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Education Funding, Student Learning, & Long Term Outcomes (6/14/14)

In a 5/29/14 Education Week article titled School Spending Increases Linked to Better Outcomes for Poor Students, Holly Yettick details the provocative findings of a recent working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The report asserts that in districts where court-ordered school finance reform resulted in increased spending on low income students; those students had significantly higher graduation rates, were more likely to earn a living wage, and avoided poverty in adulthood.  Moreover, the report claims that in school systems where there was a 20% increase in spending across the 12 year school career of students there was up to a 23% rise in graduation rates. The report is based on data on 15,000 students in the United States born between 1955 and 1985.

Obviously, the findings of the recent NBER report run counter to the narrative that casts increased school spending, especially in our nation’s neediest areas, as an ineffective practice for promoting school improvement and subsequent life outcomes for students. Regardless of one’s stance on this issue, the findings of the report do beg two questions. First, what exactly worked in these districts? Second, why did it work? As a seasoned school administrator, and former school district superintendent, I use experience in the field as a lens for examining these questions. To this end, there are four areas where I can say that increased funding, when used appropriately, can and does substantially impact student learning, which is the catalyst for later opportunities and outcomes in life. These are teacher wages, teacher support, teacher professional development, and class sizes.

Teacher wages are one of the most significant factors that indirectly impact student learning. Why? As a district increases the competitiveness of its wages it increases the depth and quality of its teacher candidate pool. Of course there are some limiting factors that mitigate this effect as well. For example, a high paying school district that is lax on student discipline or accountability or operational procedures will have a less rich pool. All other factors being equal though, wages do allow you to accumulate a deeper pool from which you can select the highest quality candidates. Future research in this area, as hinted at in the Education Week article, should focus on the correlation between teacher pay and student outcomes across a range of urban, suburban, and rural school districts. The empirical evidence from these studies, that those of us with experience in the field already know to be true, could support substantial policy changes on a national level.

Teacher support, which is heavily influenced by funding, is a second area that has a direct impact on student learning. As used here, teacher support is defined as additional instructional support personnel within a district and at the school level whose function is to assist teachers with curriculum, instruction, and classroom management concerns. The uniformed observer might think “You already have administrators, why do you need extra people?” In this case, the uninformed observer would be correct to a point. School administrators do carry out the function of teacher support for curriculum, instruction, and classroom management. However, that is not all that school administrators do. The business of the school still has to be attended to. That includes parent meetings, community meetings, student discipline, budget meetings, curriculum meetings, building and grounds, athletic events, extra-curricular events, lunch duty, bus duty, e-mail communications, return phone calls, staff evaluations and a host of other responsibilities.

The expanded responsibilities of school administrators compete with the extended             minute-to-minute time that administrators could spend with individual teachers. For the prior reasons, non-administrative personnel whose job function is to work exclusively with teachers are important. In many districts they hold titles like “instructional coach.” I know from experience that in systems that have a strong framework for instructional coaching, student achievement is on the rise. Empirical studies on the long term impact of instructional coaching on student achievement will support policy changes that impact funding in this area as well.

Teacher professional development is the third area governed by funding that directly affects student learning. To make a short analogy, would you want your personal physician to have graduated from medical school in 1980 and never have participated in any other professional networking or learning? The PK – 12 teaching profession is no different. Advancements are made in the field, there are changes in curricula, research evidences the effectiveness of new practices, and the growth of technology impacts modes for delivery and interface.

To stay relevant in their practice so that they can provide the best education for students, teachers must participate in ongoing professional development throughout their careers. Much of the onus for the expense associated with this rests with the individual school districts. As a general rule, current funding platforms, including Title funds, do not support professional development at the level that would significantly impact teacher knowledge and skills for large numbers of individual teachers to promote increased student learning.  I believe, further research, on the impact of teacher professional development on student learning, will provide compelling evidence to support policy changes in this area as well.

Finally, class size is an area governed by funding that directly impacts student learning. In circles of debate however, this is an especially complicated issue when considered in the current context of shrinking education budgets across the country which have resulted in increased class sizes. In addition, the literature on the effect of class size on student learning shows mixed results.

From experience, I can confirm though, smaller classes combined with effective teaching practice results in improved student achievement, and in many cases this effect is exponential. The reason is that good teachers are able to dedicate greater focus to smaller groups, providing more rich individualized support for each student within. The problem is that current funding platforms and the belief systems of some do not support providing the extra staff needed to reduce class sizes to more effective numbers of say, 15 – 20 students. Continued research in schools and school systems that are producing significant results with reduced class size models will add to the literature on the topic and provide large-scale accessible evidence for government decision makers to support funding changes that will ultimately impact policy and practice in this area.

To close, funding is one of the three fundamental factors that determine the quality of education that students experience in our nation’s PK – 12 schools. Because funding has such a large impact on quality schooling, legislators and policy makers must work to ensure that school systems are receiving the resources that they need to be effective. Further, recent research in the field has evidenced the link between increased sustained-funding and improved results that practitioners in the field have known to be true for many years. Using practice as a guide, we know that there are four areas where funding has a significant impact on student learning and subsequent increased potential for impact on long term life outcomes for students. The areas of funding impact are wages, teacher support, teacher professional development, and class sizes. Further research on the impact of these areas consistent with their levels of funding will provide support for decision makers to increase funding at the state and local levels to promote achievement and successful long term outcomes for students.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO


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