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A HUGE Challenge for Public Education: Spending Money Wisely

May 5, 2021

As readers of this blog realize, I served as a public school superintendent for 29 years from 1981-2011. During that time period, there was not a single year when I received hundreds of thousands of dollars I did not ask for and at least ten years where I had to make agonizing choices about where to make cuts. Anyone who is serving as a school superintendent now is going to have a very difficult decision to make: how to spend thousands of unasked for money in a way that will compensate for the classroom time children lost.

A recent article by Frederick Hess and Pedro Neguera in The Hill surprisingly captures the dilemma schools face in the coming months. I use the word “surprisingly” because I seldom agree with Mr. Hess’ thinking. He tends to support the ideas of “reformers” in terms of testing, viewing tests as a means of sorting and selecting students and “ranking” schools and teachers. But in this article, he and Mr. Neguera see things in a commonsensical fashion. Instead of viewing tests as necessary for determining how far behind children have fallen, they see them as necessary to get a sense of each student’s personal well-being:

Schools also need to figure out just how their students have been affected by the pandemic, in terms of academic progress and social and emotional well-being. Educators must gauge where students are at, not primarily for purposes of state data systems or teacher evaluation, but so they can determine what students actually need. The question should not be whether testing is good or bad, but how assessment can help schools and educators instruct and support kids.

Well IF the tests ARE used for anything other than formative reasons— for helping schools and educators instruct and support kids, testing is BAD. But when testing IS used to help schools and teachers instruct and support kids, when the results are used solely for that purpose, then testing is GOOD.

While the writers do not say so explicitly, their essay makes it clear that the funds should NOT be used to create new positions that will continue indefinitely and sustain the pre-pandemic paradigm of schooling. Rather, the unasked for funds should be used to expand partnerships with community arts organizations and mental health agencies who might support the efforts of public schools going forward.  Most crucially, they see that this might be a once in a generation opportunity to engage the disengaged. They write:

There’s a particular need to make schools engaging for all those students who were bored or tuned out even before the pandemic, and who now find little joy in socially distanced classrooms and cafeterias. Part-time instructors to teach the arts, music, electives, vocational classes, and more can be hired (without committing to permanent new staff positions or benefits) to supplement traditional classroom instruction, provide more ways to reengage students, and enliven a sanitized school day. Where such arrangements require waivers, districts should seek them — and unions should grant them.

The cheap shot against “the unions” notwithstanding, this is a great idea. There ARE a wealth of community artisans who are willing and able to work with children and who have been overlooked by schools in the past. By engaging artists in the schools and children with the arts it would be possible to markedly improve the engagement of students whose focus before the pandemic was learning how to do well on standardized tests.

And Mr. Hess and Neguera also offer some imaginative ideas for how to use these unasked for funds to change the teaching profession and increasing parental engagement:

There’s also an opportunity to use the next two years to start rethinking the teaching profession. Schools need to ask how they can most effectively use talented staff, which may mean reallocating responsibilities so that educators can spend more time doing the things that make a bigger difference for kids. Schools should, for instance, use relief funds to turn great reading teachers or counselors into twelve-month employees, so that they — and others with crucial skills — can get paid this summer to help students rather than tend bar or paint houses.

Finally, there’s a crying need for parent-help centers that can provide essential support to parents nervous about sending their kids back to school, confused by online instruction, or struggling with keeping their kids clothed and fed. Such centers, especially if staffed by parent volunteers, could be a cost-effective way to forge partnerships with parents and community.  

It is heartening to see the founder of the Conservative Education Reform Network espousing progressive ideas that focus on student and community engagement as opposed to boosting test scores. MAYBE something good will come of the pandemic after all

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