Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Reform’s Missing Ingredient

By James J. Gallagher — April 03, 2007 9 min read

Suggestions for reforming America’s education system have been plentiful of late, underscoring a widespread dissatisfaction with current practice and operation. Yet few of those offering such reforms have examined the large enterprises in our society that do operate successfully to see how they differ from education.

A list of the three largest public expenditures of funds in this country may contain a surprise for most citizens. Based on statistics for the 2006 fiscal year, the No. 1 ranking goes to health expenditures, which come in at $1,700 billion. The second-largest expenditure is for the U.S. Department of Defense, at $534 billion. No real surprise there. But the third-largest expenditure is elementary and secondary education, at $511 billion. (Higher education is more than $300 billion a year.) This surprises most people because the national figures on education are rarely presented.

Another surprising statistic for some is the number of elementary and secondary teachers employed in this country: 3.1 million in public schools, and another 400,000 in private schools. This means that if you walk down the street and pass 75 adults, the odds favor one of them being an elementary or secondary school teacher. It’s just one indicator of how immense this enterprise is.

—Steve Dininno

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But compare the support systems for each of these enormous U.S. enterprises, and the stories begin to diverge. This is important, since it is a reasonable proposition that support systems are primarily responsible for efficient operation and quality performance.

Take medicine, for example. General practitioners are surrounded by an array of technical support and auxiliary personnel. There are major laboratories to analyze patient data, impressive research efforts at the National Institutes of Health, pharmaceutical companies to provide a continuing flow of new therapeutic drugs, hospitals to take care of the serious cases, and much more. Who would believe that the family doctor could be as efficient, were those support services to disappear or be seriously diminished? It is the system of health care, as well as the quality of the individual practitioner, that makes the difference for people who have access to health services.

Or consider the military. Our brave men and women in the armed services are backed up by a huge weapons-development program, logistical support, intelligence reports, sophisticated communications efforts, air cover, artillery, and so on. There may be more than 20 people behind the scenes supporting each soldier or marine on the firing line, to make that fighter as efficient as possible. Again, try to imagine those front-line soldiers without the support.

In education, however, teachers too often have only minimal behind-the-scenes support in accomplishing their tasks. Where is the comparable system to maximize the efficiency of this enterprise? Where are the research and development, the technical assistance, the communications, the technology development, the policy studies and planning that can undergird the general practitioner of education? All these elements of support can be found somewhere in education. The question, then, is this: Are there enough of them, and are they being adequately coordinated?

One useful model for such a support system can be found in special education. With legislative authorization going back to the late 1960s, the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs has put together the following package from the federal level:

• Research and development—$83 million;

• Personnel preparation—$90 million;

• Technical assistance$49 million;

• Preschool programs$381 million; and

• Technology development—$34 million.

In addition to this, more than $10 billion is provided for help to local and state education units. If these support elements were to be applied proportionately to general education, we would have the basis for a strong education support system.

To illustrate, let’s examine across agencies current outlays for just one of these support-system activities: research and development. The Defense Department has an R&D budget of $74 billion. Even when weapons development is excluded, there still is $11 billion for basic and applied research. In medical research, the National Institutes of Health has a budget of $28.6 billion—a lot of money, but still only about 2 percent of the nation’s health expenditures. Education now has an Institute of Education Sciences in the Education Department that would like to mirror the NIH. But its total budget in fiscal 2005 was $479 million—less than 2 percent of the NIH total, and slightly more than 4 percent of the basic- and applied-research effort of the Defense Department. There are other small pockets of money from federal sources that can be added to education’s total research effort, but these will not meaningfully change the balances noted here.

The reason for this imbalance lies less in the intention of planners or leaders than in the fact that education grew from the local level, and from a direct-service model. The move into these support areas is quite recent. So how could the current system of support be extended at a modest cost, so that it would begin to take the shape of a high-quality national support system for education?

A viable system could be made up of the following components. Such a system, added to the fragments of support entities now available, could bring us closer to parity with the health and military systems.

Research and development.To achieve the goal of evidence-based practice in the various levels and fields of education, major research centers and investigator teams are needed to conduct intensive and long-range basic research. Preschool education would be one obvious focus of such effort. (Twenty centers or teams at $5 million each would cost $100 million annually.)

