More funding doesn’t mean better schools

Spending more money for each student in order to turn around failing schools has great intuitive appeal.  But doing so has not produced the desired results.  New York State serves as a case in point (“$773 Million Later, de Blasio Ends Signature Initiative to Improve Failing Schools,” The New York Times, Feb. 26).

Although New York ranks near the very top on per-pupil expenditures in the nation, many of its schools continue to fail. Consider New York City under Mayor de Blasio.  Despite spending $773 million on nearly 100 low-performing schools on his Renewal program, 75 percent have fallen far short of the hoped-for improvements. Still undeterred, de Blasio now will direct funding to the neediest schools under a new centralized data system called Edu Stat.

I don’t believe anything significantly different will emerge.  I say that because so much of any school’s success is dependent on factors beyond the control of teachers and principals.  The Coleman Report made that clear decades ago.  It’s not that schools don’t matter. But family and neighborhood play a greater role.  There will always be exceptions, but they are outliers. I’m thinking now of Jaime Escalante, who performed miracles at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

Let’s give greater support to struggling schools, but let’s also get real.  Schools are not Lourdes.

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2 Replies to “More funding doesn’t mean better schools”

  1. It’s the students, not the schools.

    That seems obvious given that literally 100% of the high-SES suburban schools have high test scores and almost 100% of the low-SES inner-city neighborhood schools (that is, the ones that enroll based on geography rather than on parent application) have low test scores.

    Surely, given the literally thousands of high-SES suburban schools and thousands of low-SES inner-city neighborhood schools, there must be a few high-SES suburban schools that have inferior teachers and there must be a few low-SES inner-city neighborhood schools that have superior teachers. If it was the schools, not the students, that were controlling academic outcomes, then these inferior-teacher high-SES suburban schools would have low test scores and these superior-teacher low-SES inner-city neighborhood schools would have high test scores.

    But, we do not see this happening.

    Therefore, it must be student characteristics rather than school characteristics that are determining academic outcomes.

    (There is an important overlap between “student” characteristics and “school” characteristics that complicates a discussion that uses these terms. The characteristics of the students in a given school will — obviously — impact the atmosphere in each classroom in that school. In a low-SES inner-city neighborhood school, most of the students will have characteristics that predispose them to academic failure. These predisposed-to-academic-failure students will resort to minor misbehavior to relieve frustration/gain peer approval + the prevailing peer pressure will be anti-academic-achievement. As a result, minor-but-endemic misbehavior and the anti-academic-achievement peer pressure will be common. Although one could refer to these as “school” characteristics, they are more accurately referred to as “student” characteristics — that is, characteristics of the school that flow from characteristics of the students rather than from characteristics of what the school system provides (teachers, curriculum, facilities, support services).

    Spending increasing amounts of $ on the school characteristics in the low-SES inner-city neighborhood schools will have, at best, minimal impact on the student characteristics in these schools. To significantly improve academic outcomes in these schools, reforms must address the student characteristics that are causing the poor academic outcomes. Most of these reforms must address the students’ lives from birth through kindergarten — particularly reforms that give the low-SES students the kind of parenting (and health care/nutrition) that high-SES students have. Some of these reforms could/should address the conditions within the schools that encourage the minor-but-endemic misbehavior and anti-academic-achievement peer pressure — i.e., reinstating tracking, smaller class size/second-adult-in-the-room for the lower-track classes, adopting/enforcing reasonable behavior standards, providing staff support to assist teachers in enforcing the behavior standards, backing teachers in credibility conflicts related to student discipline, and removing procedural obstacles that deter teachers from imposing reasonable discipline.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: You are absolutely correct. The landmark Coleman Report in 1966 made that clear. It found that social and economic factors outside of school played a far greater role than the quality of schools themselves. He never said that school don’t matter. Instead, he said that they couldn’t by themselves overcome the huge deficits that disadvantaged students brought to class through no fault of their own. Certainly those students could learn in school, but the rate at which they did so couldn’t match the rate at which their more advantaged classmates did.

    We can continue to pour more money in struggling schools, but the money would be better used to address conditions outside of school that are the cause in the first place of the achievement gap. The failure of the Renewal program in New York City is a case in point that confirms the folly of expecting money alone in schools to make a difference.

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