Putting School Budgets in Teachers' Hands: What If End-Users in the Classroom Made Purchasing Decisions?

By Horn, Michael B.; Goldstein, Mike | Education Next, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Putting School Budgets in Teachers' Hands: What If End-Users in the Classroom Made Purchasing Decisions?


Horn, Michael B., Goldstein, Mike, Education Next


WHO DECIDES WHAT EDUCATION PRODUCTS andservices schools buy? For the most part, it's district purchasing agents, school principals, technology coordinators, and bureaucrats--anyone but the end user in the classroom. It's an ineffective market, with products and services handed down to teachers from purchasing decisionmakers on high.

Take the $18 billion we spend in the United States on professional development (PD) for teachers every year. For the most part, teachers don't pick the programs. Their schools and districts do. And the research on the return on that investment is damning, with all those dollars failing to move the needle on student outcomes. In a 2015 study, The New Teacher Project sought to quantify the impact of PD only to find that "despite enormous and admirable investments of time and money... most teachers we studied do not appear to be improving substantially from year to year."

Perhaps the PD market is broken because it's coercive. What would happen if we put the money in the market in individual teachers' hands?

Choices and Changes

Teacher behavior is likely similar to any other human behavior. Think adult fitness. In that sector, there's an interesting marketplace of yoga, sports leagues, CrossFit gyms, personal trainers, weight-loss centers, physical therapists, and so on. We aren't forced to run--we choose, and then we may opt to switch to CrossFit or yoga if we aren't getting results. The fitness market is dynamic and prepared for individual choices and changes, because it is tailored to human behavior, not the other way around.

PD may be similar. Brown University's Matthew Kraft studied teacher coaching--essentially personal training for teachers, rather than a conventional, "let's get the teachers together in a room" type of off-the-shelf PD program--and found noticeable gains across 60 different studies.

The thing is, "teachers are already working really, really hard to become better" and traditional PD doesn't account for those efforts, according to former teacher Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, who founded Curio, a website where innovation-minded teachers can exchange ideas. "Many times that additional work takes place at 11:00 p.m. when we're sitting on our living room couches. Then we have to hit 'pause,' go back to school, jump through some hoop, or sit though some workshop to prove it," she told EdSurge, an education-technology website.

This suggests an experiment worth trying.

Education-technology entrepreneurs, investors from Silicon Valley, and many educators have long dreamed about having individual teachers--not districts, not principals, not even teachers collectively--control the money in public schools. If only education-product and -service companies could market directly to the end users, the thinking goes, then the market for education products and services would work better.

A superintendent--or a group of superintendents--should test the Silicon Valley ed-tech hypothesis and create a teacher marketplace so all individual teachers could make their own PD purchasing decisions. The experiment could cover other spending categories, too: curriculum, books, field trips, classroom materials (from rugs to school supplies), and education technology would be allocated per individual teacher.

The district could set up this teacher-controlled marketplace as a randomized control trial against a business-asusual control group of teachers to see if the resulting shift to "teacher power" worked. Teachers who participated would be allocated something like 5 percent of school spending--likely initially starting as a philanthropy-funded effort. In a flush district like Boston, that could amount to $10,000 per teacher per year. In the Midwest, it could be perhaps half of that. But either way, it would be real dollars. The district could compare student outcomes, teacher satisfaction, and spending to see how each group did. …

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