Improving Teaching and Learning When Budgets Are Tight: Spending Limited Dollars Strategically Is Key in an Era When Funding Is Tight and Expectations Are High

By Odden, Allan; Picus, Lawrence O. | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Improving Teaching and Learning When Budgets Are Tight: Spending Limited Dollars Strategically Is Key in an Era When Funding Is Tight and Expectations Are High


Odden, Allan, Picus, Lawrence O., Phi Delta Kappan


Education budgets are imploding at the fiscal seams. A sluggish economy and falling property values are shortchanging public education budgets across the country. At the same time, there are growing expectations for improved student performance, better teachers and closing the achievement gap. Schools and teachers are caught in this double squeeze.

Is there a way to meet these demands? Is it reasonable to ask schools to continue to raise student performance and improve teaching with no additional money and in some cases with less? Does the way forward absolutely require more money?

We believe there is a way to move forward. Schools can improve learning and teaching using research-based and best practices-based strategies that in many cases don't require more money, and in others where more money will help if it's spent strategically.

But there are competing views about this. One group argues that more competition will ensure that schools spend education dollars more efficiently, and that the demands on schools today require more choice--vouchers, charter schools, contract schools and other market-driven solutions. Some who support competition also want to give schools more control over spending decisions. These approaches have merit, but competition per se won't improve schools. After all, two of America's automobile manufacturing companies went bankrupt in competitive markets. To survive and compete in a vastly different market-place, they had to redesign and improve the cars they build. So competition only works if it leads to school redesign, and there is scant evidence for that in education so far, but what is important is school redesign regardless of the competitive environment.

Others argue that schools just need more money. But, if that argument were valid, high-spending schools would be doing better than low-spending schools, and that's not always the case. We've found that even when resources increase substantially, schools frequently don't use the new dollars to strategically improve performance (Picus, Odden, Aportela, Mangan, & Gorza, 2008).

But, we're confident school performance can improve even when funding is constrained. These conclusions draw from our work in school finance adequacy (Odden & Picus, 2008), our study of schools and districts that have literally doubled student performance on state tests over a four- to six-year time period (Odden, 2009), and our partnerships with districts in reallocating resources to more powerful education visions. We see five interrelated strategies. We present four here and a fifth in a sidebar to this article.

Strategy #1. Resist the cost pressures on schools.

Our current system of local control of education works well, but it tends to boost costs, not student performance. Key factors behind these pressures to increase costs include:

Smaller classes. Most districts find that reducing class size by one or two students eats up large portions of the budget and generally has modest impacts on achievement. More specifically, research--mainly the Tennessee STAR experiment--supports class-size reduction only for grades K-3. In that study, larger classes (24-25 students) were compared to similar size classes with an instructional aide as well as to smaller classes (15-17 students). The small class sizes (but not the regular classes with an instructional aide) did increase student achievement by about 0.25 standard deviations for all students (Nye, Hedges, & Konstantopulos, 2002) and about twice that level for low-income and minority, primarily black, children (Krueger & Whitmore, 2001). Subsequent research showed that the positive impact of small classes continued on into middle and high school and beyond (Nye, Hedges, & Konstantopulos, 2001). Unfortunately, there's no similar research on class-size reduction in upper elementary, middle, and high school grades.

Yet pressure to reduce class size remains a high priority for many school districts. …

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