There is no question we are asking our states, school districts, and schools to do far more with fewer resources. The boom years for public education are over, perhaps best emphasized by the end of the multi-billion-dollar Reading First program years ago. The economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, now coupled with the end of ARRA money for the states means school districts are already pinching the skinniest of pennies.
Regardless of whether I am wearing my ed reformer hat, my school board chairman hat, my pundit hat, or my parent hat, I hate hearing the “do more with less mantra.” At the end of the day, this is not an issue of doing more. This is an issue of doing better, pure and simple. Throughout public education, we must do better with the resources we have, ensuring that those precious dollars are being spent on kids, instruction, and results. We must demonstrate real return on our education investment, shown through the success of our students. No ifs, ands, or buts.
That’s why it is so disheartening to continue to see those who defend the status quo crow that it is all about the dollars, that our schools would do more if they only had increased funding. That the answer, as Diane Ravitch recently put it during a visit to Hartford, CT, is “then raise taxes!”
There is no question that poverty and performance in our public schools are closely linked. One only needs to look at the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income students to see that reality. But we also know there is no data that proves increasing the per-pupil expenditure results in improved student learning, student test scores, and student success.
If it were only a matter of dollars, then cities like Washington, DC would have public schools that were all the envy of the wealthiest of suburbs. If it were only a matter of funding, New Jersey’s Abbott Schools in Newark, Trenton, and Camden would be our nation’s top performers. If it were all about the benjamins, the recent influx of NCLB dollars would have turned student test scores on its head, with our previously lowest-performing schools outperforming the world.
Don’t get me wrong, money helps. It helps a great deal. But it isn’t just about gross dollars, it is about how those gold coins are spent. It is also about what one is teaching. It is about who is teaching. It is about how families are engaged in the learning process. It is about empowering students and parents. Yes, it is as much about how we spend the money as the money itself.
Organizations like Education Trust can provide detailed lists of schools in low-income communities, with low per-pupil expenditures who are succeeding against the odds. In cities across the nation, we see charter schools (and let there be no mistake, charters are also public schools) that are posting top student performance numbers, despite spending only one-half or two-thirds of what is being spent in a low-performing traditional public school in the same city. Not only can we do better with less, we have true exemplars that are already doing it.
Yes, it would be fabulous if we were able to wave a magic wand and inject billions of additional dollars into our public schools. It would be terrific if resources weren’t an issue and poverty weren’t a concern that every educator and community leader needed to worry about. And it would be great if every child could ride a unicorn to school.
Like it or not, we are now in the new normal. We must do better with the resources we have. We must ensure all kids have strong, effective teachers leading their classrooms, and those teachers are adequately supported. We must ensure all students have access to great public schools, regardless of their zip code. And we must ensure that all of those in the learning process — be they teachers, administrators, students, parents, or even those dreaded reformers — are focused on the true outcomes of public education, and not just on the inputs.