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11th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 11, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

In the midst of the state financial crisis, the governor and legislature still found funds in the budget to increase education spending across the state by a record $1.75 billion dollars. School spending has long been at the center of a key public policy debate, one that was “resolved” by a settlement of the long standing Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.

That lawsuit began as an effort to create a uniform funding formula that would insure that New York City schoolchildren would get a “fair” share of total state spending. It morphed into debate as to just how much public spending it takes to provide a quality education.

Now that settlement is at risk. This year the funds were “found.” Next year is likely to bring a heavy dose of fiscal reality due to an uncertain economy.

If one measures a quality education by an improvement in test scores, we have already proven in New York City that there is no linkage between increased education expenditures and better performance, at least those measured by test scores.

Students here have been the beneficiaries of the most substantial increase in school spending ever. The city education budget has ballooned under Mayor Bloomberg from $12.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2003 to more than $20 billion annually now. Although some of this results from increased state aid, and a bit from federal largesse, most of the influx of cash comes out of the pockets of city taxpayers. All this money is serving a measurably smaller student population - during this same period, city public schools lost 60,000 students, about a 5% decline.

One might expect a concurrent increase in test scores, but at least as measured by the most reliable tests given, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, scores during the same period have been flat. SAT scores have declined slightly, although the city’s Department of Education ascribes this to increased numbers of students taking the test. Now is a good time to ask if money alone is really the answer to better educational performance. The state’s fiscal crisis can afford us the opportunity to reexamine exactly how the funds we already spend can be put to more efficient use to get the result we seek, a better educated citizenry. I believe that there are ways schools can be dramatically improved without any additional spending. Here are two such initiatives:

Raise standards for principals. A requirement that principals have at least five years teaching experience and at least two years as an appointed assistant principal, should be the minimum standard. Much of the current controversy over the use of standardized tests to determine teacher tenure is a reflection of the fact that many teachers are being evaluated by principals who themselves have no expertise running a classroom. The experiments attempting to create “instant” principals now can be declared a failure. Insuring that there is a fully qualified “principal teacher” running a school costs not a penny more than hiring an unqualified neophyte. If you want informed tenure decisions made on the city’s teaching staff, there is no substitute for the personal input of a qualified professional.

Curriculum Choice. Teaching and curriculum strategies can be divided, albeit simplistically, into two categories: progressivism and instructivism. Progressive education, which assumes that children gather knowledge naturally with little intervention by teachers dominates our schools, almost to the exclusion of what most of us would deem “traditional” teacher-led instruction. This is the strategy that has failed us both in the days before mayoral control as well as today.

Why not offer parents, within the existing public schools, the explicit choice of which pedagogy they prefer for their children? This can be done in any school with two or more classes per grade, and not add anything to the cost of instruction. My suspicion is that the test scores of children taught a content-rich curriculum in a traditional setting will outpace those of the students in the “progressive” classroom next door. In fact, I would predict that in not too many years, progressive pedagogy would retreat into a small number of “boutique” schools, as parental demand for better instruction grows. While choice advocates continue their fight for vouchers and increasing the number of charter schools, parents can be given potent choices that can be put in place now, and with substantially less controversy. For those who seek to build better communities by strengthening neighborhood schools, here is a way to achieve this without removing more tax dollars from our pockets.

When a figure like Governor Paterson begins to sound a bit like Grover Norquist, as he did the other day, maybe the time has come to reexamine how to better spend the dollars we already have rather than to keep on spending on strategies that keep failing no matter how much we invest in them.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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