It's amazing how thoroughly the subject of money has taken over America's education conversation in recent months. By comparison, you don't hear that much about NCLB problems and reauthorization challenges anymore, or about curriculum, test scores, even teaching and teachers, except for how many may lose their jobs.

On one side is much dire talk about recession, revenue shortfalls, budget cuts and program eliminations. On the other side is happy jabber about federal stimulus funding and how it will magically salve budgetary bruises while simultaneously leaping over all known barriers to education reform. Indeed, behind the scenes, a tussle is audible between die-hard school reformers appalled by the prospect that these new (and possibly fleeting) federal dollars may wind up paying for more-of-the-same, and politicians (and school executives) grateful that Washington is sparing them from tough targeted cuts or painful across-the-board reductions.

I'm with the reformers, of course, though they don't have much leverage, considering the deep trenches through which Congress mandated that most of this money flow to districts, and the wide discretion accorded to those districts once it arrives. This probably means that wealthy and/or well-led school systems will do some good things with the federal largesse but those that most need to change won't. (A galaxy of private reform groups and deep-pocketed foundations is striving outside the government to avert my glum prediction and turn job-saving stimulus dollars into finally-we-can-do-it reform dollars. I surely wish them well.)

What's most striking, though, is the extent to which all this has placed the emphasis back on inputs and budgets and what money is spent on, rather than standards, results, and accountability. Today, I submit, American K-12 education is more focused on spending than on learning. (Some will remark that that's no different from yesterday but wise heads recognize that we've known since Coleman that student achievement is not tightly linked to resource levels.)

Everyone is obsessed with the economy, of course, and nobody likes to cut his budget--neither homeowner nor private firm nor public bureaucracy. But sometimes tighter belts are healthy. Every day brings more evidence that public education in a great many places could benefit from a diet if not a stomach-stapling. A recent McKinsey study found more than $100 million a year of unnecessary overhead-type spending in the Milwaukee schools' budget. The Arizona Daily Star queries why the Tucson system must fill four assistant-superintendent positions, each costing about $100,000 per annum. The Plain Dealer asks why Cleveland's new superintendent needs 18 central-office administrators with pay topping $130K apiece while the larger Columbus system has just four such administrators--and better results, too. (The paper also questions why this superintendent needs four deputies when his predecessor managed with just one.)

Laying off teachers gives almost everyone palpitations, yet one incisive school-finance analyst has noted that this painful form of cost-reduction, done right, could improve student achievement. Doing it right, of course, means riffing the least effective teachers rather than the most junior. 

It works roughly this way: We know from innumerable studies that teacher effectiveness (unlike spending levels) powerfully affects how much and how well kids learn. Though we're not good at appraising their classroom prowess ahead of time, value-added analysis (combined with NCLB-era test data) makes it possible to do so in retrospect. Suppose that, for budgetary reasons, the Middle Earth School System needs to save $1 million in teacher pay. (Perhaps they've already cut central-office staff to the bone.) They could--and if they act like most districts will--fire 25 junior teachers who cost the district $40,000 each (including benefits). These people will typically be young, energetic, and all across the board when it comes to effectiveness.

Or Middle Earth could achieve the same fiscal result by laying off its 17 worst teachers whose cost--assume their pay is the district average--is about $60,000 each, fully loaded. (If it's $70K, booting fewer than 15 would suffice.) Doing this would have less negative effect on class sizes (because it subtracts fewer total teachers from the system) and a salutary effect on pupil achievement, because distributing their students among more-effective teachers (even if that enlarges classes by a couple of kids) is better for learning than sticking all of them with teachers from the tail end of the pedagogical-effectiveness spectrum.

You know why districts don't do things that way: They're required by contract or statute to lay off teachers according strictly to seniority. It's known as "last hired, first fired." It's a rule made not because it's good for kids but because that's how the unions--invariably dominated by senior teachers--want it to work.

Unfortunately, those sorts of priorities nearly always seem to come first when there's money on the table--whether the dollars are being added or subtracted. When budgets aren't the focus, student interests occasionally make it to the top along with issues of quality and performance: Are they learning what they should? Do they have decent choices among schools? Do their teachers know the subjects at hand? Are their schools making adequate progress? Are their textbooks any good? And so on.

Let budget issues come to the fore, however, and suddenly it's all about adult jobs and wages. The kids return to the back of the class. And quality takes a holiday.           

Welcome to American education circa 2009.

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