George Lucas Educational Foundation

Four Funding Imperatives for Public Schools

How to make the most of an unprecedented $100 billion federal stimulus package for education.
By Thomas Payzant
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Credit: Thomas Reis

It's the worst of times and the best of times for education. So much is broken, and there has been little in the way of resources to make repairs. Reading test scores haven't improved nationwide in any meaningful way since the early 1970s, and school districts are scrambling to make ends meet.

But at the same time, President Obama's federal stimulus package, which is being spearheaded by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, presents a true ray of hope for making bona fide changes.

If used wisely, the recent infusion of funds into our public education system provides the opportunity for far-reaching innovation, consequential changes, and long-lasting impact. But it is essential that we take full advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to invest in the quality of education nationwide, as we may not see an infusion like this for another generation or more.

Historically, we've been here before, at the cusp of a huge opportunity. In the 1960s, around the time I first began teaching in the public schools, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a breakthrough move that targeted about $1 billion in federal funds to better serve low-income students. Lightning struck again in the mid-1990s, while I was assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Clinton administration, with the reauthorization of ESEA and the commitment of some $9 billion.

Then, in 2001, came No Child Left Behind, with a provision designed to hold states, school districts, and schools accountable for annual gains in student achievement. To make that happen, the federal government pumped another $22.2 billion into education -- below the $26.4 initially authorized but substantial for its efforts nevertheless.

And now, President Obama's roughly $100 billion allocation to public education is, by any standard, an unprecedented boon.

What strikes me most about the events of the past 40-50 years in education is how little impact we've made with so much effort and so many public dollars. The problem can be attributed to the fact that we spent too much of those one-shot infusions of money on recurring costs. Most district budgets allocate 80 percent for salaries and benefits, and individual school budgets allocate more than 90 percent, leaving too little to invest in pioneering creative solutions.

When I consider the money spent on student achievement based on results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), I see vast unfulfilled potential. The total expenditures per pupil in constant 2002 dollars rose from $3,400 in 1971 to $9,000 in 2002 -- more than 200 percent. But NAEP fourth-grade reading scores rose only nine points, from 208 in 1971 to 217 in 2002.

A modest improvement, yes, but it barely moves the needle compared with where we stand vis-á-vis other industrial nations and the size of the investment. I'm worried that we'll relive history and make the same mistakes about where we spend today's infusion money. To avoid simply maintaining the status quo or, ultimately, losing ground, we'll need to make compromises between spending on recurring costs versus investing in innovation.

Where, precisely, should we focus that investment? It needs to go into sound, long-lasting innovations rather than into strictly saving jobs. The thrust of our efforts should be focused on improving the quality of classroom instruction and leadership in schools. That strategy requires taking calculated risks that must lead to attainable, effective, and sustainable results. Here, then, are four areas of improvement we can support with stimulus money.

Create Comprehensive Technology and Data Systems

It may not sound very sexy, but Obama and Duncan have made this goal a high priority, and they are right. School systems need to come up with ways to add breadth and depth to technology applications that measure, in fine detail, the progress we're making in education.

Credit: Thomas Reis

It is essential that we measure this impact -- showing the cause and effect of what is successful and what is not -- so that we can create a national culture in which education is a high-priority investment for our government. The information collected should inform all the other innovations that take place, both within and outside of the stimulus funds.

Districts and individual schools should begin by building a technology infrastructure that includes, among other things, integration of data systems, online learning for students, professional development for educators, project learning, entrepreneurship-education programs, and parent and community outreach and engagement. In the classroom, technology can provide opportunities for independent study, local area networking and wide area networking, and team building -- essential skills all students must acquire.

(For more information about technology applications, see the article "Education-Stimulus Priority: Create New Data Systems.")

Reward Effective Teachers and Administrators

Successful teachers and principals provide the best means of turning poorly performing schools around. To that end, we have to develop fair and credible incentives both to attract and keep these professionals.

At least in its current incarnation, the existing step-pay system, which typically provides automatic annual increases for each year of active service (until the top of the schedule is reached), needs reevaluating. The time is right to either combine automatic pay raises -- or replace them altogether -- with performance or merit pay.

The current compensation structure in most districts also rewards professionals for additional coursework and advanced degrees. This component of compensation is worth preserving, but we need to revamp it and consider more stringent requirements for the type, quality, and content of the courses taken.

We should also look into different approaches for implementing performance pay. The metrics must be fair and the process for interpreting them transparent. We should encourage experiments, such as rewarding teams rather than individual teachers.

For example, offering paid incentives to teams of three or four teachers to accept assignments in low-performing schools can improve both the quality of instruction and student performance. In addition, rewarding teams instead of individual teachers supports a collaborative, performance-based culture rather than one of isolation and atomization, which exists in many schools.

(For more information about professional development, see the article "Education-Stimulus Priority: Develop Effective Teachers in Every Classroom.")

