How to stretch the school-district dollar

Stretching the school-district dollar is a must in tough times, writes Fordham’s Michael J. Petrilli in a new policy brief.

“Aim for a leaner, more productive, better paid workforce,” he advises.

In the last two decades, school systems have hired all manner of instructional coaches, teachers’ aides, program administrators, support staff, counselors, psychiatrists, specialists, and so forth. Redefining these roles—and those of classroom teachers—provides great opportunities for increased productivity. None of this is easy, but districts should consider:

Asking classroom teachers to take on additional responsibility in return for greater pay. Can they do without aides? Handle larger classes (or student loads)? Take on mentoring roles along with classroom instruction? Where these additional responsibilities enable the system to operate with fewer staff (even if that means the remaining staff work a longer year), the system can justify higher pay while still realizing savings.

Districts also should rethink special education, Petrilli writes.

For example, if a district uses a “co-teaching” model with regular teacher and a special education teacher in the same classroom—which is hugely expensive—could it try a pull-out approach instead? Or if the best model has these students staying in the classroom, could the extra services be provided over the summer, or after school?

He also suggests a more aggressive salary schedule that lets teachers reach the maximum base pay more quickly, prioritizing salaries over benefits and “thoughtful” integration of technology.

 

If there’s no market …

In 1964, Sears advertised a TV console for $750, writes Mark Perry on Carpe Diem.  For an equivalent amount, about $5,500, a consumer today could buy “8  brand-new appliances (refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher, range, washer, dryer, microwave and blender) and buy 9 state-of-the-art electronic items (laptop, GPS, camera, home theater, plasma HDTV, iPod Touch, Blu-ray player, 300-CD changer and a Tivo recorder).” In short, things are a lot cheaper.  

This illustrates The Desperate Need for Market Forces in Education, writes Matthew Ladner, guesting on Jay  Greene’s blog.

We live, in short, in an age wonders, except of course for areas of the economy heavily managed and financed by the government,” Ladner writes. “In those areas, instead of radically improving products provided at continually lower costs, we tend to see expanded costs for no, little or ambiguous improvements.

From another Perry post, Ladner supplies a chart showing the fall in prices in food, cars, clothing and furniture from 1948 to 2010 as a share of household expenditures.  Then he adds a Cato chart showing inflation-adjusted K-12 spending and achievement since 1970 .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since education is a service, not a thing, it would be fairer to compare it with the cost of other services, though it’s hard to get at the quality issue. We spend a lot more on health care, but we get much more effective medicines and treatments. If anyone has useful data, let me know.

Illinois: Fix K-12 math to boost college grad rate

To raise the community college graduation rate, require more math in high school and redesign remedial math instruction in college, concludes an Illinois report.

Colleges must focus on productivity and affordability to keep open the path to the American Dream.

NEPC: Base productivity ideas on research

The U.S. Department of Education’s Increasing Educational Productivity project, which provides dollar-stretching advice to school districts, isn’t backed by solid research, charges a National Education Policy Center report.

Researchers have ignored efficiency and productivity “over the last half-century,” responds Rick Hess. “Most cost-saving efforts in most sectors are based on sensible intuitions and experimentation rather than “rigorous science.”

‘Smart, gutsy call’ on special ed funding

Districts can reduce special education funding without risking the loss of federal funds, the U.S. Department of Education declared this week.

“Smart and gutsy,” writes Rick Hess. Also sensible.

A district which provides special education services more cost-effectively has long been threatened with losing their federal aid unless they keep on spending at the same rate.

At a time when “districts are being asked to make tough choices about services for all other students,” it’s unfair to exempt special-ed funding from scrutiny, Hess argues.

Rick Perry as higher-ed visionary

Rick Perry Is A Higher-Education Visionary. Seriously. So argues Kevin Carey in The New Republic.

