Michael J. Petrilli
4 min read
Leader pointing hand forward, directing boat forward through corona virus crisis
iStock / Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Opinion The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My 'Tribe'
A Black school leader reflects on the hardest year of her professional life.
Reba Y. Hodge
4 min read
new growth on a bare tree
Vanessa Solis/Education Week & Getty Images