Save on Special Education Budgets

Special education amounts to more than 20 percent of the budget in some larger districts. Yet we can do a far better job of educating students in these programs and spending the earmarked money.

To begin, we must take strategic, entrepreneurial steps in order to lower the costs of teaching special education kids, many of whom are placed in private day schools or residential-school settings with annual tuition costs of tens of thousands of dollars.

In 1998, for example, when I was superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, the district had 929 students with disabilities in private school placements at an average annual cost of about $65,000 per student. The per-pupil cost for a special-education student being taught in one of the BPS's own district classrooms, however, was about $30,000.

The district decided to create new classes that would equal or exceed the quality of education students placed in the private schools were getting while saving the district more than $35,000 per student. By 2008, there were only 370 BPS students in private-school placements, resulting in an annual savings of almost $20 million -- money that can be reallocated to improve instruction for all students.

Competition with private schools proved successful because the public schools' share of enrolled students increased with the addition of higher-quality programs provided at lower cost. Using stimulus money to create new special-education programs that bring students back from private-school placements would cover onetime start-up costs and result in annual savings for years to come, all the while providing a top-quality education for special-education students.

Improve Teacher and Administrator Training Programs

By providing new, inventive training programs in hard-to-fill fields such as science, special education, and English-language learning, we'll be able to recruit higher caliber educators. The BPS created its own Boston Teacher Residency program and Boston Principal Fellowship program, which challenge traditional approaches to teacher and principal training. Each program has a six-week summer session with district-designed courses that address the district's specific challenges.

In addition, teachers complete a residency for four days a week in a school with accomplished teachers and principals during the academic year, with master's-level coursework on Fridays and occasional evenings. Teachers completing the program are often hired by principals in the schools, where they trained as residents, or they are eagerly recruited by other BPS schools. Likewise, principal fellows move fluidly into assistant-principal or principal positions.

We could use stimulus funds as a source of start-up money for similar programs all over the country. Over time, in the BPS, the retention results for those completing the teacher-residency program -- 85 percent through the fourth and fifth years of teaching -- have made it cost effective and sustainable given the high annual costs of hiring, inducting, and supporting new teachers to replace those who leave teaching in the first three years.

Even before the stimulus money began to reach states and districts, the debate heated up over whether it would be enough. Although that remains to be seen, the short-term money is here now, and we must use it for long-term impact, even if it runs contrary to our tendencies for instant gratification.

One thing, however, is perfectly clear: Another opportunity like this won't come along again for a long, long time, and we need to seize it in order to reshape the future and ensure that funding for public education remains a first-and-foremost priority for government at all levels.

Thomas Payzant is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former superintendent of the Boston Public Schools who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President Clinton.

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Todd Hausman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Too often federal funds get siphoned off before they ever make it into a classroom. Unfortunately a lot of money is wasted on administrative pork because there is little accountability after the money has been allocated. State education departments rarely play "watchdog" with local districts, and there are few mechanisms to ensure that money is spent efficiently and purposefully. As a teacher I used to get excited about investments like these, but I soon realized that only a small fraction will actually be used to help students succeed. If the government hopes to bring about true reform, it will have to ensure that every dollar is spent appropriately. But if the financial bailout is any indicator, there will likely be little accountability when it comes to economic stimulus for our schools.

Len Hills's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

DECEMBER 1, 2008. Wall Street Journal

Lessons From 40 Years of Education 'Reform'
Let's abolish local school districts and finally adopt national standards.



"I believe the problem lies with the structure and corporate governance of our public schools. We have over 15,000 school districts in America; each of them, in its own way, is involved in standards, curriculum, teacher selection, classroom rules and so on. This unbelievably unwieldy structure is incapable of executing a program of fundamental change. While we have islands of excellence as a result of great reform programs, we continually fail to scale up systemic change.

Therefore, I recommend that President-elect Barack Obama convene a meeting of our nation's governors and seek agreement to the following:

- Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and developing curricula.

- Establish a set of national standards for a core curriculum. I would suggest we start with four subjects: reading, math, science and social studies.

- Establish a National Skills Day on which every third, sixth, ninth and 12th-grader would be tested against the national standards. Results would be published nationwide for every school in America.

- Establish national standards for teacher certification and require regular re-evaluations of teacher skills. Increase teacher compensation to permit the best teachers (as measured by advances in student learning) to earn well in excess of $100,000 per year, and allow school leaders to remove underperforming teachers.

- Extend the school day and the school year to effectively add 20 more days of schooling for all K-12 students."

Let's use the $100 billion for a quantum leap improvement!

james earhart's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Payzant's approach is typically bureaucratic, and very typically, ignores the places where--especially in low-performing urban school districts such as Detroit, Oakland, CA, Philladephia, Washington, DC--the money is just squandered. Each of the above named districts, incidentally, was or is in state-controlled bankruptcy for fiscal incomptetnce, larceny, etc.

