12/02/2010 06:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Normalizing Inadequacy

Recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan set Reformy listeners' hearts aflutter when he declared that public schools need to adjust to "The New Normal" of lean budgets and sacrifice. It's clear that we're in really tough economic times, and I agree with Secretary Duncan that we should be thinking about ways to use educational funds more effectively (especially the bit about paring down central office costs... ).

But there are two big oversights in this recent discussion of "doing more with less" that we really ought to address.

First of all, when times are tough, don't responsible adults make sure the basics are covered before they splurge on extras? If there are schools and districts in America that can't offer enough books to allow students to get their homework done, or pay all of their teachers, or offer a full curriculum, why did our government just award over $4 billion for experimental, unproven reforms? If my neighbor lost his job and risked homelessness because he had less money to pay rent, I'd be mighty confused if he went out and spent a bundle building himself a jet pack. ("It's not guaranteed to fly, and there's a more than one in five chance that it will blow up while I'm wearing it, but darn it, I want to bring my mode of transportation into the 21st Century!") I'm similarly confused by the choices Secretary Duncan and the Obama Administration are making, where education is concerned.

Also, if we agree that we need to cut back on things that don't feed instruction, and that we should "do more of what works and less of what doesn't," shouldn't we be talking about reducing or eliminating the testing requirements under NCLB? Despite heavy-handed rhetoric (and ideological spin) to the contrary, most teachers agree that expensive high-stakes tests don't help them make instructional decisions. Markedly less expensive in-class assessments do. We know increased time on task fuels student growth, so why force schools to take time and money away from teaching and learning to spend it on test-prep and high-stakes testing?

Second, why are we so complacent about having to do more with less? Though America is experiencing a recession, the richest among us haven't experienced any hardship at all. How can we call ourselves a civilized nation if we are willing to ask people who are already struggling to sacrifice more, instead of asking the filthy, stinking rich to just be a less obscene kind of affluent -- and pay their fair share to meet important national needs like public education? Based on the insane amounts of money corporations and wealthy individuals are willing to invest in their own ideological projects and campaigns, it appears to me that there is enough money in our economy to devote to so-called "luxuries" like not having 30 5-year-olds in the same kindergarten class. We just permit it to be hoarded and controlled by a select few.

(Another way we choose to spend our money: growing the world's largest prison population. Obviously we should lock up dangerous people, but is it wise to spend more than $30,000 per inmate, per year on people who've done petty things like miss a meeting with a parole officer? Using money that could be spent on schools to pay for excessive imprisonment strikes me as a criminal waste of funds... especially given the close connection between poor school performance and future incarceration.)

Arne Duncan says we "have to learn from high-performing school systems" so we can improve our own. I agree. But what are the real lessons those nations can teach us (since I'm not buying that line about teachers requesting larger class sizes)?

Lesson one: High-performing nations tend to invest higher proportions of their national wealth in education than we do. They also invest up front, in the things that count -- stable, knowledgeable, and highly-trained teaching forces, well-resourced school environments for all children, and quality curriculum and assessments that foster higher-level thinking. Wisely, they've decided to put their money into ensuring quality and equity in inputs -- the one aspect of schooling over which governments can usefully exercise meaningful control. In doing so, they have been able to systematically improve outcomes.

By contrast, America has decided to skimp on inputs and focus disproportionately on outcomes. We've decided to gamble on poorly-trained and/or under-supported teachers, gimmicky programs, and experimental reforms. To those forced to participate in this nonsense, we promise rewards (for those who raise test scores) and punishments (for everyone else). Behaviorism: how 21st Century! Oh, wait...

Lesson two: Successful nations don't tolerate massive transfers of national wealth from the poor and middle classes to the wealthy. They understand that such inequality will undermine their ability to fund schools properly, and will hurt children's ability to do their best at school. We used to understand that, too: As Linda Darling-Hammond notes in The Flat World and Education, America made the most progress in closing the racial achievement gap during the period after LBJ's Great Society and before the Reagan administration. Back then, the federal government actively promoted desegregation, lowered child poverty rates, and worked to ensure equity in resources for low-income schools and high-need student populations.

If we're truly interested in doing what's right for children, and improving America's long-term outlook, then we can no longer afford to ignore the crucial connections between student achievement and broader social policy. It's not enough to say we understand that what happens in and out of school are connected. We need to start acting like we understand, and crafting policies that reflect that understanding.

It wasn't brave for Duncan to walk into a room full of corporate reformers and say that schools need to accept being inadequately funded. What would have been brave would be if he had told them, as The Reflective Educator remarked on his blog, that "quality education is expensive. Deal with it."