Spend money where reform is needed

There are beliefs we acknowledge as truths: One size does not fit all. Doing the same thing, the same way, and expecting different results is insane. And reinventing wheels is a waste of time because they already do their job. But the truth about “education reform” and what needs “reforming” hasn’t been so clear.

When the Students  Com First laws came forth, it was because we had a fiscal crisis. The selling point was “educating more students, at a higher level, with fewer resources.” Budget writers (Joint Finance Appropriations Committee) held a listening session. A proposal was put forth to use existing “educational productivity” data — data pointing out districts giving us the most and least bang-for-the buck — to guide the improvement of schools through targeted investment in “restructuring,” “transformation,” “change,” “improvement” — whatever synonym you use for reform. Instead the choice that was made was a one-size-fits-all option. We floated whole-system mandates at a time when targeted investments could have served us more efficiently and effectively.

That moment and the laws that followed are history. The question now is: What to do with the left-over $34 million?

We had “listening sessions” — something we have done before. Two days after the second session, a proposal came from the House Education Committee supported by its chairman and member of the Governor’s Education Task Force, Reed DeMordaunt, to use these reform dollars for training teachers to implement Common Core standards, and for teacher salaries and technology.

Let’s be transparent with the public. The $34 million dollars (2 ½% of this year’s education budget): Was its purpose “education reform”? Common Core is not reform. We have paid for higher and higher standards for decades without real progress. And as Mr. Luna has said, “the next generation of assessments to gather data on student achievement” is on its way. More tests are not reform.

Teachers’ salaries and technology are not issues to be addressed with one time dollars, which is what the $34 million has now become. Was the $34 million seen as flexible dollars for districts to spend at will? If the money was never “reform” dollars, the public should know that because we were led to believe we were paying to reform education.

The talk about adequate funding for salaries and equipment should be addressed fully in a conversation about school funding inequities, adequacies, and our Idaho Constitutional duty to a thorough system of public schools.  When we talk about “thorough” do we not think it means effective schools first and foremost, for all?

We have repeatedly used our own data — several decades worth of data — to document schools falling behind and the inability of our own state’s actions to keep those schools from relapsing. Insanity? Standards, tests, and their misuse in accountability schemes are not reform strategies; they are only tools, just like technology; tools, not strategies for improvement.

So here is where we do not have to re-invent wheels: Effective schools have principals who focus on the quality of instruction, the focus is broadly understood, teachers expect all students to obtain at least minimal mastery, and tests are used as the basis for program evaluation because it is the local school where analysis and intervention takes place in order to put student learning first. It was Ronald Edmonds who was the lead researcher on Effective School Correlates and he found that all the schools he studied (which were high-minority, high-poverty, high-achieving schools) focused their design on more efficient use of existing resources. This improves efficiency and effectiveness.

Our choice seems to be: walk away from the problem schools and go the way of charters, or, improve existing schools.

Effective education reform must have a clear goal as well as a well-developed way and means to achieve success. What is our goal? We have 10 persistently low-achieving schools identified.

We have a way to reform them — the effective school turnaround methods. And we have a means — $34 million at the moment.

We could choose to turn these schools around. We could choose to be able to answer this question: what does it cost to “turnaround” a persistently low-achieving school in Idaho using the most effective and efficient methods known?

What’s stopping us from reforming what needs reforming?