Is it Time to Means Test Education?

As we watch the debt-ceiling negotiations among our political leaders, one thing is increasingly clear, the limited resources available for public education will remain tightly constrained for years to come. Both sides are suggesting substantial cuts to the federal education budget. The extent of the cuts is still to be determined, but there is no doubt that the federal government will spend less on education than was projected earlier this year. This news comes at a time when states and local municipalities are also grappling with education budget shortfalls. Among the solutions that states are employing to deal with these revenue gaps are shorter school years, increased class sizes, and fewer extra-curricular options.

For high schools, I advocate that we take a smarter approach to these necessary cuts and begin to “means test” the cuts that we make in our schools. If we must shorten the school year, must we shorten it for all students? No.

We must approach these cuts based upon the needs and interests of students. Using an analogy from a recent political campaign, budget cuts should be done with a scalpel rather than a cleaver.

For instance, to change the trajectory of students who are behind two or more grade levels, it will require more time, not less, in which they are engaged in educational activities. We should not shorten the school year by 5–10 days for everyone. We should extend the year for those who need it and shorten the year for students who can take advantage of informal learning opportunities (internships) or less expensive formal learning environments (community college courses and online courses). This personalized approach to learning addresses both student needs and fiscal realities.

Using this same logic, professional development (PD) should also be based upon the needs and interests of the teachers. We should not require PD for all teachers in a school or district. Because PD opportunities (workshops, online courses, coaching, conferences, and so on) will likely be reduced, we can only afford to offer those opportunities to teachers who are committed to adjusting their practice. When I commit to participate in a PD opportunity, it should prompt me to change my practice in a manner that better serves my students. And, it is incumbent on PD providers to be concrete in what they expect of participants. Professional development is not a trivial expense and we should expect more from this expenditure than what we currently settle for.

I can’t count how many times I have heard a version of this statement after a PD workshop or conference, “If I learned one thing that I will take back to my classroom, then I consider it a success.” What a waste of time and money! Let’s expect more than “one thing” from these experiences. Providers need to offer real suggestions and activities for teachers to put into practice. Teachers need to be willing to leave their comfort zone and try teaching strategies that are new to them.

Let’s be smart about how we spend the limited resources that come to our districts. We must be flexible in how we address student needs to avoid reducing opportunities for every student. When professional development opportunities are made available, we must have high expectations for the outcomes associated with those expenditures. Let’s make sure that reduced school budgets have maximum impact on students’ futures.

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