Special Report
Education Funding Opinion

Secretary Duncan: Use New School Money on Something New

By Gary W. Ritter & Robert Maranto — July 29, 2009 3 min read
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We came across an article in our local paper this spring headlined “School Districts Eyeing Ways to Spend Federal Stimulus Funds.” At first this seemed like a nice, feel-good piece on what our public schools are trying to do: “New technology, more professional development, and maybe even a school bus. …” What’s not to like?

But on reflection, we began to question whether these are wise investments.

Don’t public schools already invest huge sums of money in computers, Internet access, and the latest technology? And funding formulas in most states, including ours, already include large per-student allocations for “professional development,” a fancy term for teacher training. So, if our public schools already spend billions in these areas, why spend more? If current spending on technology and training doesn’t work, then increasing it just sends good money after bad.

This stimulus package should provide a once-in-a-lifetime chance for risk-taking and innovation.”

If nothing else, it is worthwhile to examine the evidence to see the potential effectiveness of these strategies. While conventional wisdom says that better technology in classrooms increases learning, the data say otherwise. Small-scale studies, along with a few comprehensive meta-analyses, have been unable to find consistently positive effects of technology on student achievement. Most recently, a large-scale random-assignment study by the nonpartisan group Mathematica Policy Research found that the use of reading and math software products in classrooms failed to improve student learning. It turns out that in the real world, as opposed to the world promised by technology salespersons, teachers don’t change what they do just because they have fancier gadgets in their classrooms.

The same holds true for professional development. Teachers must be equipped for ever-changing students and classrooms, but our experience suggests that many professional-development programs provided by universities and for-profit companies lack subject-matter knowledge, and are therefore ineffective. Teachers we know often describe the uselessness of “in-service” days, and the research says they are right. A recent large-scale evaluation sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education examined the effectiveness of an intensive professional-development session in language essentials for 270 elementary school reading teachers. A similar large-scale evaluation was conducted on a professional-development reform focused on elementary school science in 80 schools in Los Angeles. In each case, the evaluators found that teachers who participated in professional development were no more effective than their nonparticipating peers at increasing student learning.

Putting more resources into technology and for-profit consultants provides jobs and lets politicians feel they are helping schools, but it doesn’t improve student learning. The research tells us that schools should not be using the current influx of federal money to do more of the same. Instead, this stimulus package should provide a once-in-a-lifetime chance for risk-taking and innovation.

So how could the education money in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act improve student learning? We have two suggestions in accord with existing research, common sense, and the stated goals of the Obama administration. First, as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, pilot projects suggest that paying teachers more when their students learn more is effective—in part because it helps keep the best teachers in the field and pushes others to copy their methods. Merit pay treats teachers more like doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, who earn more when they do better work. School leaders should insist that some of the education stimulus funding go to merit-pay plans.

Second, Secretary Duncan recently called for “bold action” to fix the worst 5,000 public schools, but was vague about the details. President Obama and Secretary Duncan would never send their children to such schools. Neither would we. At the same time, both Obama and Duncan have urged states to expand the numbers of charter schools, independent public schools that are chosen by (and thus accountable to) parents. Why not tell states they can’t receive round two of their education stimulus funding unless they start closing their long-term low-performing public schools, and awarding the buildings to Green Dot, the Knowledge Is Power Program, Amistad, and other high-quality charter school operators that offer disadvantaged students a chance at success?

These kinds of reforms would not be politically safe, but they would use this crisis as an opportunity for change in education, and not just more of the same.

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