Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why is it always about the funding?

flickr Cc image via Images_of_Money

In the business of teaching and learning it seems to always be about the money. Whenever a desire to improve the practise or quality of the education system emerges, it isn't long before the calculators are fired up and we're attempting as quickly as we can to put a price on the reform. Not surprisingly, government funding sources propose the cheapest way to achieve the reform goal, and teacher unions demand maximum financial support. This continuum perpetuates every year at budget time and the battle of wits begins; the ministry wants the biggest bang for their buck, and the profession cries foul in its claim that the job can't be done without more cash.

Understanding that politics is politics, (party agendas, personal political aspirations, fiscal realities and the never-ending quest for power are obvious factors that affect not just the funding of education, but every publicly funded institution,) when it comes to education reform, I'm left pondering a different consciousness. What if those of us who are passionate about teaching and learning purposefully asked ourselves what could be done to improve education that wouldn't cost a dime?

Obviously funds are required to support many elements of the education system. Teachers need to get paid, resources need to be supplied and schools need to be built and maintained, however, when it comes to ideas supporting better practise, I would submit that perhaps the best education reforms require no financial support whatsoever.

As intelligent professionals who know tacitly what works and what doesn't in their classrooms and schools, teachers typically integrate and synthesize their philosophical thoughts in an effort to reform their personal practise and refine their craft. I've also had enough professional conversations with my teaching colleagues to know that collectively, we also have a lot to say about how these efforts can be extrapolated to a broader education reform context. I want to hear from any teacher who believes they have an idea that could improve the way teachers teach and students learn, and that doesn't require a penny of funding to do so.

Please share your ideas here, however simple or complex, or you can respond by following me on Twitter @graingered


  1. Thanks for another excellent post Sean! I truly believe the attitude you promote, that politics is politics and we need to be pragmatic, is what is needed for us to achieve the reform we want.

    To that end, here are a few suggestion:

    1 - I think we need to proactively move away from textbook purchases and recycle that money into other areas of our system. Online resources are abundant (search delicious for 'free textbooks') and I think by making the identification of alternative resources a priority it could be accomplished within a year or two. The potential savings are great in most districts!

    2 - I think we need to encourage paperless classroms that take advantage of technology. Through a combination of using our savings from reduced copy budgets plus reduced text expenditures we could purchase additional tech devices for students to use. Coupling an increase in available tech with allowing for student owned devices we should be able to close in on extremely low computer:student ratios.

    3 - Finally, I think the lowest cost improvement in our student learning will occur through changing our instruction to include more small group work and authentic project-based instruction. The significant cost in moving away from traditional instruction will occur in training, but that is not a sunk cost, it is an investment that will return substantial dividends as it decreases in the future.

    Those are just three ideas I've had, and are presented in no particular order. I look forward to reading many more...



  2. Sean,

    First, thank you for the lively twitter exchange. It helps me alot to have sharpen my thoughts into 140 characters in a lively debate.

    I look forward to continuing the conversation about the most efficient staffing, but I don't think that would be responsive to your post. If you think this is the place, I will await your comments. Otherwise I look forward to continuing that convo as appropriate.

    My experience is at BoP (bottom of the pyramid) high schools in the States. When I was teaching at Parsons I was involved with a high school as part of a year long student project. I spent 7 years teaching college sophomores that is not all that different.

    What I think I saw was that the really scarce resource was teacher's time. It was amazing to me that there was so little time to think, talk with other teachers and plan.

    My suggestion would be to minimize any time spent not talking to students or to other teachers about students.

    The overwhelming majority of communications from admin to staff could be handled with social media. Email is suboptimal for reasons we all know. But twitter, with it's requirement to use every 140 characters to communicate real information, could be very effective. eg.The principal's twitter stream to staff. Protect the tweets if needed.

    Based on my watching #edchat and experience at a number of nings I have to believe that almost all of the money and time spent on "professional development" could be redirected to much better uses. Twitter, #edchat, PLNS are much more effective. Since they are asynchronous it's much easier to fit them into a day without taking away face time or thinking time from the job of the kids.

    One point that I think is important to bring to the table. As today's events on the NYSE made clear (down 1000 points in the middle of the day closed down about 350 points) the issue of government debt is going to affect all of us over the next couple of years. (The Greek national debt is spoking Global Money).

    In USA, the States - which fund 90% of education - are broke. Taxpayers have been rejecting school bond issues at an alarming rate. California and a number of other states are essentially bankrupt and there is a real concern about whether they will be able to pay their debts. The reality is that government spending will have to radically decrease in the next couple of years.

    My point is justthat if the great teachers can engage in the conversation of maximum effectiveness of education for all, I think the moment is just right to make real change.

    It's pretty clear that blended learning and Project Based activities are the way to go. The good news, I think, is that if it were proposed as a way to cut the cost and increase the effectiveness of education, my bet is that it will get traction that might surprise many of the education evangelists who have been fighting the good fight for so many years.

