I was sitting in the back of the hearing room yesterday when the very competent staff of the Maryland legislature made a fascinating presentation to the Maryland Commission on Excellence and Innovation in Education, known to all in the state as the Kirwan Commission after its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan. NCEE is providing assistance to the Commission in its work to update the state’s school funding formula and strengthen its education system.
Though it was all one presentation, in my mind it came in two parts. The first part had to do with growth in expenditures on education in the state and the growth in the size of the education staff.
The story they told went something like this. Enrollment was pretty much flat since 2002. But per pupil expenditures increased from $8,599 to $14,678 over that period, instructional staff increased by 15.3%, total personnel per 100 students increased by 12% and average teacher salaries increased 41.7%.
For a long time, Maryland led the nation in mathematics and reading on the 4th and 8th grade NAEP tests. But, a few years ago, it turned out that Maryland was not counting the performance of all the special education students it should have been counting. Now that the state is doing so, it places in the middle of the nation on 4th grade and 8th grade math and reading on NAEP. The academic performance of Baltimore’s students is the third and fourth lowest in math and reading respectively among participating big cities.
The question for the Commission, of course, is what to do about the picture this data paints. The members know that, even though Maryland’s teachers are paid more than they used to be paid, they are still being paid less than they would be paid if they were teaching in the top-performing countries, compared to people in the high status professions. The data show that some of the money that came into the system went not into paying teachers more but hiring more of them. Some districts that lost students did not make commensurate reductions in their staff, which also contributes to raising the ratio of teachers to students. The global data show that if systems have more money to spend on teachers, they will get better results spending that money on better teachers, not more teachers. The Commission knows that, too.
The legislative staff’s presentation did not end there. They went on to draw some contrasts between schools serving high concentrations of students living in poverty and those serving fewer students living in poverty.
The data showed that the greater the concentration of poverty (as measured by proportion of students within a school qualifying for Free and Reduced-Price Meals) the lower the average total expenditures per school. In schools with less than 25% of FRPM students, total expenditures per school were a little over $8 million, with classroom expenditures about $4.3 million. In schools with at least 75% of FRPM students, the total expenditures were about $6 million and classroom expenditures were about $3.2 million. Total expenditures for instructional salaries in schools with fewer than 25% FRPM students had average salary expenses of $3.3 million. Schools with at least 75% of their students in FRPM had only enough money to spend about $2.2 million on salaries.
And that’s not all. In schools with fewer than 25% of their students on FRPM, just a little over 20% of the teachers have one to five years of experience. In schools with more than 75% of their students on FRPM, more than 40% of the teachers have one to five years of experience. Conversely, about 10% of the teachers in schools with the highest concentrations of poverty have 21 or more years of experience, while about 20% of the teachers in schools with the lowest concentrations of poverty have 21 or more years of experience.
Many people I talk with, including policy makers, think that the federal and state funds that are earmarked for schools serving mainly low-income students more than make up for differences in local property wealth. In this case, most of the schools with the highest concentrations of students living in poverty are in Baltimore City and Baltimore’s schools are smaller than those in most of the rest of the state. The legislative staff is planning to do more analysis to see what the data have to say about differences in per student expenditures. My guess is that, when that analysis is done, it will show that despite the extra funds in the formula for districts with high proportions of students from low-income families, schools serving very high concentrations of students living in poverty will still come up well short of the funds they need when compared to schools in wealthier communities.
And then there is the kicker. These schools get teachers with much less experience. One of the reasons they have less experience is the constant faculty turnover in these schools. Unsupported, poorly prepared raw recruits flounder and decide to leave teaching altogether. And many experienced teachers don’t want to teach in schools they see as poorly led and often in chaos. The top-performing countries provide very strong incentives for first-class teachers and school leaders to serve in high-needs schools, but we provide none.
The Commission understands all of this and has made it clear that they want to do something for schools serving high concentrations of students who live in poverty. But they are not naïve. They know that if they fashion a revised formula that just gives such schools more money, schools could have a perverse incentive to draw school boundaries in ways that create more schools with concentrated poverty, which may result in the creation of even more schools that are even more segregated from other schools by social class divisions and may make it even harder to prepare these students for a bright future. So, the Commissioners are on the hunt for a smarter way to address this problem. But they are determined to address it.
The Commission clearly wants to give Maryland schools the money they will need to get from the middle of the national pack to the top on NAEP. But they understand the statistics the legislative staff shared with them. They know that how the money is spent is at least as important as how much money is put on the table. As Rachel Hise, the senior legislative aide for education, said when the last Commission meeting began, the Commission has set out to do something that has never been done before in the United States. It is breaking new ground, creating a new approach to school finance that embraces both the established methodologies for creating school finance formulas and the best research on the policies and spending patterns needed to match the performance of the world’s top-performing education systems. The product will be, among other things, a new approach to state school finance for the 21st century.
The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.