Rowland Unified School District

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Rowland Featured in Los Angeles Times as Model District on Using Resources Well

UC Berkeley professor takes on school spending

In his book, "The Money Myth: School Resources, Outcomes, and Equity," W. Norton Grubb argues that how much is spent is less important than how it is spent.
8:20 PM PDT, April 6, 2009

Do we spend enough on public education? What does it mean that California has fallen from near the top of per-pupil spending in the United States to very near the bottom?

Money has long been at the center of debates over education. Now a book from a UC Berkeley professor argues that the entire debate is wrongheaded.

In "The Money Myth: School Resources, Outcomes, and Equity" (Russell Sage Foundation, 2009), W. Norton Grubb argues that how much we spend is less important than how we spend it. For decades, Grubb says, school spending has inexorably risen, while student achievement has stayed relatively stagnant. Maybe it's time to look at which expenditures actually improve education, he argues, and which are a waste. The Times' Mitchell Landsberg spoke to Grubb about his book.

Let me try to boil down the message in your book: Money matters, but only if it's spent well. Is that right?

That's certainly one of the conclusions, absolutely. And again, this phrase that I use constantly in the book is, "It's often necessary, but it's not sufficient." So it's finding what the necessary resources are in the school and then directing money and other resources -- like leadership, vision, cooperation, collaboration -- to them that makes a difference. And part of the point is an attempt to move the debates away from money to resources, because a lot of the debates in school finance have just been about money.

When you talk about resources, what does that take into account?

The resources that everybody talks about most of the time are what I call simple resources. So, most people argue most of the time about class size, teacher salaries, the average experience and credential levels of teachers, about the amounts of spending on books and computers and science labs and so forth. And that is certainly one category of resources and, under some conditions, they matter -- I'm not saying they don't matter. But many of the resources in schools turn out to be compound resources. We spent a lot of money in California on class-size reduction, and the evaluation that was undertaken showed no increases in test scores on average, because what happened is that the districts had to lower the quality of teachers to get more of them, particularly in urban schools. Teachers were leading their classes in broom closets and auditoriums and stuff like that -- inappropriate spaces. And I think, most of all, nobody had given the teachers any training in how to teach in smaller classes. If you're just going to lecture, it doesn't matter if you've got 25 or 15 students in a class -- you're not going to do anything different. You need to learn how to change teaching approaches. So the effective resource is class-size reduction and professional development to teach the teachers how to teach differently and adequate physical facilities and keeping the quality of teachers up. Which is what I call a compound resource. And then there are complex and abstract resources. Complex resources are things like instruction, the quality of teaching. I don't know how to put this -- it sounds kind of banal when I say it -- but learning depends on the quality of teaching, and it specifically depends on teachers moving away from information transfer, and drill and repetition, to forms of teaching that are often called conceptual, or teaching for meaning, or the current term that a lot of teachers use is balanced instruction.

So are our assessment tools, which is to say standardized tests, appropriate to measure this?

You know, they're not. And I think that what may happen under Round 2 of the movement for accountability -- Round 1 being a lot of state tests and No Child Left Behind -- is that we might try to develop more subtle assessments. For example, the California state tests that are used for both the state and federal accountability systems don't test conceptual thinking, they don't test higher-order thinking, they don't test a lot of the skills of the 21st century that a lot of people have been calling for. And what that does in low-performing schools is to drive the curriculum toward the most ineffective kinds of curricula and the most remedial kinds of pedagogy.

You say in the book that money is especially likely to be wasted in urban schools.

Well, I think instability in urban schools contributes to that. Because urban schools do seem more unstable than many suburban or rural schools. And it really just plays havoc with any sort of forward movement. For example, schools will get started on a particular reform under a principal, and then a new principal comes in and says, "Oh no, we're not going to do that, we're going to do this." Well, all that time and whatever money was spent on the older reform is now wasted, right? It's gone. And that does seem to be a much more powerful feature of urban schools than suburban schools.

Are there other ways that urban schools waste money?

Boy, the ones that I'm in contact with are constantly doing things like not getting state funding, categorical funding [to schools on time]. So they'll get it to schools in April. Well, that's too late to spend in any kind of coherent way. So that's a real problem. And one of the most serious kinds of problems comes in conflicts between districts and their schools. In a number of districts, they have specified the curriculum that schools must use, and in particular under No Child Left Behind they've specified these kinds of drill-oriented curricula, or scripted curricula. So you know, schools and teachers typically hate these things, and yet they find these imposed on them. And this is a recipe for disaster. Another kind of example that I hear about constantly is the district ordering books and curriculum materials for schools that schools haven't asked for. And then the books sit in storage cabinets somewhere.

At the moment, we have schools losing state funding [but] gaining federal stimulus money. Is this an opportunity to change the way they do business?

