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Doing More with Less Now

Tough fiscal times can either be a grim time for public education where we cut back on investments and “do less with less,” or we can use budget pressure to tackle outmoded practices and unwieldy cost structures. Today, we have new understanding of how children learn; new ways to measure learning; the workforce has changed along with our understanding of how to organize work; and we have new technologies to support learning. What can public school systems do now to benefit from our new knowledge and technology and at the same time make better use of resources?

Through our partnerships with urban districts,  ERS has identified four strategies that get at the heart of restructuring existing resources in ways that could both reduce costs now and over time as well as improve outcomes.

1. Move away from “one size fits all” class size models. Instead, target individual attention to address priority student needs.

Class size has become the ubiquitous measure of school quality—as the indicator of how much individual attention students receive. It works, because it is easier to measure and describe than teaching effectiveness. But, we find that rigid class size mandates often work against teaching effectiveness. Why? Because they force the automatic addition of more staff rather than investments in teaching effectiveness or thoughtful targeting of individual attention. High-performing schools are breaking away from the single teacher, single classroom, all day model. These schools group students in different ways throughout the day, week and over their career, depending on their needs and the subject matter. Some groups might even be much larger than typical class size mandates, in order to match them with teachers who have the right skills or because the lessons or subjects don’t demand small class sizes. Other students might work independently or in small student-led groups. Districts and states can help to redirect individual attention to priority areas by getting rid of rigid class size mandates and raising class size targets strategically in higher grades and non-core subjects. They can articulate trade-offs between class size and teaching effectiveness and leverage the most effective teachers by making them responsible for more students and compensating them accordingly.

2. Redesign special education practices to shift funds toward early intervention and increased individual attention for all students. 

The high cost of special education is widely understood. But, most people are not aware of the large differences across states and districts in the percent of students classified in special education programs. Research also shows how damaging inappropriate placement can be. Funding incentives currently encourage classification of students to the most restrictive settings. Further, poorly understood “maintenance of effort” requirements that appear to require districts to keep special education spending levels the same from year to year combine with state and district staffing requirements to make it hard for districts to manage these costs. But, districts must work together with states to examine their special education placement and the cost-effectiveness of their service models. The goal should be to shift resources toward proven early intervention models, as well as ongoing targeted attention that addresses gaps in the skill levels of all students including those with special needs.

3. Make every minute count by matching instructional time to academic priorities.

There is much discussion about the need to add time for students who need it—but much less discussion about using existing time well. We find that districts and schools rarely manage time as a resource and certainly don’t encourage schools to schedule time to match student and subject needs.  We find big differences across schools in the amount of time they schedule for instruction of any kind.  In most school systems, students spend less and less time on core subjects as they move through school. We also find that the neediest students often spend the least time of all on core academics—especially by 12th grade. State and contract requirements that stipulate school time by subject, including PE, music and art, create unproductive trade-offs.  For example, to spend more time on math, schools must create after-school add-on programs rather than find ways to provide PE, music and art at potentially lower cost and higher quality.

4. Restructure compensation to incent and reward increased teacher responsibility and results.

Current teacher compensation structures reward years on the job and additional coursework, even though neither of these measures are highly correlated to student success.  School systems must realign teacher salaries and incentives to attract and keep the best and brightest, and promote professional growth, teamwork, responsibility, student performance, and contribution toward learning. In addition, districts can leverage compensation spending by managing the teaching work-force mix and differentiating instructional roles.

If you look at just about any sector from manufacturing to service to communications, you see a workplace and delivery system that has completely changed over the last three decades. But when you look at American public schools, they look almost exactly the same except with more staff outside the regular classroom, a few computers and some smart boards for the lucky few. Today’s tough times make now the moment to dismantle outmoded cost-structures and to take bold actions so our school systems reflect and support what we know about learning and now have the capacity to deliver.


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