The Texas governor is urging university leaders to implement “Seven Breakthrough Solutions for reforming higher education developed by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Taken together, the seven solutions are remarkably student-friendly. Four of them focus on improving the quality of university teaching by developing new methods of evaluating teaching performance, tying tenure to success in the classroom, separating the teaching and research functions within university budgets, and using teaching budgets to reward professors who excel at helping students learn. The fifth solution would give prospective students choosing colleges more information about things like class size, graduation rates, and earnings in the job market after graduation. The sixth would make state higher education subsidies more student-focused, and the seventh would shift university accreditation toward measures of academic outcomes.

University teaching is often terrible, writes Carey.  Many students learn very little, the Academically Adrift study found.

Some professors don’t do much teaching or research.  “At UT-Austin, one group of 1,748 mostly-tenured professors, representing 44 percent of the faculty, generated 54 percent of institutional costs, taught only 27 percent of students, and brought in no external research funding whatsoever.”

Nearly all Texas Democrats have denounced Perry’s plans, Carey writes.

The left-learning Texas Monthly declared that “Rick Perry is waging an undeclared war on higher education.”

. . . The problems that Perry is trying to solve — bad teaching, unaccountable public institutions, soaring college costs — disproportionately hurt the first generation, low-income, and minority students that liberals should be most interested in helping. His call to disrupt traditional business models with low-cost, technology-driven alternatives reflects the ethos of the netroots movement that has come to dominate progressive politics. Yet one Firedoglake writer opined that Perry was “casually sacrificing the human pursuit of knowledge to the gods of a craven capitalism.”

Research universities “are established, wealthy, powerful, and determined to stay that way,” Carey writes. “Progressives tend to be enthusiastic about sticking it to every available Man other than the one who conferred their prized college degree.”

Sturdy hybrid vigor

“Hybrid” schools that combine face-to-face teaching by teachers with online instruction are the next big thing, reports Education Next. The Rocketship schools in San Jose, School of One in New York City, Denver School of Science and Technology, Carpe Diem in Yuma and San Diego’s High Tech High “use technology intensively and thoughtfully to tailor instruction to individual students’ needs, and provide robust, frequent data on their performance,”  write Jonathan Schorr and Deborah McGriff, NewSchools Venture Fund partners.

In the lab, the 1st graders log in by selecting from a group of images that acts as a personal password, and then race through a short assessment that covers math and reading problems. Faced with the prompt “Put all the striped balls in one basket and all the polka-dotted balls in the other basket,” a student named Jazmine uses her mouse to move the objects to their places. Then it’s on to the core activity of her 90 minutes in the lab: a lesson on counting and grouping using software from DreamBox. . . .  A bit later, she’ll read a book from a box targeted at her exact reading level, and make a return visit to the computer to take a short quiz about what she read.

Hybrid schools realize productivity gains, Schorr and McGriff writes. Rocketship hires an aide to monitor 43 students in the computer lab. The money saved is used to pay teachers more and keep class size down in the face-to-face part of the day.

In the future, Rocketship hopes children will be able to “learn much of their basic skills via adaptive technology like the DreamBox software, leaving classroom teachers free to focus on critical-thinking instruction and extra help where kids are struggling.”

Likewise, teachers will be able to “prescribe” online attention to specific skills. Part of the model involves providing teachers with a steady stream of data that will help them adjust instruction to kids’ specific needs, and to guide afterschool tutors.  overwhelming to teachers.

High Tech High uses ALEKS, “a Web-based, artificially intelligent assessment and learning system,” which provides “a snapshot of a student’s knowledge in a given content area, recognizing which topics he has mastered and which he has not.”

Getting more brains for the buck

Education productivity — the return on our investment in schools — varies widely from one district to another, concludes a study by the Center for American Progress.

Education spending per student has nearly tripled over the past four decades, after adjusting for inflation, the report notes.  Student achievement has remained about the same.

In more than half of the states included in our study, there was no clear relationship between spending and achievement after adjusting for other variables, such as cost of living and students in poverty.

Some districts spent thousands of dollars more per student to reach the same level of academic achievement. For example, Baltimore spends $2,500 more a year per student than Austin, Texas, after adjusting for the cost of living and student poverty. Yet Baltimore’s students are much less likely to score at or above the proficient level.

