Spending Dollars for Excellence

The publication Education Week had an interesting article analyzing the way in which 56 school districts in New York were planning to use $430M in extra funding that the state was making available under a“Contracts for Excellence” program.

Districts receiving the money had to pledge to use it on one of five strategies to improve student achievement — reducing class size, increasing student time-on-task, providing full-day pre-K and kindergarten programs, restructuring middle and high schools, and improving the quality of principals and teachers. Within each category, districts can develop their own programs. Thus, those that chose to increase student time-on-task tended to institute longer school days or add days to the school year. It was their choice.

If someone suddenly handed me some extra dollars and said,“Use them in one of five ways to improve student achievement,” I wondered what I would do and where I would do it.

Reducing class size is always a good goal, but unless class size is reduced sufficiently to allow the teacher to do different things with the students, it may not make much difference. Going from 26 students to 25 is a gesture. Going from 26 to 18 or fewer, and then using different teaching techniques, could be a real plus. Reducing class size, however, means adding classrooms. Unfortunately the favorite way to get more classroom space in elementary schools is to put art, music, and the library on carts that roll from room to room, diminishing those important aspects of education. I hope that is not happening.

Increasing student time-on-task, it seems to me, is a non-starter unless the time is used to do something different. Giving a failing student more time to do the same thing over again seems like a poor way to move towards educational excellence. In New York, at least, another drawback would be teacher contracts that would have to be renegotiated. On the other hand, if the extra time was used to introduce programs such as expanded art, music, or physical education, that would be a plus. Another plus: Increasing time-on-task does not necessarily involve adding facilities.

All other things being equal, I think I’d spend the money on early education, on creating pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs, since they are a proven way to get children, especially those from poorer or non-English speaking families, a head start. The downside of that is space. If you do not have proper space for these programs, they are likely to be difficult to initiate and could ultimately fail. Another impediment: Pre-kindergarten (and, for that matter kindergarten) is not required under New York State law. Instituting those programs would mean that the district would be starting programs that it was not required to offer.

It would be hard to argue against restructuring high schools and middle schools, but that takes time and effort and, like reducing class size and increasing time-on-task, to be successful involves changing the way teachers teach and students learn.

For that reason, and because it does not immediately take more space, it might be best to spend the extra dollars on improving the quality of principals and teachers so that a restructured school, extra time, and smaller classes could be used to best advantage.

What Districts Chose to Do

How is the money actually going to be used? As the program got underway this fall, the Education Week reporter found that about half the funding was going to be spent on reducing class size. It did not indicate where districts were going to get the space to do that.

Another quarter was being allocated to increasing student time-on-task. The next largest number of programs dealt with increasing the professionalism of teachers and principals. Restructuring middle and high schools was getting only about 10 percent of the funding and establishing full-day pre-K and kindergarten programs fell to the bottom of the list.

Interesting. At least two of the suggested programs demand additional space. Facilities are so often a neglected area when educators and, of course, legislators think about improving education. But there is a direct correlation — proven in many studies — between quality of the space and educational outcomes. Better school facilities allow better education.

Perhaps the next time additional money is allocated to improve educational outcomes, some of that money will be dedicated to providing whatever additional facilities are necessary to make the programs work.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."