  3. Thanks Michael,

    I appreciate your comments. I also appreciate your slant toward integrative thinking. I agree that education reform will require creativity on the part of educators to convince the funding powers that be that there are better ways to do things that don't require more money.

    I can't necessarily agree, however, that blended learning or project-based strategies are the "way to go." It's not that I'm opposed to either strategy, but rather that I believe they could be two effective strategies among many others that could also be implemented. Every school is different, and learning is contextual.
    In order for education reform to become a process that never ends as opposed to what we seem to perceive as an end to a means, we need to keep all options on the table if we're to meet the contextual needs of evey student.

    I write about this stuff alot in this blog. Your comments would be appreciated. This is my forum, and it's awesome to reflect on the thoughts of others who feel passionately about improving education.


  4. "I can't necessarily agree, however, that blended learning or project-based strategies are the "way to go.""

    Thanks for calling me on this. It's an old habit to use "the" instead of "a". Your points about solutions having to be contextualized to specific times, places, and people is just right.

    The point I'm trying to get across is that education innovators would be better served if we saw the opportunity in the change in fiscal realities to make education more elegant. Elegant in the sense of using the minimum resources to achieve the greatest effect.

    I do believe that schools can be catalysts for creating social capital in local communities. To me one path to get there is to directly involve parents as education para professionals.

    I would be interested if you have any thoughts about a staffing model for bottom of the pyramid middle and high school that looks something like:

    For every 150 students there are 3 Master Teachers who can meet with groups of students as appropriate. 10 locally hired education apprentices who watch over 15 kids. A rich social media and online environment within a standards based environment (thank you for getting that back top of mind)

  5. Hey Michael,
    We're experimenting with what our District is calling "learning coaches"... those master teachers you are referring to. Their role next year will be to support both teachers and students 1 to 1 and in groups.

    Its also very typical in Alberta schools for parents to volunteer during learning activities; an awesome arrangement. Classes in my k-5 school may have up to 10-12 helpers during any given class. I'm very intrigued by "Project Appleseed" in the US; you may have heard of it ( a brilliant concept!

    I also set up a program this year, (I'm a new administrator there,) that offers our local college students from the education, social work and nursing faculties an opportunity to volunteer in our school. In addition to credit for their coursework, they get priceless experience working with kids in a real-world, professional environment, and we benefit from their enthusiasm and assistance in the school.

    Of course, the standards-based curriculum is up to the govt. to implement, but many of us in Canada are working hard to bring the idea to the attention of those "powers that be" through our "Real Learning First" ( Our Dept. of Ed. is coming along too. It's consulting folks like Dennis Shirley, Pasi Sohlberg and such to review all practices and systems; even our legislated School Act"... so things are looking up.

    We're fighting the good fight as vigourously as we can, so I appreciate your insights and ideas... it's the idea-tapping process that we need to emphasize... and we also need to share with reckless abandon!

    What do ya think?

  6. Ever since I retired I'm all about the "reckless abandon" and sharing and finding ideas, so it's really a pleasure.

    Seeing what you're up to in Alberta is mind blowing to me. Lots of thoughts but for now just one or two and a question.

    As I followed the links you mentioned I came upon,

    "While most students learn the same curriculum at the same point in time" Real Learning first Last Updated ( Monday, 23 March 2009

    Is this still the thinking that informs the effort?

    In story about a new Re-inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) engagement in Maine, I found 'Learning is the constant, time is the variable,'' said middle school art teacher

    I think this is a fundamental notion that explains alot about their success.

    My other question concerns how you handle feedback information to let you know you are on the right track.

    It's pretty clear that standardized tests are counterproductive. My bet is that everyone - including any thinking person in power- knows it.

    But, as long as public money goes into education there has to be some evidence based method to allocate that money wisely. I bet that if education innovators invented feedback information streams that solved that problem, much of the debate about standardized tests, would very quickly disappear.

    My take is that as soon as viable alternative numbers can be generated in as close to real time as possible to inform resource allocation decisions, the pols will jump to use them. But, until that's done, they are forced to say things about testing that are on the face wrong.

    my questions are: Does that argument make sense to you? and How might this play out in your school?

  7. Yep. Makes sense to me. School-based methods are the issue though. At this point we are responsible for our methodology, but accountable to the department for results. In Alberta we are lucky that the Ed. Dept. is looking seriously at how these results are "measured,"but alas at the end of the4 day we are ultimately responsible to them.
    I think the best way to nudge improved measurement logistics is to work with govt. to research better, faster cheaper measurements. We can do this by proposing pilots (with govt. funding,) doing applied research (local) and advertsing the results to govt., working with parents to hone in on kids learning strengths and designing assessment around that... so amny ways to go.
    But the will, and less finger pointing, has to be present. Are teachers prepared for this responsibility?
    I don't know.


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