$29 Billion Buys You A New Education System?

April 25, 2008 | Blog

On Wednesday the Forum for Education and Democracy released a proposal to “transform the federal role in education.” The conveners are a group of high-profile academics and educators, including Linda Darling-Hammond, John Goodlad, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Deborah Meier, and Ted Sizer.

The cynic in me might call this a $29 billion spending proposal which would result in a 75 percent increase in federal education spending … but I’m an optimist, so I’ll call it a proposed investment. And, in many ways, it is. There are many policy ideas worthy of consideration. I’m not sure it’s transformational however.

First, the bad news: What it is, is a tough sell politically. The authors were aware of this, and noted that its cost is equivalent to the monthly price tag of the war in Iraq. But they could have done much more to suggest ways to use current educational resources more efficiently. For instance, what about all the federal funds squandered on spray ‘n’ pray professional development? Gotta be some savings there. And it would drape at least a paper-thin cloak of fiscal austerity over an otherwise jaw-dropping spending proposal.

Now, the good news: The report is right to call for additional federal investments to build human capital–particularly in so-called hard-to-staff and low-performing schools. In my opinion, the No Child Left Behind Act’s biggest failures are (1) its lack of a serious focus on developing highly effective teachers and (2) its focus on punitive sanctions for ‘failing’ schools and districts rather than the provision of capacity building assistance to turn those schools around.

Let’s stipulate two things. Number one, teacher quality is the most important school-based variable impacting student success. Number two, educational accountability is not a silver bullet.

(1) The ‘highly qualified’ teacher requirement is a meaningless designation. In most states, every teacher is highly qualified. What NCLB lacks is a coherent and sustained vision to enhance teacher development during the initial years in the profession and beyond. To the Forum’s credit, it offers up some worthy ideas to move us off the dime: induction programs and teacher residencies as well as stronger school leadership preparation.

New educator support programs currently are allowable uses of NCLB’s Title II, Part A dollars, but few of those monies are spent in such impactful ways. In 2006-07, U.S. school districts received nearly $3 billion under Title II, Part A–but 79 percent of the funds were used either to reduce class sizes (47%) or for professional development (32%). [See U.S. Department of Education Survey on the Use of Funds Under Title II, Part A (July 2007)]

(2) Educational accountability alone cannot transform schools. As one of my colleagues like to say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Indeed. But the inherent presumption in educational accountability is that educators need a kick in the pants–and kids will learn. This–plus school choice–was W’s and many social conservatives’ primary argument for NCLB. But that’s not how it works.

A main reason why educators in low-performing schools are unsuccessful is because they don’t know how to work better or work differently–not because they’re lazy or feckless. Changing this requires not just strengthening individual knowledge and skills but also organization-wide transformations in the conditions and culture of teaching and learning. Some of the Forum’s ideas would move us in that direction.

Harvard’s Dick Elmore makes this point quite cogently in a 2002 Education Next article:

“The working theory behind test-based accountability is seemingly—perhaps fatally—simple. Students take tests that measure their academic performance in various subject areas. The results trigger certain consequences for students and schools—rewards, in the case of high performance, and sanctions for poor performance. Having stakes attached to test scores is supposed to create incentives for students and teachers to work harder and for school and district administrators to do a better job of monitoring their performance…. The threat of such measures is supposed to be enough to motivate students and schools to ever-higher levels of performance.

This may have the ring of truth, but it is in fact a naïve, highly schematic, and oversimplified view of what it takes to improve student learning…. The ability of a school to make improvements has to do with the beliefs, norms, expectations, and practices that people in the organization share, not with the kind of information they receive about their performance. Low-performing schools aren’t coherent enough to respond to external demands for accountability.

The work of turning a school around entails improving the knowledge and skills of teachers—changing their knowledge of content and how to teach it—and helping them to understand where their students are in their academic development. Low-performing schools, and the people who work in them, don’t know what to do. If they did, they would be doing it already.

Test-based accountability without substantial investments in capacity … is unlikely to elicit better performance from low-performing students and schools.”

In sum, I don’t begrudge the Forum for setting forth these ideas for improving American public education. I just don’t think that federal policymakers or presidential candidates are in the market for something with a $29 billion price tag. Targeted investments to strengthen teacher quality in high-need schools and districts–such as those proposed in U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy and Congressman George Miller’s TEACH Act or in U.S. Senator Jack Reed’s School Improvement Through Teacher Quality Act–are much more likely to pass the political smell test and find their way into a reauthorized NCLB.

Further, during NCLB reauthorization (now likely to move forward in 2009-2010), one can hope that federal policymakers look toward capacity building strategies (such as those proposed in this report) to replace punitive sanctions and the use of external supplemental service providers. We have a good sense of what is takes to transform struggling schools and districts — but it’s gonna take more than cajoling, demanding and hoping to get the job done. It’s going to require a financial and intellectual investment in strengthening the teaching profession and redesigning school leadership.

UPDATE: U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’s proposed rules for NCLB utterly ignore the capacity building needs I have articulated above. It’s more of the same old-same old accountability and contracting out of services without support. This will not address the capacity of districts or schools to improve. See Education Week story here.


  1. Reply


    April 27, 2008

    $29 billion? That's just chicken feed in the United States. That's what budget makers in Washington call "decimal dust." $29 billion in coins and change falls out of the pants pockets of Secretary of Defense Gates every time he gets out of his limousine on Capitol Hill to ask for another $100 billion for Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Homeland Security, or Iran, or something. And he does that about three times a year.

    The United States is the wealthiest country in the history of mankind. It's able to finance a war on terror that looks to cost $3 trillion by the time it's all over. It was able to finance the lifestyles of the rich and famous to the tune of $5 trillion in tax cuts. When the savings and loan debacle broke in the late 1980s a "broke" United States found $500 billion in the blink of an eyelash to bail that industry out. We recently found something like $100 billion overnight to shore up the securities industry in the face of the subprime crisis.

    What do you mean arguing that we can't afford another $29 billion for education or that politicians won't go for it?

    Of course we can afford it. The issue isn't whether we have the money it's whether we have heads and priorities screwed on straight.

    Let me make this political point clearly: It is the job of the defense establishment to argue for more money for defense and defense contractors. It's not their job to argue for more money for education. That's a job for educators -- and we should be doing it.

  2. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    April 28, 2008

    I never said we couldn't afford it. Of course we can. We should raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans to pay for such investments if nothing else. But it's NOT going to happen--even with a Democratic Congress. The Ds have been in control for the last two years and came nowhere close to proposing such a spending increase in anything. Unfortunately, the tax issue is too much of a political third rail. And with the current economic downturn, the huge budget deficit, and the mess that W will have left behind, it's not feasible to expect such a major investment in education.

    I wish future events would prove me wrong, but I expect that if you come back to this post sometime in late 2009, you'll see that there's no double-digit increase in federal spending on education--even with a Democratic president in place--let alone a 75 percent increase. In the end, advocates will have to come up with more realistic proposals to make targeted (read: smaller) investments in programs that have had a demonstrated impact. The two existing federal proposals that I cited are definitely in play under such a scenario.

  3. Reply


    May 5, 2008

    And I'd like to see billions spent on not on the "achievement gap" but on the "education debt" a la Ladson-Billings' letter to the next president. And on making sure every child has received good prenatal care, had health care and nutrition, and a good pre-school program.

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