In dire fiscal times like these, with the utter failure of Tuesday's budget propositions, must all school improvement grind to a halt until California finds more revenue?
Since the 19th century, we've been told that money alone will improve school outcomes and that to reform schools, all we need is more money. That's the money myth. And it's just plain wrong.
When I led a team that examined 12 years of national education data, including California's, one big surprise emerged: The numbers showed that the relationship between spending per pupil and student outcomes in California (and elsewhere) is somewhere between weak and nonexistent.
Many initiatives in California on which we've spent billions of dollars have nothing to show for it, from class size reduction and initiatives to improve low-performing schools, to older efforts to restructure schools altogether. That's the bad news.
The good news is that understanding what resources do matter, and which ones are relatively costless (yet priceless), means we could continue to improve schools despite California's abysmally low funding levels, which now put us 45th among the states.
This doesn't mean money doesn't matter. Of course it does. It's impossible to educate students without teachers, books and buildings. And these all cost money -- public money. California's anti-tax groups promised that tax cuts, starting with Proposition 13, would not affect schools. But of course they have, in many obvious and unforeseen ways. The aspiring urban principals I teach are in schools where there's little energy for substantial reforms -- everyone has too many jobs, there are too many district and state regulations, and the pressures to score well on simple-minded tests are too relentless.
But while money is necessary, it is not sufficient. To have any influence on student outcomes, it must be spent well and wisely.
Five key factors show why money and outcomes are only weakly linked. First, all too often, money is wasted. It's spent on ineffective resources, promising reforms that new principals or superintendents reverse, or is spent without any plan.
Second, sometimes schools and districts spend money on expensive, but counterproductive practices such as traditional vocational education, remedial programs, poorly conceived after-school programs or ineffective curricula.
Third, many schools fail to understand the importance of instructional quality. This includes teacher control of the curriculum, support for innovation and teaching with more conceptual approaches.
Fourth, schools and districts often ignore a range of abstract resources, from school climate (the relationships needed to make a school dedicated to academic improvement), to student commitment and trust, to the coherence of the curriculum (i.e., it is developed from a compatible set of assumptions about education) and the stability of the students (students who interrupt their education with frequent moves don't learn as well, often disrupt class and are at risk for dropping out.)
Finally, almost no one pays much attention to diagnosing, and then correcting, the specifically racial and ethnic dimensions of achievement gaps among white, Asian American, African American and Latino students.
For resources to be effective, they must be used with vision, leadership, cooperation from everyone in a school and district support. No store or Web site sells high quality teaching or improved school climate.
Some improvements will require waiting for more revenues, such as more adults to make schools more personalized or better salaries and working conditions to reduce teacher turnover.
Where, then, could we begin to transform California's schools with the current insufficient funds?
By addressing the five key factors I outline above.
Over the long run, California needs to generate new and stable revenue sources for a world-class education system. The current uncertainties -- pink slips every March, schools not knowing their funding until August, program categories that constrain how money is spent -- create their own forms of waste, and drain teachers and principals of energy. The agenda for improvement is large. Fortunately, though, some of it doesn't cost much money, and it therefore need not wait for California to solve its money woes.
W. Norton Grubb, author of "The Money Myth: School Resources, Outcomes and Equity" (Russell Sage Foundation, 2009), is the David Gardner Chair in Higher Education, UC Berkeley, and faculty director of its Principal Leadership Institute.
This article appeared on page A - 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle