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What Matters

Funding in the classroom, not the courtroom

May 14, 2013, 12:00 am

Apparently our school board’s getting ready to “lawyer up”: According to last week’s New Mexican, Santa Fe Public Schools Board President Linda Trujillo is tired of shoestring budgets, and considering suing the state to cough up more funds for our schools.

Seems like a winnable case—a few sad, bookless third-grader witnesses should do the trick—but as Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond points out in The Flat World and Education (2010), opponents of school funding increases don’t roll over easily. In other states, defense lawyers have cited studies showing how student failure is caused by problems at home, which means giving schools more money won’t make a difference. They’ve also argued that districts and schools are so bureaucratic and inefficient that any additional funds would be frittered away.

Neither argument stands up well in court. The “bad home” approach is buried by mountains of studies showing that kids from any setting perform better in well-funded schools, while the “inefficiency” argument—which has some merit—does not outweigh the irrefutable fact that states have dramatically increased the standards schools must meet, but failed to increase funding for them to do it. Judges in these “adequate education” funding suits have ruled for the plaintiffs two-thirds of the time.

But just because a lawsuit is winnable doesn’t mean it’s advisable. The legal shenanigans will drag on for years, stressing our district’s already scarce resources. And when the gavel does pound, there’s no guarantee a victory in the courtroom will translate into improvements in the classroom. Darling-Hammond describes how some school systems, notably California’s, are still in shambles despite successful lawsuits.

Before they file suit, then, our board might do well to wonder, like Darling-Hammond, what we could accomplish if instead of “arguing and litigating,” we reexamine our educational strategies and set about “building a high-quality education system for all children.”

Based on her vast experience studying highly successful school systems from Helsinki to Union City, Darling-Hammond makes it clear that the key to building quality schools has little to do with lawsuits, and everything to do with teachers. In a must-read chapter titled “Doing What Matters Most,” she describes how other school systems achieved excellence by avoiding “quick-fix” fads and investing heavily in long-term teacher development. They overhauled their teacher education programs, increased time for planning and teamwork, lessened student loads and teaching hours, created inquiry-based professional development and instituted mentoring programs for new teachers. Each of these success stories has its own twists—Singapore uses teacher learning circles, North Carolina a fully funded Teaching Fellows program—but they all have the same happy ending: a corps of inspired professionals who collaborate, problem-solve, research, reflect and craft brilliant approaches to ensure all students thrive.

The leadership team at SFPS knows these stories well. Its recently released Secondary School Reform plan wisely states that adoption of any new structure must be accompanied by improved instruction, and its proposal for small learning communities, which can certainly foster team teaching and collaboration, is a step in the right direction.

One model they might look toward is New York City’s District No. 2, where student achievement spiked when it focused on its teachers in the 1990s. Harvard professor Richard Elmore visited and found that teachers, principals and officials from across the district regularly visited each other, and worked in egalitarian teams to share strategies and ideas. In other words, everyone was an “expert,” and everyone was a learner.

Even with its tight budget, SFPS can begin growing its own version of this model. Partnering with nonprofits and businesses, it can fund release time and scholarships so teachers can plan together, mentor new colleagues, observe in other schools and cities, attend conferences, pursue national certification and master’s degrees, and work to understand and address the problems at their schools. Given the resources, time and professional respect to become master educators, it will be our teachers—not our lawyers—who will lead our community toward invigorated, excellent schools.


A graduate of SFPS and a former Santa Fe educator, Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research what “school” could someday be. He blogs at schoolreformed.wordpress.com.

 

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