School Culture and Politics: Whither the Money?

Summary: A conundrum, in which school reform will depend on application of public funds toward targeted solutions that remain elusive in a political environment highly resistive to new spending.

I am a professional person. I strive to define my job by the knowledge and expertise I bring to bear on my school and my students. I know what must be done, what problems need to be solved, what processes need to be encouraged, who my students are and what they need to do to grow into the adults they are to become. I don’t need a hierarchy to tell me what to do, but to help me do my job as best I can do.

Today I sat in my office, much of the day crunching numbers, making as sure as I can that my seniors are on track to graduate. Where danger in that goal looms, I identify what steps individuals need to take to accommodate to standard. Senior portfolios await me on the side table, emails and phone calls beckon me, while I ignore a state level project that asks more of me than my professional priorities can give; late in the afternoon well after school is over, my mind turned to mush, I pack my things and take work home to finish over the weekend.

The more seriously a school teacher or other professional takes their work, the more frequently my experience above, just the other day, is replicated over and over, not only in my school, but in schools around the nation. Many of us, though we have prioritized to the max the responsibilities we have before us, still must leave elements that are themselves priorities, if lower ones, undone. Those extra steps to bring quality students to excellent, or struggling students to standard, are hard to get to short of making sacrifice of our private life.

Which brings me to the conundrum. It is clear to me that we need more people power in our schools, meaning teachers, counselors, administrators, classified staff. In schools, not in the central office. Working with kids is an interpersonal profession. Kids respond to relationships, and will follow us where we can give them time.

Often when I see a school making progress in one publication or another, at the root of the success is the creative use of human beings. Sometimes volunteers, sometimes extra staff paid by grant money, but mostly some leveraging mechanism that lowers the adult: student ratio on the grass roots level, in the school.

People have to be paid, which means more money. Aye, there’s the rub!

Critics with some reason charge that we should not send more money after a broken system until we know how to fix it. That some of these same people are averse to paying more taxes as part of a political agenda, some parts selfish and shortsighted, a few parts patriotic, does not mitigate the parts of truth in the charge. Bureaucracies do bloat and do waste money, and make no mistake, schools have a heavy bureaucratic element.

New money will have to be rationally targeted. Arguably, only in a lean system will marginal money have a chance to be used well.

Schools need more money, but the fix is too unclear to justify spending more money in an economy where public budget cuts are the norm. What to do?

The Obama administration with its “Race to the Top” provides money in this vacuum for states that meet “best practices” criteria the administration has identified as promoting educational change. According to Wikipedia, in its distillation of the “Race to the Top” program, those best practices are “performance based standards for teachers and principals, compliance with national standards, promoting charter schools, and computerization.”

Let’s take the first criterion, “performance based standards for teachers and principals.” In my own school were we to have a more rational teacher evaluation process truly based on performance (as do some schools by media accounts), I think it inescapable that administrators would need to devote a considerably enhanced share of their time to evaluation and guidance of talent. The establishment of trust required in any mentor situation, the time for question and conversation, skill specific observation and feedback, all part of any learning process, has to be carved out of the professional lives of administrators and teachers alike to a degree rarely observed, from what I have experienced. Moreover, I comment from the bowels of a large high school that most recently lost one of four vice principals for budgetary reasons, a regression of sorts rather than a progression in this context.

Charter schools present another horn of the same financial dilemma. Though charter schools as an incubation medium and laboratory make sense, the literature seems to report mixed outcomes, at best. Accounts indicate that where charter schools have been successful it has been because of lowered staff : student ratios, which once again takes what? – you’re right, more money.

Parenthetically, in a post or two down the road I will take a look at what is my own bewilderment at what to make of the literature on charter schools, as well as more on the implications for administrators if they are to get evaluation right.

In all this ambivalence about direction, Congressional naysayers more focused on reducing government back into the 19th century have a field day while they stifle enhanced spending by any means feasible.

Bottom line, though the Obama administration has taken a shot at best practices, and I think are correct in trying to support innovation in the categories they champion, just a brief look at two of the elements of Race to the Top, performance based standards and charter schools, illuminates the distance we are from a national consensus about what works, and the fact that those things that arguably eventually will work, are going to cost more money.


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