Voices in Education

If Schools Can’t Spend More, They Need to Spend Differently
The recent debate over the president’s jobs bill centered on how many teachers would be rescued from layoffs. Little or no discussion was heard about which jobs mattered most. Could anyone have dared suggest adding new positions by cutting existing staff even deeper? This might be heresy, but it is necessity.

Had President Obama read the recently published book Stretching The School Dollar, perhaps we would have gotten legislation that helped students as well as teachers. As budgets shrink, school districts are hunkering down trying to “save what we have.” Unfortunately, for many students the status quo hasn’t worked well enough and slightly less of the same won’t turn their lives around.

For example, even before the fiscal crisis, most elementary schools didn’t have enough reading teachers. They relied on untrained paraprofessionals and offered support to struggling readers only a few times a week, despite unambiguous research indicating five-day-a-week extra help from a certified reading teacher is needed. Fighting to preserve current efforts won’t teach these students to read. In years to come, struggling readers grow up to be costly special education students. A lose–lose situation. Bad for kids and the budget.

Special education spending is often spared the budget axe due to legal mandates. Since the law will continue to require high levels of services for students with disabilities, general education will suffer even more. Fortunately, there are many best practices that raise the achievement level of students with special needs while reducing costs, such as improved general-education instruction, flexible scheduling of paraprofessionals, and criteria-based workloads.

A time of declining resources is exactly the right time to think boldly, approach teaching and learning differently, and budget strategically. In the new normal of tight budgets, schools can no longer afford to fund programs that are ineffective. This, of course, requires systems to measure the effectiveness of all teaching and learning efforts, which are often the first to be cut!

Districts must marshal their limited resources into efforts that mean the most for students. This requires questioning all existing programs, not protecting them. It requires knowing for sure what efforts are raising student achievement. It requires adopting best practices, even if they are uncommon practices.

Today’s first graders might graduate before districts will be able to add more teachers and see new money for new programs.

About the Author: Nathan Levenson is currently managing director of District and Community Partners, a firm dedicated to helping school districts improve special education. He began his career in the private sector owning a midsized manufacturer of highly engineered machinery and as a turnaround consultant helping struggling firms. A passion for public education led to a career switch which included six years as a school board member, working as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Harvard, MA, and most recently as superintendent of the Arlington, MA, Public Schools. Nathan Levenson is a contributor to Stretching the School Dollar (Harvard Education Press, 2010).