The Call for ROI in School Reform

Ever since Eduflack got involved in STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking, writing, and thinking about the ties between public education and economic development.  As I’ve said before, education does not operate in a vacuum.  By focusing on relevant, high-quality, results-based education, we directly impact student learning.  We also greatly affect jobs, economic development, healthcare, the environment, and even national security.  Education is the common linkage between all of our national areas of concern, and it is a linkage that deserves our utmost attention.

It’s no secret that our national attention has been solely fixed on the economy this past month or so.  Personally, I’m tired or reading the articles wondering when the markets will officially crater.  Each day, I look at the Business section, thinking the Edufamily needs to heed Warren Buffett’s advice and invest what we have now, buying when people are scared (and selling during the joyous times).
Through it all, I’ve given little thought as to how this economic roller coaster is going to affect public education.  Sure, we know that colleges and universities are worried about how students will pay tuition and how money concerns will impact public versus private decisions (just check out the front page of today’s USA Today for that story).  We worry about the short- and long-term impact the current rises and falls will have on philanthropy and the vast supports coming in from foundations, corporations, and others invested in improving the public schools.  (Personally, I was glad to hear that Bill and Melinda Gates are personally guaranteeing all of their current grantmaking, even as Microsoft stock has lost about 25% in value in the past month).  And yes, some may even think how reduced earnings, rising unemployment, and shrinking property tax pools impact a state’s ability to fulfill all their obligations.
This morning, the Boston Globe really drives this issue home.  Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is now dramatically scaling back his ambitious plans for P-20 education improvement, citing the state’s budget woes.  Plans for free education for all — from preK to community college are now being scuttled, all in the name of economic woes.  Check out the full article here — www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2008/10/27/patrick_pulling_back_on_education/  
Over the next decade, the great education improvements are going to happen at the state level.  We often forget that the feds are only responsible for 7 cents of every dollar spent on public education.  The federal government’s greatest strength is that of the bully pulpit — highlighting the successes of reform, spotlighting best practices, focusing on the issues of most importance, corralling our desire to jump from issue to issue to issue and instead focus on the few areas where we can really boost student achievement and make a lasting difference.
It’s up to the states (and the school districts) to implement what works and do what it takes to help all students.  But what happens when the financial wells run dry?  How do we invest more in education, as Gov. Patrick has proposed, when we have fewer dollars to pay for healthcare, police, prisons, pensions, roads, and other equally important issues?  
It is a good question.  But there is a better one.  How do we improve education without boosting our financial commitment?  How do we reform our system at the $10,000 or $14,000 per student we are already paying in struggling districts, without inserting more dollars into what may be clearly broken?  How do we better use our existing resources to improve options, improve quality, and improve results for all students, and not just the fortunate ones?  How do we build a better educational mousetrap with the materials already lying around the workshop?
The minds who know best say our national economic pain is likely a multi-year ride, with good days and bad days, but ongoing worry and angst.  If that is true, the visionaries who can answer the question of how we do better educationally with fewer resources are ultimately the ones who will rule the kingdom.  We have tough choices to make.  Now is the time to set education priorities and identify true return on investment.  Now is the time to think hard, act boldly, and spend wisely.  The bumper sticker is simple, we need to focus on what works.  It’s a new concept for the education field, but ROI is soon going to rule the day.

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