Smart Money: Using Educational Resources to Accomplish Ambitious Learning Goals
reviewed by Nicola A. Alexander - September 07, 2010
Title: Smart Money: Using Educational Resources to Accomplish Ambitious Learning Goals
Author(s): Jacob E. Adams (ed.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1934742597, Pages: 260, Year: 2010
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Dollars drive decisions. Better school finance systems will lead to better student outcomes, so says Jacob E. Adams, Jr., editor of Smart Money: Using Educational Resources to Accomplish Ambitious Learning Goals. Along with other leading scholars in the field of policy analysis and finance, Adams explores what it takes to fulfill high expectations for schools. The central premise of this book is that states will never educate all students to high standards unless they first fix the finance systems that support Americas schools (p. 17).
This book is organized like the education system it promotes. It presents a unifying argument comprised of integrated parts focused on the achievement of a single goal improved student achievement. Over the course of an introduction and 11 chapters, Adams and his colleagues posit that ambitious learning goals require a new approach to allocating educational resources. The authors argue from the standpoint that student performance is below par and that the typical, traditional American public school is failing. They call for continuous school improvement where equal opportunity [for children] also meant meaningful opportunity [emphasis in original] (p. 3).
In the opening chapters, Adams (Introduction and Chapter 1) observes that American policymakers have constantly changed their demands of schools, but have continued to rely on outdated school funding mechanisms. I would add that while the rhetoric surrounding expectations has changed, the metric used to measure success student achievement has not. What has changed (at least in our words) is our willingness to tolerate the gap in achievement among student groups and our belief that appropriate investment can eliminate that gap. State policymakers invest in schools not only because state constitutions squarely place the education of citizens on the doorstep of states, but also because there is a basic belief that money can matter. We are just not sure how and to what extent it matters for schools and student outcomes. Addressing those concerns is ultimately the contribution of the essays included in Smart Money.
In laying the groundwork for developing appropriate finance systems, Adams rightly distinguishes between finance systems and resource allocation strategies. The former is focused on policy design whereas the latter focuses on professional knowledge and implementation. The book tackles both. Adams and others argue for the development of sound theory that links educational resources to student outcomes with clear linkages between theory, policy mechanisms, and implementation. The theory of action that threads its way throughout the book is one in which resources matter. At least, resources could matter, if only we changed the way in which we conducted school. For example, as Weiss (Chapter 4) notes, educators need to focus on continuous instructional improvement, not preservation of the status quo. This is a recurring theme throughout the book.
The themes of uncertainty, trust, and control also abound. Readers are asked to open their minds to doing something new and different with the education of our children. The contributors generally argue that the accountability system as presently envisioned should be turned on its head so that effectiveness overrules compliance; local control trumps domination from higher jurisdictions; and flexibility outweighs compartmentalization. Drawing on references to conceptual understandings and empirical analyses, these authors argue persuasively that there is something wrong with our school system, that we can do something to fix it, and that we should do something to fix it.
The fix, according to these researchers, is a systemic look at the funding of education. Ironically, this systemic look is grounded in a focus on the individual. For example, Cross and Roza (Chapter 2) argue against targeted, categorical spending. They support, instead, student-based funding that follows every child (p. 22). Similarly, Koppich (Chapter 3) advocates the creation of teacher contracts that focus on the strengths and weaknesses of individual teachers. She argues, paradoxically, that by distinguishing as much as possible among teachers, one is, in fact, supporting the teaching profession as a whole. It is unclear, however, how the focus on the individual fosters a holistic approach. Both chapters are well written, but readers may not readily accept the authors assertion that their proposal would advance a systemic perspective when the funding concentrates on the lone teacher or the individual student. For example, if funding follows only the child, what happens to children in schools with exceptional high rates of poverty? Will there be additional resources available for the multiplicative effect of indigence? How would their recommended efforts balance individual needs with institutional concerns in the educational arena?
The importance of tradeoffs and the scarcity of resources is also a salient theme. Underlying much of the arguments in the book is an economic, either/or perspective, where more investment in non-academic pursuits (e.g., counseling) takes away from student learning. Insufficiently considered is the premise that school and non-school activities reinforce each other and that education funding needs to encompass a holistic look at the child. This includes considering educational options and opportunities outside of school walls. Kirst and Rhodes (Chapter 9) touch on this theme by looking at out-of-school resources and their impact on student outcomes. However, while their framework correctly recognizes the importance of non-school factors, it seems to ignore the importance of holistic education in the manner thought of by Rousseau and others.
Policies should make it easy for education actors to do the right thing. The authors largely imply that the present system does not. Many of them argue that change is imperative for school improvement and reform. McDonnell (Chapter 10) makes it clear that while change is doable, it will not be easy. The status quo is in place because it works for many influential people. There must be not only policy entrepreneurs who take advantage of an open policy window, but also those who are willing to open the window themselves. This takes time, skill, and strategy.
Miles (Chapter 5) offers sound advice for school administrators and education policymakers to act strategically in their quest for improved student outcomes. She calls for increased focus on improving teacher quality, use of student time, and targeting individual attention. Odden, Goetz, and Picus (Chapter 6) add to this discussion by submitting empirical evidence to demonstrate that adequately funding these strategies is within our financial reach. Guthrie and Hill (Chapter 7) highlight the fact that uncertainty remains regarding the effectiveness of various education strategies. However, like Monk (Chapter 8), they ask us to recognize that the current system is not working and that it is time to try something new. They propose the replacement of bureaucratic structures with market-like mechanisms. However, it is refreshing to see that the authors recognize that market-like instruments go beyond competition and include mechanisms like transparency, devolution of responsibility, performance incentives, and performance accountability (p. 173).
I applaud the authors and the book for their insightful discussion on how educational reform can and should take place. Notwithstanding, this volume seems to place less emphasis on issues of social justice than I expected and would have liked. For instance, how does the quest for excellence and effectiveness play out for those students who are least well served by the status quo? What are the transitional costs for students and families who are stuck in systems that are least like what the authors envision? For example, when Cross and Roza (Chapter 2) discuss the inability of categorical funding to improve student achievement, I wondered about the effect of their proposal on the distribution of funds and performance. What is the plan to protect vulnerable populations from bearing most of the burden of unintended consequences? On the other hand, post-Serrano California makes it clear that equal funding does not necessarily mean adequate funding.
This volume seems to ask readers to trust front-line workers and local policymakers more than they do state and federal leaders. This realignment of powers and trust may be warranted, but little empirical evidence is provided that this reallocation will lead to improved equity. State and federal policymakers are not the only ones susceptible to politically prudent choices that lead to inequitable outcomes. Moreover, many education scholars have advocated that states and the federal government take on a bigger share of school funding in order to smooth out the inequities of geography and circumstance. It is hard to imagine that state and federal policymakers will take on more of the political cost of raising revenue to fund schools without the benefit of determining how those funds get spent.
Educational resources should matter. The authors are right to assert that school finance systems must align better with the ambitious goals of educational systems. At the end of the day, policymakers have to develop effective education systems that distinguish among children without discriminating against them. They have to figure out a way to distribute education funds without diluting these dollars. The essays in Smart Money go a long way in sparking discussion and helping policymakers to figure out a way in which they can do just that.