Warning! What you’re about to read is counterintuitive. But here goes: our public education system does not need more money to close the achievement gap.
In America, we already spend a boatload of money on education. Based on OECD data, we spend $11,301 per pupil annually in secondary education. Let’s put that in perspective:
- This is 37% more than the OECD mean of $8,267.
- My native country, South Korea, spends 30% less than we do.
- Hungary, at $4,225 spends 63% less than we do.
Check it out, visually:
Despite our love of spending, we don’t see commensurate levels of student achievement:
- South Korea, according to the most recent PISA data, ranks 6th, 2nd and 7th internationally in reading, math and science, respectively. We rank a measly 15th, 24th and 21st in the same test.
- Hungary ranked 6th (above us!) in the 2007 TIMSS (another international measurement of math/science achievement). Yes, Hungary achieved this while spending nary more than $4K per student.
Our public education system is awash with money. Yet, we don’t see the broad face of public education faring well in any meaningful way (relative to our peers). What explains this?
Before going further into the rabbit hole, I will admit that more money is always nice. Yet, I don’t believe increased spending in education is necessary for us to make the improvements we do need. In fact, I don’t necessarily think more money will speed up progress, since it does nothing to address the root cause of our resource-based education woes.
Money itself is NOT the issue. How we use it is.
I support this claim by examining my experience in DCPS. Though I concede that what happens in DCPS is likely unrepresentative of what happens in the “average” American school district, I do think that the same problems I am about to point out show up–albeit to a lesser extent–in many, if not most, districts nationwide. I also point out a solution for each.
Problem #1: Resources may technically flow into and “nourish” the district, but the bulk of it doesn’t go where it directly affects students. I keep learning about all of these fancy contractors and educational organizations that are building programs, systems and curricula (at exorbitant costs) to help students. Teachers receive a couple professional development sessions here and there, and then–boom!–this is magically supposed to boost learning. Yet, when I look in the average classroom–perhaps the most important space in a school–I see peeling walls, cracked tiles, broken heaters, book-less bookshelves. If DCPS is allocating $15,000+ per student, why does it look like only $100/student flows to the “micro” level?
Solution #1? Shift the focus of the budgeting process. In the meeting room where budget decisions are made, create a big banner that says “focus on the classroom.” Always make decisions with the classroom in mind. Don’t let ed tech companies distract you by offering to sell you $10,000 clicker systems that can only serve one classroom. Instead, buy $10,000 worth of high-interest books and implement a school-wide reading program (like an internal Big Read).
Problem #2: Resources rot in warehouses. I mean this literally. Much to your shock and dismay, money goes towards purchases of great classroom resources, but that stuff rots in warehouses. The DCPS central warehouse has literally tons and tons of resources still piled up, under lock and key, far away from the students who could actually use them.
Solution #2? Don’t hoard. Push out resources to the local level immediately. Publish the online inventory of stuff in the warehouse. The majority of DCPS teachers I have talked to don’t even know that a warehouse exists, nor how much said structure already contains. Allow teachers to request materials directly. Ensure that teachers and staff provide rationales for the requests and log what they request, so that teachers don’t end up doing the hoarding. Then again, I’d rather see a teacher hoard resources than a warehouse manager.
Problem #3: Resources are not effectively deployed, redeployed or tracked. This is honestly a problem of resource management. I think the monumental task of textbook distribution best illustrates this point. At the end of every year, all students and teachers must return all textbooks to the vault, which is controlled by the business manager. This seems like an effective way to account for one of the primary resources in a school. Yet, as I’ve discovered, school resource management doesn’t run that smoothly. Here are 3 sub-problems:
- Resources are deployed reluctantly. I can understand why a business manager might want to be cautious about who gets what resources–for equity’s sake, for frugality’s sake–but I don’t think resources stacked in an empty classroom in a school are any more of use to students than those in the DCPS warehouse.
- Resources are also hard to deploy. With my modern jam-packed textbook weighing 6 pounds and with 60+ students, it takes some serious effort on a teacher’s part to lug 1/4 of a ton of textbooks from the basement vault to my 2nd floor classroom. Some of the greatest resources are also difficult to “install.” Think whiteboards, smartboards, ceiling-mounted projectors, etc.
- Resources are rarely “redeployed.” What I mean is that the initial recipient of a resource uses it and then figuratively tosses it aside. When I first entered my classroom, I found science textbooks, math tools and random sets of books, supplies in every nook and cranny. When I tried to teach Frederick Douglass’ Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass, I asked my department chair if we had any copies. He said we had dozens of copies. Somehow, however, our vault didn’t contain them. So, we inferred, they must be scattered all over the school, right? After emailing the entire staff, I received 3 copies that various teachers had found on their bookshelves. I ended up photocopying select chapters for my students.
Solution #3? Hire people who have a laser-sharp understanding of management economics. Bring in consultants. Bring in investment managers. Bring in brigadier generals who have managed Iraq War supply chains (oh wait, DCPS already has one). Administrators and middle office staff should have just as great of an understanding of resource management as people management. Make sure they have the vision to create systems that will ensure that resources are deployed and redeployed until they “depreciate” into nothing.
Problem #4: The power to make resource allocation decisions is too far removed from the classroom. Though a teacher might be thankful that a school might consider purchasing a school-wide license to use SnapGrades, or purchase a Scantron machine to assist with grading, or sign people up for external professional development, a teacher would much rather have the power to make decisions about resources at the local, classroom level. Because school spending power lies with the administrators (and, foremost, the principal), a disconnect emerges between what schools provide their teachers and what they actually need in their classroom. As a result, teachers end up needing to scavenge or outright purchase essential materials. For example, I went to Home Depot and bought planks of shower board to create a makeshift whiteboard in my classroom. I started a book drive to nourish my classroom’s empty bookshelf.
Solution #4? Give teachers more power to make decisions about resources. Instead of vaguely giving a department chair $X to spend on department-related resources, give each teacher $Y to spend as they see fit. Teachers should be given the power to make one-time resource decisions (e.g. “I’m going to buy pads of those giant Post-It chart paper to use this year in the classroom”) as well as “permanent” ones (e.g. “I’m going to spend my money replacing my chalkboard with a whiteboard”). Alternatively, empower teachers in other ways. DonorsChoose.org and other organizations like it do so much to ensure that teachers receive the resources they truly need. I know I’ve benefited greatly from it.
We should feel thankful for all that we have in the US school system. We truly already have so much. I’m not going so far as to say we don’t need any more money in our schools, but I will say that we need to shift the dialogue from “how much money do our schools need?” to “how can schools better use what money they have?” Right now, we focus too much on the former and not enough on the latter. We won’t close the achievement gap when we don’t focus on what matters.
It’s hard not to feel like we are truly squandering our resources at home. I often compare the way resources are allocated here–wastefully, irrationally, pointlessly–to the way resources are used in some of the world’s truly poor countries. A close friend is currently teaching English in rural Mozambique (through the Peace Corps), and he’s ecstatic if he receives a box of Bic pens. Come on–there are children in foreign countries who use sticks as pencils and the dirt beneath their feet as slates (as in, for example, the narrative in Gregg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea)!
I find it sadly ironic that teachers in the US (myself included) complain about the lack of resources in our system. In a country as rich as ours, teachers shouldn’t have to resort to DonorsChoose or their own pocketbooks to ensure that their students are learning. Our schools technically are awash with money and resources. We just need to better spread the wealth. Once spread, we need to use it effectively. When we have millions of children across the globe doing whatever it takes to get an education–but unable to get one for want of resources–we have an obligation to do better.