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Karen Hawley Miles on How Districts can Spend Money Wisely

Editor's Note: The Education Front asked Karen Hawley Miles, a school funding expert, to discuss misconceptions about financing schools. Miles, president and executive director of Education Resource Strategies in Watertown, Massachusetts, also talks about linking spending to a district's time, talent and technologies in to maximize results.

What is it that most of us usually miss about school spending? Is it the amount of money that goes into personnel? Buildings? Curricula? Something else?

When people ask about school spending they usually ask, how much does a district spend on specific things like books, buildings, and staff. We know that there is not a tight link between total dollars spent and results for students.

When we look at school spending with our partner districts, we don't just look at dollars spent, we look at how they are spent. We ask: Is the district organizing talent, time and technology strategically to improve student learning for all students?

When you ask this question, then you quickly see that school spending is not about line items like books and buildings but about investing in teaching and learning including resource choices like compensation, scheduling and distribution of teaching effectiveness.

But at some point, school districts do have to add up the bottom line. So, what usually eats up most of their expenses?

Compensation. Compensation spending comprises 80 to 90% of most district budgets and teacher compensation represents about 50% of the total spend when you include benefits. Right now, most districts spend teacher compensation dollars in ways that aren't likely to get the best results and that guarantee that costs go up automatically every year unrelated to improvement.

What districts are starting to rethink how they can get the biggest bang for their spending? And, generally speaking, are they rethinking how they organize their time, talent and technology?

Any district that wants to get the biggest bang for their dollar must look at how they invest in teaching effectiveness. This includes teacher compensation, spending on professional growth, the structure of the school day and the way that teachers are grouped with students.

Denver was one of the first districts to revamp teacher compensation to link compensation to teaching effectiveness moving away from automatic annual increases in salary for each year of teaching independent of contribution, difficulty of assignment or student results.

Now, a number of districts are in the forefront looking closely at both compensation AND the structure of the teaching job together. These districts include a number of Texas districts like Austin and Houston. Charlotte-Mecklenberg, who won the Broad prize for urban school districts in 2010 began a serious look at aligning resources 4 years ago.

They redeployed talent to the lowest performing schools, organized teaching teams to share expertise and problem solve and used data to figure out which students needed small groups and more time. They experienced dramatic improvement in their lowest performing schools.

How hard is it for districts to start making those kinds of transitions?

It's very hard for a district to make these transitions because they require a different way of thinking about what schools look like and how districts organize to support them. It also requires hard changes in personnel and policies. But now is an ideal time to start. Budgets are so tight that districts are being forced to make difficult changes.

But leaders have a choice -- do less with less, or use this crisis to start making investments where it really makes a difference in student performance and make some of the cuts that move away from dysfunctional structures and build toward the future.

I think you're familiar with our School Budget Hold'em Game which gives a good feel for the kind of trade-offs a district can make, even in hard times, to begin investing in transitioning into a more effective, sustainable district.

There are some changes that a district is less able to make without state support such as class size, course requirements, school day, use of technology to support teaching and learning and even reconfiguration of numbers of schools and grades in each of them. For these, our communities and policymakers need to get a better understanding of what regulations are inhibiting the evolution of education in this country and what new investments that could be leveraged for all districts to support true transformation. For more on this you can see our primer for state policymakers.

Yes, I have played your School Budget Hold 'em game. It really forces you to think about tradeoffs when trying to balance a hypothetical district's budget. What kinds of tradeoffs do participants usually struggle with in doing this exercise?

Most people are surprised to find that when they play the game, they are able to find choices that significantly reduce the budget in ways that research suggests won't negatively affect student performance AND include investments for the future in things like teaching effectiveness, more time and technology. But, it's one thing to make these choices in a game and a completely different thing to do it in reality when it's real people and real jobs at stake.

The commonly chosen reductions include things like closing under-enrolled, poorly located schools and raising class sizes in non-core subjects and upper grades. That's why keeping an eye on what we are aiming for -- creating a new promise for our children that includes the brightest, most skillful, most caring teachers choosing to stay in teaching and working together to employ state of the art knowledge, materials and tools to help all students succeed. Holding this vision can give courage to the school and district leaders who will lead this transformation.


Learn about Hold'em here.

Learn about how Memphis City Schools used the Hold'em concept to transform their budget conversations.


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