. . . after accounting for factors outside of a district’s control, many high-spending districts posted middling productivity results. For example, only 17 percent of Florida’s districts in the top third in spending were also in the top third in achievement.

Not surprisingly, the most productive districts make student achievement a priority. Leaders are willing to make tough choices, such as closing schools with low enrollment. The least productive districts spend more on administration, operations and other non-instructional expenditures.

Only Florida and Texas evaluate school-level productivity, the report finds. Often nobody knows which schools are spending money effectively and which are not.

Among the recommendations are improving data analysis, creating “performance-focused management systems that are flexible on inputs and strict on outcomes” and directing funding to students based on their needs.

Here’s a cool interactive map showing the return on education investment in various districts. In California, I see that San Francisco and San Jose rate fairly high in productivity, while Los Angeles is quite low.

Spend money like it matters

Spend Money Like It Matters, writes Rick Hess in Educational Leadership. Specifically, we need to spend money to “attract, retain and make full use of talented educators.”

Question: Do you think that employees who are good at their work ought to be rewarded, recognized, and have the chance to step up into new opportunities and responsibilities? I do. If you’re with me on this, you embrace the principle of merit pay — whether you know it or not.

. . . I don’t imagine that paying bonuses for bumps in test scores, as though we were compensating traveling encyclopedia salesmen in the 1950s, is going to improve teaching or learning. And I don’t think that value-added calculations are themselves a comprehensive or reliable measure of teacher quality, even in grades where we can calculate such numbers with a reasonable degree of statistical accuracy. But money and metrics are invaluable tools in shaping a 21st century teaching profession.

Many merit-pay proposals foolishly try to “slather some test-based bonuses atop existing pay scales,” Hess writes. We need to rethink teacher pay to “help make employees feel valued, make the teaching profession more attractive to potential entrants, and signal that professional norms are displacing those of the industrial model.”

Merit pay, done right, will improve productivity, which schools no longer can afford to ignore. (See Productivity or the poorhouse.)

One-size-fits-all compensation means that we’re either paying the most effective employees too little, paying their less effective colleagues too much, or, most times, a little of each. In a world of scarce talent and limited resources, this is a problem.

A quick fix won’t work for teacher pay, Hess writes. This is going to take time to figure out. And we’re not likely to end up with one right answer for all schools and all sorts of teachers.

We can improve teacher quality through school design, writes Ed Sector’s Elena Silva, who looks at the Generation Schools model. “Many schools are insufficiently attractive to talented professionals, and they squander the talent of those they manage to employ.”

Productivity or the poorhouse

Is the Golden Age of Education Spending Finally Over? In Time, Andrew Rotherham warns schools to adjust to the new reality.

In 1970 America spent about $228 billion in today’s dollars on public schools. In 2007 that figure was $583 billion. True, some of the increase can be traced back to growing enrollments, better programs, and improved services for special-education and other students, but much of the increase is just a lot of spending without a lot to show for it.

School districts pay little attention to productivity, Rotherham writes. While businesses have used technology to improve productivity, public schools are going in the opposite direction.

For example, while the private sector gets more work out of each employee, schools have hired more and more teachers to bring down class sizes even though the research is crystal clear that other reforms pack more bang for the buck. What’s more, schools lowered class sizes a little across the board rather than a lot for the most at-risk students — and in the key early grades — where it does make a difference. And when teachers are laid off because of declining enrollments or funds, it is almost entirely based on seniority rather than their performance. In Los Angeles, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing to change that practice because of its disproportionate effect on low-income and minority students. That case could ricochet around the country. 

Productivity innovations are rare, writes Rotherham, but there are a few examples.  Rocketship Education, a charter school network in San Jose, uses a blend of traditional teaching and online learning to produce “good results at substantially lower costs.”

With $1 million from the Broad Foundation and $6 million from the Charter School Growth Fund, Rocketship hopes to open 30 new hybrid schools by 2015.  The nonprofit charter network is exploring partnerships with cities including Denver, Chicago, Tulsa, Okla., Houston and Phoenix.