Well, I think it is, or at least it could be. If the federal stimulus money is just used to fill in shortfalls caused by the state budget problem, then of course there won't be any pressure for change. But my understanding is that the Obama administration is trying to use some of the stimulus money in what we would call project grants, grants for which districts have to apply and show what they're doing with that money in more innovative ways. But whether this happens or whether there is innovation in this moment of crisis, the coming of this new money, is really unclear to me.

You say that the United States has greater inequality of educational outcomes than any other developed country. Why is that?

Well, that's a $64,000 question. One reason is that we have greater inequality of the conditions in families that, in turn, cause the inequality in schools. We have greater inequality in our earnings distribution than almost any of the developed countries that we like to compare ourselves with. The connection between family background, particularly parental education, and how well kids do in school is profound. And then what we really do in this country is, we take the kids that are the most ready for school given their family backgrounds, and we put them in the best schools, and then the kids who are least ready for conventional school, we put them in really some of the worst schools with some of the most inexperienced and uncredentialed teachers. When you look at a country like Finland, which has a very narrow distribution of learning scores, the Finns have developed a series of practices in schools that are designed to help students who have fallen behind. In this country, we haven't done that, or we haven't done it effectively. We have a number of programs in schools that most educators call interventions, but when you actually look at them in schools, they're fragmented, ineffective and incomplete.

You write about second-chance programs, which are essentially the intervention programs you just referred to, and say this is an example of misused resources.

Well, no. I'm actually very ambivalent about these second-chance programs. It's true that many of them end up being misused resources, but I guess I hope they're not inevitably that way. The U.S. has more second-chance options than other school systems do. When you go to European countries, for example, or the Japanese or Korean system, if a kid doesn't get something in the normal course of schooling, they don't get a second chance. They don't get interventions. There's no institution like the community colleges for people who haven't done well enough in high school but could make it up and continue on to a four-year college. So I think it's a good thing that we have these second-chance programs. They enhance equity, they give chances to people who maybe blew it the first time but can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It's a very American thing to do. On the other hand, the conditions in these second-chance programs are not great. We've got them, but we don't really deliver on what they could be.

You don't seem persuaded that charter schools are the answer.

The problem with talking about charter schools is that they vary so much. And there are, of course, some brilliant charter schools, and there are some charter schools that are doing everything right. And there are certainly some charter schools that are trying to get equity issues right. But the core of the charter school movement, I think, is this group of schools that I've labeled entrepreneurial. And they are schools managed by educational management organizations and charter management organizations. They tend to have a franchising model, so they develop a model for schools, and they expand by developing franchises, which may or may not understand much about education. They tend to see education as a managerial problem and an administrative problem. There's very little attention in this particular entrepreneurial sector of charter schools to the quality of instruction. They -- many of them, like the KIPP schools -- basically get in young, energetic 22-year-olds, don't provide them very much training, and then burn them up. They're not investing in the kind of resources that really make a difference to outcomes.

I know that KIPP would argue that their results suggest that they're doing the right thing.

I'd have to look at the KIPP results more carefully. And I haven't done that, and I don't know what the KIPP research looks like. But one of the things that happens in many schools, not just KIPP schools, is that they start with a number of students and then the ones who don't like the approach drop out. So you have a kind of filtering effect, where only the most successful students stay in the institution, and then at the end of the year, you end up evaluating the effect of the institution on the most successful kids.

Do you see examples of districts that are using their resources well?

Sure. [Good districts] have much better communication between the district level and the school level, they try to support schools in what they're doing, they pay much more attention to the quality of instruction, they tend to use tiered systems, that is, they put more resources into the schools that are in the worst shape.

And so what are these model districts?

Well, let's see. San Diego, to some extent. Long Beach is always mentioned. A group called Springboard Schools profiled three of them: Elk Grove, Oak Grove and Rowland, which is a district I've never heard about. These are known places, and people have been visiting them, and I don't think it's a secret what they're doing, but getting districts to change is difficult.

Any discussion about resources in schools usually comes around to the role of teachers unions and whether they're a force for, you know . . . Good or evil?

Good or evil. Where do you come down on that?

Well, I have to say that there are several different kinds of teacher unions. And the dominant one, unfortunately, is one that's usually called an industrial union. And it follows the pattern of unions that have developed in industry where the main concerns are wages, working conditions and employment rights. And unions that follow that pattern are the ones, for example, who will defend teachers at almost any cost -- will be very reluctant to concede that there are teachers who are not doing their jobs. And these are the kinds of unions that I think people usually think of when they talk about unions impeding reform. There have been some movements in this country toward professional unions, which are more concerned with the professional status of teaching, with making sure that teachers are the ones making instructional decisions, with making sure that teachers have the competencies necessary to make decisions about instruction, and which are willing to work much more collaboratively with administrators in a model that's usually called distributed leadership. Unions don't have to be barriers, but I think they sometimes are, given that we have lots of old-style industrial unions. I think reforming unions needs to go on in parallel with everything else.

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com
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