Follow the Money: The Business Side; You Can Make a Bigger Difference in Education Reform by Delving into Financial Incentives for Success -- and Failure. (the State of Education)

By Nielsen, Susan | The Masthead, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Follow the Money: The Business Side; You Can Make a Bigger Difference in Education Reform by Delving into Financial Incentives for Success -- and Failure. (the State of Education)


Nielsen, Susan, The Masthead


Admit it. How often have you written an education editorial in which the main point is, "The children are our future" or "Students really need to do better on their tests"?

If you're like me, too often. Vague editorials are as easy to skim -- or skip -- as they are to write. So our challenge is this. Let's double our value to the community by devoting ourselves to the business of education.

We can still write about test scores, school board candidates, and after-school programs. We should. But those editorials are often fundamentally reactive or squishy

Writers can make more of a difference by following the money: How the contracts are written. What sort of financial incentives schools have for success -- or, more typically, for failure.

What follows are two sample questions and challenges that apply from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. Both could help crack a new window into the strange, sensitive, bloated, and starved world of education. After tackling such questions of money and management, you will have the information to write more useful and authoritative commentary about education.

How are individual schools funded by school districts, and how does that funding style affect education?

Some districts allocate money based on students' demographics. Others allocate based on programs or on student performance. Each funding style encourages different kinds of behavior.

For example, if a school gets a lot of extra money to improve low reading scores, it has a perverse incentive to continue underperforming. If a school gets money based on the number of children enrolled in bilingual education classes, it has an incentive to keep children in bilingual classes as long as possible.

The bigger the problem, the more staff members are hired to work on that problem -- and voila, the larger constituency of reading specialists or bilingual teachers whose jobs depend on children's continued low performance.

If all schools are equal, how do some schools become more equal than others?

District administrators insist that all schools are treated the same. Still, schools in higher-income neighborhoods seem to have the newest textbooks, the best course offerings, the nicest band uniforms, and so on. What gives?

Start by looking at teacher contracts and PTA organizations. Most school districts do not give financial incentives for teachers to work in more-challenging schools. Many teachers and other staff naturally gravitate from more-challenging schools as positions at better schools become available. (Wouldn't you?)

As a result, the better schools tend to have the most applicants and can cherry-pick the seasoned professionals and the most promising new hires. …

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