05/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Does Money Matter Most? Finding a Silver Lining for Schools in Recessionary Times

These are dreadful times for public schools, and even with President Barack Obama's economic-stimulus plan, it's hard to see where the silver lining might be. Schools have become dominated by the money myth: Inadequate outcomes can be explained by inadequate revenues, and any educational problem requires increased spending. Few people are going to look for improving schools in a period of declining revenues.

But the link between spending per pupil and outcomes has always been weak. Since increased revenues are unlikely, this period provides an opportunity to rethink the relationship of money to effective school resources, and to develop new approaches.

States, districts, and schools should pursue at least the following five strategies, each based on a different reason the money myth is wrong.

The first is to eliminate waste, which takes many forms: spending on ineffective resources, such as weak after-school programs or teachers' aides without a clear purpose; spending money without changing practices (using ineffective professional development, for example); mobilizing resources with potential long-run benefits, but where instability--a new principal, a superintendent with different priorities, teacher turnover--undermines their effectiveness. Often, money is spent piecemeal, when schools respond to categorical and foundation grants without overall plans.

Other waste occurs when what could be termed simple resources are insufficient. Class-size reduction provides a clear example: As California's failed experiment shows, the effective resource is not smaller classes but a compound resource: smaller classes plus well-educated teachers plus professional development focused on improved teaching plus adequate facilities.

This period provides an opportunity to rethink the relationship of money to effective school resources, and to develop new approaches.

District and school audits would uncover a great deal of waste that could be redirected to other uses.

The second strategy is to avoid spending on expensive but ineffective, even counterproductive, programs. Traditional vocational education is a case in point: It spends much for equipment and materials, while reducing student learning and progress through high school.

Other forms of tracking are similarly counterproductive: the general track with its watered-down curriculum, remedial pedagogy with its emphasis on drill and practice, and many other interventions spending more money (with less success) for students who are behind.

Third, districts and schools should understand the power of complex resources, usually related to instruction. Statistical results from my work show that teachers' use of time, their control over instruction, a departmental encouragement of innovation, and teachers' reliance on innovative (or "balanced") instruction all lead to improved learning and higher test scores. But these complex resources cannot readily be bought, and districts with higher spending per student do not necessarily have them at higher levels. Instead, such resources must be constructed at the school level, by principals and teachers working collaboratively over time, using more-effective professional development.

Many abstract resources are powerful too: a positive school climate, the absence of distractions such as fighting and drug-dealing, overall student commitment, trust among a school's participants, the coherence of the curriculum, and stability among students, teachers, leaders, and reforms. Like complex resources, these abstract resources cannot easily be bought, and higher spending does not increase them. They are usually embedded in the personal relationships of schools and must be constructed collectively.

Fifth, schools and districts should recognize and eliminate the mistreatment of students of color. Achievements gaps are usually stated in racial or ethnic terms: the differences among white, black, and Latino test scores, for example, or the dropout rates of Latinos compared with those of white and Asian students. These differences cannot be explained away, even by variables describing family background, unequal school resources, or students' commitment to schooling.

There is substantial evidence of schools' mistreatment of students of color, ranging from the unconscious to the grotesque. In response, advocates have developed many innovative practices to support these students, including culturally relevant pedagogy and multicultural education; innovative instructional methods with greater student participation and more critical perspectives; systematic classroom observation, so that teachers can learn whether they are unconsciously mistreating students; and different approaches to discipline. These are also complex and abstract resources, requiring not money but understanding, leadership, and cooperation.

Sometimes money is necessary, of course. A list of effective practices that cost more money would include personalizing schools, which requires additional adults; having more counselors per student; providing teacher release time for planning and professional development; maintaining higher teacher salaries to increase the pool of job applicants and reduce turnover. But increased spending is effective only when an activity enhances outcomes and that activity requires specific expenditures.

So there are many activities schools can undertake to help their students achieve more and thrive, even as we wait for this recession to pass. But doing so will require an understanding of the broad range of resources that affect students' progress, and of how many of these are not dependent on money--contrary to the money myth.

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