For much of the last 15 years, Oregon K-12 educators have waited for additional revenue to boost school quality and achievement. A weak economy and growing medical and corrections costs have gotten in the way. And looking forward, the costs associated with an aging population, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and rising public pension costs will compete with classroom dollars. In short, K-12’s fight for sustained, significant increases in funding will be as tough in the next decade as it has been in the past.
While educators can, and should, advocate for additional resources, they must simultaneously evaluate how well they are deploying the dollars they have. Evidence suggests a weak relationship between per-student spending and achievement. In a classic debate, competing economists from Princeton and Stanford dug into the same set of rigorous K-12 spending studies. The Princeton economist concluded spending had improved achievement in about half of the studies’ findings. By the Stanford economist’s accounting, only a quarter of the studies exhibited a spending-to-achievement link.
So, does money matter? These dueling economists might say the answer ranges from “maybe” to “probably not.”
We get a similar answer in Oregon, where data show different outcomes across similarly situated and funded schools.
For example, some high schools routinely send more students to college than their peers—after controlling for student income and achievement. Enrollment rates are 10 percentage points higher at top performing schools—for example, sending 60 percent of their graduates as opposed to 50. They out-inspire, out-motivate, and out-prepare neighboring schools with the same money.
Along the same lines, a recent ECONorthwest study found 1 in 5 Oregon students chronically absent—missing more than 10 percent of the year. But a school-by-school examination showed that schools with similar demographics, and funding, could have chronic absentee rates as low 5 percent or as high as 35 percent.
The top performing schools appear to have cracked a code. They’ve made money matter. So, what’s their secret?
Clues are emerging. A pair of Harvard researchers took an unprecedented dive into the inner workers of 35 schools in New York City to see why some flourish and others don’t. They surveyed principals, teachers, students and parents; videotaped class activities; scoured accounting records; and checked curricula for rigor. When they matched their school conditions data against outcomes, they concluded that class sizes, teachers’ degrees, and per-student spending didn’t predict a school’s effectiveness. Rather they found the overachieving schools had redesigned their operations to deliver high-dosage tutoring, extended instructional time, and frequent teacher feedback.
And, they used student data extensively to guide instructional practice.
In the effective schools, teachers monitored student proficiency with well-designed assessments; discussed results with principals and other teachers; and used the data to adjust tutoring groups, assign remediation, modify instruction, and develop individualized student goals. In other words, teachers stepped away from the century-old industrial model of education delivery, opened their classrooms, and employed data to pinpoint and address the specific needs of each learner.
The lessons from New York, as well as from Oregon’s own overachievers indicate many schools could do more to make money matter. Redesigned schools, built on a foundation of collaborative, data-driven instruction, will require professional development. And there’s hope. The US Department of Education has deemed the systematic use of data to improve instruction as a national priority. And they’ve charged their network of regional laboratories to deliver technical assistance to teachers, principals, and superintendents. It’s a focus with rare bi-partisan support. The state needs to reinforce that priority and expand the federal effort.
 See Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein, The Class Size Debate, page 20
John Tapogna is President of the economic consulting firm, ECONorthwest. He oversees the firm’s overall business strategy and operations and has built practices in education, healthcare, human service, and tax policy. In education, he has directed evaluations of dropout prevention programs, the impacts of small class sizes, and the efficacy of small schools for clients like the Chalkboard Project, Washington's League of Education Voters and Seattle Public Schools.
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