Technical assistance. An average of four regional centers for each of the states could provide consultation upon request to teachers and schools, and could organize short-term instruction on areas of current interest. The technical-assistance centers would contract for expertise where needed (in fields from architecture, to finance, to applied behavior analysis). (Two hundred centers, at $500,000 each, would cost $100 million a year.)

Personnel preparation (leadership training). While states provide funds for teacher preparation, they often do not cover leadership training for those in high administrative or bureaucratic roles. Consequently, the decisionmaking by these key personnel is less than optimum. Competitive grants and fellowships could be given to 20 institutions of higher education to provide leadership training on public policy, advanced technology, and the newest developments in a variety of levels of education. (Cost would be $1 million per year for 20 institutions, for a total of $20 million.)

Communication. The plan would call for the funding of five major dissemination and distribution centers in special areas such as science and math, accelerated learning, art, and English as a second language. These centers would be linked with other support units, such as the technical-assistance centers. (Five centers at $10 million would be $50 million a year.)

Decisionmakers have 'talked the talk'; now we should insist that they 'walk the walk.'

Program evaluation. Current programs place a heavy emphasis on accountability, but provide relatively little investment in the measurement development needed to meet special circumstances, such as the needs of children with disabilities, accelerated learners, English-as-a-second-language students, and others. We should support for five years five centers that would focus on instrument development for special circumstances. (Five centers for $5 million each, at $25 million annually for five years.)

Demonstration centers. Since demonstrating best practices in a practical setting encourages others to change, we need a variety of settings in which to do that. (Twenty-five centers at $2 million each, for a total of $50 million annually.)

Technology development. The rapid advance of educational technology requires that growth and development in this area be organized and systematic. (Ten centers at $3 million each, for a total of $30 million a year.)

Data systems and state planning. We should provide help to states in developing their capabilities to establish the data systems they need for state planning. Many states do not know how many autistic children they have, for example, or how many students in the state have major reading problems that require the preparation of specialists. (At $1 million for each of 50 states, the yearly total would be $50 million.)

Those who think this proposed commitment of $425 million dollars would represent a huge investment should look at the school budgets of Rochester, N.Y.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Tucson, Ariz., each of which exceeds this amount.

More than three decades ago, the field’s major professional and support organizations came to Washington to launch a campaign for full funding for education in the Congress. Groups that might not have seen eye to eye before joined in common cause, because they were tired of the tactic in Congress of playing off one group of educators against another (“We’d like to give more for vocational education, but all this money is going to special education”). Education is important enough that all major programs need appropriate funding, the coalition insisted. The results of this concerted effort were rewarding, if not fully successful in the case of funding levels.

Our national organizations need to form a coalition of interests once again to achieve a common purpose: constructing a high-quality support system for all education. This new consortium would involve not only the major professional groups, but also those foundations which have long had an interest in schooling.

Our national organizations need to form a coalition of interests once again to achieve a common purpose: constructing a high-quality support system for <i>all</i> education.

A first step in this direction could be a meeting of the executive directors of these organizations in Washington to discuss strategy and cooperative action. Task forces from the various organizations could then spell out what resources would be needed in personnel preparation, educational research, or technical assistance to benefit and support the classroom teacher. (A fully developed plan would have a better chance of succeeding than pleas for millions to be poured into education for undifferentiated purposes.)

Next, a conference in Washington, hosted by the major associations and interested foundations, might explore ways of beginning to design such a support system. The conference and the papers it would generate could build the structure needed to encourage decisionmakers to support the “quality support system” initiative.

A further step could be the establishment of a task force representing all these interests to monitor progress toward this goal. Since a sudden outpouring of funds, even as modest as those in this proposal are, is unlikely, some continuing effort to encourage change and chart progress would be necessary.

If we are to believe what we hear from influential sources, education is clearly a national priority. But, for too many years, we’ve been told by people in public life how important education is to our states and the nation. Decisionmakers have “talked the talk”; now we should insist that they “walk the walk.” They should not be allowed to say, “We wish we could do more for education, but you understand there is no money.”

Of course there is no money. There was no money for a war in Iraq, or a suspect anti-ballistic-missile system, but we spent it anyway. We thought it important enough to borrow the money from future generations, or from China, or whomever was interested in loaning us money at profitable interest rates.

If we think the creation of a quality support system for education is important, then let us borrow the money. This particular investment would pay multiple dividends for years to come.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as Reform’s Missing Ingredient

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