Which school do you want to support?
The previous lesson ("Go Big") explored what schools and districts might do if they had a lot more resources. This lesson discusses a more familiar case: could public education do with less? When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right?
Let's be clear: California's funding for public education is far from lush, and a chronically a too-tight belt hurts kids and society. Nevertheless, this lesson explores the opposite side of the "Go Big" idea in order to bring focus: what matters most?
Efficiency is the art of accomplishing more (output) with less (input).
Over the last half-century, public investment in K-12 has shrunk as a percentage of the economy. This is especially true in California.
In education, efficiency gains are hard to quantify. Here are some of the challenges:
Doing more… Our expectations of public education have substantially increased over time. For example, we expect students from every community to have access to classes that ready them for college. Schools have increasingly been expected to serve all students, including those learning English and those who have learning disabilities. And we now expect schools to connect every member of the school community with the technology required for digital participation in society. When you pay taxes in support of public education, you aren't making a cold financial calculation about payback — you are "paying it forward."
…with less. Despite these increased expectations, for decades, the public's investment in public K-12 education has significantly shrunk as a percentage of the economy. In public policy analysis, the percentage of the economy spent on an area is described as effort. As the economy grows, to sustain effort, the expenditures in that area must grow at a rate that keeps pace.
California's expenditures for public education have not kept pace with the expansion of the state's economy. Some might see spending less of the economy on education as evidence of improved productivity — getting by with less. But it is hard to argue in this case that productivity is necessarily the right goal.
California is a "low effort" state when it comes to education. It expends less of its economy on education than other states do. It used to invest more, long ago.
A mere century ago, states began the work of making public education "universal." Expanding the meaning and usefulness of universal education in America has been one of the most important functions of government for at least the last four generations. The work is unfinished, of course, but opportunities for education have been gradually but steadily expanded to include girls, minorities, and children with disabilities. It has been a difficult and expensive undertaking, fueled by a shared commitment to invest in the American dream.
Most of the costs of education are "people" costs, of which the largest share is teachers. fifty years ago, teachers in most states earned a bit more than double the average per-capita income. Since then, teacher pay has kept pace with inflation, but has not kept up with overall growth in average wages.
The "savings" from relatively slow growth in teacher pay has mostly been invested in hiring more teachers. This has driven down average class sizes in most states, which has helped to address the needs of English learners and students with learning disabilities. Smaller classes serve the aim of making education more universal, and they were a key response to the policy direction to "leave no child behind."
California, as usual, has been an exception; lacking funds to do otherwise, the student-teacher ratio here has remained the highest in America for decades. Pushing to go even more "lean" in this dimension would require new approaches and risks.
Technology has been the key driver behind productivity gains across other sectors of the economy, and it seems likely that education will follow the same pattern. For example, computer-based learning works well for many students, especially for learning math. Computers cannot replace teachers, but they can help them. When students want to learn something on their own, they turn to YouTube. Of course, some learning materials online are shallow, or incorrect, or commercially motivated. But some of the learning materials are good. The general subject of using technology in learning is discussed in Lesson 6.6.
Although the costs of technology are dropping steadily, it isn't free. In order to make significant and successful use of technology, schools must make significant up-front investments not only in equipment and infrastructure, but also in planning and training.
Our education system generally operates under the pretense that students learn at the same rate. In 2007 the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce issued an out-of-the-box report that called for schools to abandon traditional grade level advancement. Instead, it argued that in each subject students should advance from grade level to grade level when ready. The report said that this would not only save money, but would also put students more in charge of their own destiny and release them earlier to pursue their dreams. This theme is echoed in the materials of online colleges. If you are ready to move on, why wait around? Lindsay, California is one of the few school districts to have embraced elements of this strategy.
If students finished school earlier, they would reduce costs for taxpayers. The savings involved would be pretty small, but might be enough to act as an incentive; the New Commission report called for investing the savings in tax-funded “personal competitiveness accounts.” Such accounts would provide individuals with funds to pursue higher education or other endeavors. Others have carried this idea even further, proposing that financial incentives be put in place for all children, conditional on good behavior and success in school.
California's education funding system, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), involves a fair amount of red tape — but it replaced a system that was considerably worse. The old funding system allocated money to specific programs, and required extensive compliance reports. These ate up valuable school site administrator time and created barriers to local strategies for school improvement.
Allowing administrators to do more with the time and money they already have might help to create better student outcomes.
Particularly in California, districts may also choose to invest more of their resources in educational leadership. From a distance, investing in the principal's office might seem counterintuitive, but a primary and overlooked role of school leadership is to bring out the best in other people. California's school system is not administration-heavy. In 2020-21 the total administrative expenses of schools, districts and county offices of education amounted to just 11% of total K-12 expenditures in the state. (SACS codes 7000 and 2700.)
As discussed above, teacher pay in America has fallen relative to other employment over the long term. Nevertheless, teacher salaries comprise the largest portion of the cost of education.
Teacher salaries are determined through collective bargaining between school districts and unions. Some argue that collective bargaining drives up the cost of education by paying uniform wages to all teachers at a level higher than the market would command without union involvement. There is considerable evidence to support this claim; as discussed in Lesson 7.5, collective bargaining has slowed the erosion of teacher pay relative to other jobs requiring similar preparation. Some efforts to "do more with less" in education look to reduce the scope of collective bargaining, or to differentiate teacher pay in ways that would make teacher salaries more responsive (or vulnerable) to market conditions.
Part of the idea behind such pay differentiation is attractive: it would enable schools to offer additional pay to attract and retain teachers who can take on exceptional roles, or who demonstrate exceptional skills. Unions hesitate to embrace such exceptions for a variety of reasons. In the zero-sum math of school funding, if salaries increase for some, others must get less. No one really knows how that would play out over time. Optimists claim that communities would rally to pay teachers wages more in line with their high value. Pessimists worry that their high social value might not be reflected in "market" value. Already, market wages for substitute teachers are much lower than those for full teachers. (Ask a teacher how much substitutes are paid at your school. You'll probably be shocked — or maybe not, because the going rate spiked in the pandemic.)
For those whose blood pressure just rose a little bit at the thought of reducing teacher pay, note that the original question was: "could the cost of teaching be reduced even further.” That is quite a different question than should the cost be reduced. The financial attractiveness of the teaching profession has already declined relative to other employment. District and union leaders are proceeding only with great caution.
Change can seem very slow in education. As students or parents, it often appears that the system is completely intractable, frozen in carbonite like Han Solo. A glance at the history of education makes clear that widespread change does occur, under certain conditions. The next lesson examines those conditions.
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