In Education, How Do We Accomplish More — While Spending Less Money?

The video below shows a program organized by the Fordham Foundation and conducted at Cleveland State University on March 14.  The title of the program was “Doing More With Less In K-12 Education — A Timely Discussion For Ohio”

Doing More with Less in K-12 Education: Cleveland State University from Education Gadfly on Vimeo.

After opening remarks by Chester Finn, President of the Fordham Foundation, the first speaker, Nate Levenson, a “strategic planning management consultant,” formerly Superintendent of Schools for Arlington Public Schools in Massachusetts, stated that the goal of public education is clear — we know what we are trying to accomplish — we simply need a good strategy establishing clear priorities of what most contributes to accomplishing that goal.

This basic structure of Levenson’s proposition seems valid, but his foundation — we know what we are trying to accomplish — to me seems weak, because in the current setting, the bottom line thinking that directs what districts are trying to accomplish emphasizes producing results on objective tests. In Ohio, school districts put all of their energy into getting high marks from the Ohio Department of Education — on tests of minimum competencies.  Without a better vision of aim / purpose of public education, the effort to “accomplish more” is certain to be misdirected.

Levenson says that the quality of teachers is what matters most, yet, in a time of budget cuts, districts are tempted to stop funding effective programs for teacher development and teacher mentoring.  He says that in a time of decreasing dollars, school systems must invest even more in generating and analyzing data.  He says, “Information is power, and during tough times we need more information, not less.” Levenson urges his listeners to study effective districts. He says some districts have figured out how to have high achievement, while at the same time making cuts in staff members and making other cuts as well. “We can learn from them,” he says.

The second speaker Steven F. Wilson is founder and president of Ascend Learning, a charter school management organization in New York City, and a former executive vice president for product development at Edison Schools.  Wilson says that today’s education reformers have a rare opportunity. He says, “Maybe once a century we have an opportunity to completely change what we do in schools. … we need to break what we do now and start over again.”

Wilson says, in education, we are spending huge amounts of money on teachers, but what we are buying — seniority and advanced degrees — has no relation to teaching efficacy.  He says we need to “get rid of the least effective teachers — with gusto. … We’ve been running an employment system, not an education system, for the last 40 years. We need to change what we do and put students first.”

The biggest current strategy for improving education — reducing class sizes — according to Wilson, has been proven wrong and much money can be saved by modestly increasing the number of students in each class.  The plan Wilson advocates is for schools to increase class size and dramatically change how teachers are compensated.  He says, as it is now, the teaching profession is riddled with incompetents who themselves were poor students, graduating at the bottom of the high schools and colleges they attended. To attract better candidates to teaching, Wilson says schools must pay higher salaries, sooner, based on merit.

Missing from Wilson’s point of view, it seems, is a vision of what professionalism should mean for teachers — and the structure of a system that would empower teachers with the status and responsibilities of professionals.  As I hear Wilson, he would see even the more qualified and more highly paid teachers he advocates, as remaining basically blue collar workers in a hierarchical organization in which they would have few professional prerogatives. To attract better candidates to teaching, it seems to me, there must be a restructuring of the system of education that gives teachers more responsibility, more freedom to meet that responsibility, and more opportunity for the expression of individual creativity.

See: Does Ohio’s Low Standard For School “Excellence” Hinder Authentic School Improvement?

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One Response to In Education, How Do We Accomplish More — While Spending Less Money?

  1. Stan Hirtle says:

    Businesspeople want a world run by executives, and conservatives don’t like teachers if they vote for Ds more than Rs. However it is hard to see how anyone can argue that teaching is so “riddled with incompetents” so that an educational policy of cutting their pay, laying them off and increasing their workload is going to accomplish what we need. America’s leaders claim that education is a most significant investment to create employees for a global technical economy, but that is not what we see in practice. One hedge fund manager makes more than a school system of teachers. Teaching has been a low paid profession, perhaps because it has been traditionally staffed by women and immigrants (including internal migrants from Appalachia in this part of the country) who until they got unions could be expected to accept low pay, agree to imposition on their time and buying their own equipment, and be subject to favoritism and cronyism by higher ups. If we really valued education we would not just pay more but would also invest more in training, mentoring, development, collegiality and making schools a good place to work. We would also invest more in developing ways to evaluate the work of teachers as opposed to the social environments and privileges of their students. We would not blame schools for the social problems and disinvestment in communities, and would seek to overcome them. We also need to think about Bock’s issue that education is not just to create employees but to create human infrastructure for a democratic society. The attack on public education and public school teachers, whether to reduce taxes and government or for ideological and political gain, is very short sighted and needs to be opposed.

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