"Stimulus" funds have, on occasion, produced results: the reaction to Sputnik, and the shift of emphasis from educating gentlepeople to science and engineering is the example that comes to mind. However, throwing money at education produces, as all measures indicate, zero benefit.

Part of the problem, a major part, is that our schools are not failing students. Students and the parents of students are what are failing in our schools. The best teachers in the world will not succeed in motivating the unmotivated, especially when they have no tools to do so. There is no student accountability (except, in California, to pass the CHSEE, a test which one should have to pass to enter high school, not exit it), and even less parental accountability.

Entirely too much effort--read money--is spent on striving for student and parental accountability. The high school at which I teach has three counselors and two deans to work with 1500 students. Yet they have not ability to compel results from either students or parents. This situation is normal for the typical suburban high school. In inner city schools, where I had the dubvious pleasure of trying to teach, the spread is worse: more counselors, "deans" and security personnel, and even less accountability.

If the school staff--teachers, counselors, and deans had the ability to compel parents and students to a) behave, b) listen, c) complete homework, learning might occur for more than the top 10-20% of students. The benign tools to motivate parents to motivate their children is, of course, through the pocketbook.

But what "tools" do schools have: suspension? expulsion? detention (which, oddly enough, requires parental notification in most districts, and is not funded by the district)? I suspect most kids suspended revel in the "time off." Expelled students are merely entered into the "lend louse" program, whereby the student is nerolled in an adjacent district, carrying his problems with him.

THe appoach I espouse is punative, but why should it not be. As a nation we offer our youth a free, public education, but only about 20% (at most) of the students graduating from high school have achieved any academic excellence. It would appear that attempting to lure kids into learning is not particularly successful.

The requiring of accountability should not start in middle or high school: it should start in pre-school and kindergarten. By 6th grade, it is too late. It should be ingrained. Kids do not fail high school because they don't work there. They fail it because they did not learn the basics before they got there, and no amount of remediation will make up for what was not learned early on.

Let us not, therefore, look at stimulus dollars to solve problems in education. Money will have no effect without a massive shift in the cultural paradigm.

Andrew Pass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would argue that the greatest weakness in the American educational system is that we do not look forward enough to the future. We don't have effective planning on how we need to prepare our students for the Twenty First Century and beyond. A 9th grader, with whom I am very close, recently told me that he has used computers one time so far this year in school, for an elective. What is the problem with this?

But, it's not enough for those of us who read Edutopia to be discussing this issue. We have to help classroom teachers sort through all of the information coming at them to distinguish what needs to be done to most effectively use the available resources.

Andrew Pass

Bonnie Nesbitt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although I can't deny Mr. Payzant's arguments hold merit, David Tyack and Larry Cuban illuminate for me a more profound problem:

David Tyack: "Test scores have come to mean accountability. They also turn teachers into professional accountants, instead of people who are professionally accountable. The biggest problem today really is how to keep good teachers in teaching. We have a big flow in and a big flow out. And often, the ones who leave are the ones who don't like all these affronts to their dignity. For goodness sake, let's stop talking about the financial value of education and talk instead about human capital, about schools helping to create people who are fully developed as human beings and as democratic citizens.

Larry Cuban:
Today's teachers have become--to borrow a popular military phrase--"the soldiers of reform." Yet no teachers' thumbprint or signature can be seen on state and federal policies of the past quarter-century. Consequently, these policies confront many teachers with very practical dilemmas. How much time do I take out of what I want to teach to prepare students for high-stakes tests? Can I continue to teach in ways that get at independent thinking, deeper understanding of concepts, and working together on intellectual tasks when I am being held responsible for raising my students' test scores? How can I remain true to my goals for teaching and not hurt my students' futures?"

In Virginia were I worked as a high school teacher and have two sons in public schools, these words ring too true. The testing craze has spun out of control. If charter schools and private schools do not have to worry about these mandates and tests and seem to produce better results, why do we continue to back these tests?

How much money has been spent on creating these standards, creating the tests, creating the materials teach to these tests and then micromanaging those schools who appear deficient?

Bev DeVore-Wedding's picture
Bev DeVore-Wedding
Science & Math Instructor, Meeker High School & CO Northwestern CC, CO

Have been wondering why I don't collaborate more with teachers in my own building/school? Oh yes, they teach because it is 1) easy to follow a text page-by-page; 2) summers off; 3) love coaching sports; 4) free internet access; and I am sure I am leaving out other important reasons.
I on the other hand get to learn every day, every class, with every student. Yes it takes time but what else would I be doing? So will seek out that LA teacher who is innovative, find another teacher if possible and go ahead with changing my classroom as it should be--if kids will write, read, do math & science and THINK, then aren't they engaged?

Oh yes, I incorporate new and ever changing technology to reach my students--I will even purchase my own laptop/projector if that is what I need--do find programs that give stipends for this but basically I am here for the long haul of teaching my students to think for themselves! Oh and do science, math, reading etc. not sit passively like poor sponges!

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