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MSPnet Blog: “Money”

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posted February 10, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

The extensive edublog reflections upon the new Secretary of Education have provided a convenient list of Hot Topics in Ed Policy. One that has not much been in the forefront is simple, and of course related to almost every other policy theme: Money, the staff of life for institutions and sine qua non for most policy priorities — and for conditions on the ground in schools. At every level of government, decisions about whether and how to fund schooling are taken all the time, and there are at least two lines of connection that link the national with the local (and back again). One is the flow of dollars, and the other is the flow of ideas, since it is ideas ( in various guises— hopes, prejudices, philosophies, economy, science, etc. ) that determine where the money-pipelines will flow, which spigots are opened or closed, what the flow-rates are, and where you meter the system.

So it is useful to have to hand a survey of research about a simple topic: Does money matter in education? When we translate this into slightly more concrete terms, nuances appear, as they should: What harm will we do by cutting education budgets? What benefit can be gained by spending more (any?) public money on education?

Long ago, the meme that “you can’t fix education by throwing money at it” was replaced in sober policy discussions by the better meme, “What matters is what you’re spending the money on.” Eric Hanushek and others who share his generallly “economist” view of education use as their most important metric the impact of dollars on “student outcomes,” generall “achievement,”  despite the acknowledged difficulty of Attribution:  being able to say with sufficient certainty how a dollar spent could be linked to individual student test scores.  People with other foci will frame the discussion very differently (see, for example, most any blog in our Blog Roll, or for variety’s sake this article by Dana Goldstein in the Nation — from 2012, but framing our question energetically in terms of classroom resources and the lives of teachers).

Bruce Baker has provided a full-but-compact overview of studies about the impact of money in education, with particular emphasis on evidence of how money is being spent effectively (tip of the hat to Derek Black’s blog post on this report).  Baker’s report, “Does Money Matter in Education?,” includes a brief and useful overview of the “does money matter” debate over recent decades, and then moves on to answer three questions, accepting as the “dependent variable” the “student outcomes” that are the Coin of the Realm in ed policy circles:

Does Money matter?   Baker says, Yes:  “on balance, in direct tests of the relationship between nancial resources and student outcomes, money matters.”  Baker does not avoid the nuances — some studies show more impact than others, there are many mediating variables, you can’t establish a “dose-response” relationship of dollars input to points of student achievement gained, but the trends are clear and persistent.

Do schooling resources that cost money matter?  This is a very valuable re-phrasing of the basic question.  After all, how can we decide what to spend our money on?  The answer again is Yes, but again nuances matter:  “On the whole…the things that cost money benefit students, and there is scarce evidence that there are more cost-effective alternatives.”  Baker mentions some specific “things” postively associated with improved student outcomes:  “smaller class sizes, additional sup- ports, early childhood programs and more competitive teacher compensation.”     Baker notes that some of these (e.g. smaller class sizes) have been shown to be particularly of value to more challenged, lower-performing students — the ones we keep saying we most want to help cross  the “achievement gap,” that persistent chasm.

Do state school finance reforms matter?   Again, Yes. The executive summary is:  “While money alone may not be the answer, more equitable and adequate allocation of nancial inputs to schooling provide a necessary underlying condition for improving the equity and ade- quacy of outcomes.”

For me, the great value of this paper is  precisely that while clear answers are given,  some specific mechanisms behind the answers are provided, and nuances are included or alluded to.  Too often “ideas” in policy debates or funding documents are not accompanied by much in the way of a theory of action, or any hint that other factors may be at work which might affect how or whether the hammer you are wielding actually drives home the nail you’ve chosen to strike.


Note:  The opinions in this blog are solely the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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Money in classroom materials

posted by: Edna Schack on 2/12/2017 7:48 am

This reply is mostly based on my observations as I visit classrooms on a regular basis so not scientific but meant to raise questions about how money is spent.

Most classrooms are burgeoning with "stuff". Often the white boards are nearly impossible to write on for the posters and "I can" statements that swallow the white space. Wall space, in general, is hard to come by. From floor to chair height, walls are lined with tables, computer desks, bookcases, material shelves. Above chair height, are more posters, behavior charts, inspirational quotes, and on and on. From the ceiling hang more signs, often group gathering indicators or children's work. None of these items is negative in and of itself and many of them are necessary for the functioning of a good learning environment. But, taken as a whole, questions arise. Here are some of my questions:
1. Whose precious dollars (teachers' pay or district funds) are spent on these items? And, what is the average value of all the "stuff"?
2. Are teachers driven to purchase such materials because districts/states are not properly funding textbook/learning materials?
3. Is there a belief that funds are being saved by not purchasing textbooks when in reality a similar expenditure is made on a wide variety of instructional materials?
4. Do teachers buy from many different sources to cobble together instructional materials that have little vertical or horizontal articulation? Does this lead to less focused and productive learning?
5. What is the impact on children of all the "stuff" within their range of vision when they need to concentrate on learning and thinking? (There was a study of kindergartners a few years back addressing this. It needs to be looked at in more depth, in my opinion.)
6. Are legislators considering the impact of additional equipment (computers, document cameras, etc.) in the classroom when the size of classrooms in new school buildings is legislated?
7. Are legislators considering the impact on whiteboard space when digital whiteboards are added to the mix? As much as people would like them to, digital whiteboards do not effectively replace lots of whiteboard space where thoughts and work can stay for the duration of a lesson (then photographed for future access).
8. Is the expenditure on technology (both in dollars and in classroom space) warranted in relation to impact on learning?

Money and values

posted by: Louise Wilson on 2/12/2017 8:38 am

I believe that as a society, where we spend out money shows what we value. So if we spend more on projector whiteboards than on teachers, we value the technology more than the people.
I believe that the systemic de-valuation of our urban Public schools in favor of charter schools which take money from the public sector for huge payments to their owners , in favor of segregation of the wealthy who can drive their kids to suburban schools every day, has left a deep negative impact on teachers, families and students. Every day I hear "we only have bad teachers left." Excuse me? "There's only bad kids here, miss." Excuse me?
The use of money to lure students away from education for all, and to fracture society, leads to a destruction of entire communities. My own kids, educated in the public schools, learned empathy and tolerance of others. And they learned to move away, because that attitude of fiscal abuse to youth has become so prevalent in our society here in Grand Rapids MI that they are ridiculously underpaid.The idea that some are superior because they own more stuff ( that their parents or grandparents earned) has become a blight upon society.
And what teenager doesn't want their own computer? Sign them up to home school, the "not for profit" will buy the kid a computer, that's $6000 a year profit to them. Oh sorry, "pay for officers". If the kid decides to go back to public school after 6 weeks ( when their home gets too cold), they can even keep the computer, and the public school has to educate the kid for no money for the year.
When my school kids, who can't afford heat in their homes in winter, see the wasted resources on motivational posters and smartboards in school ( we know only a couple of kids at time can use them - are you really going to give the resources to the justifiably angry kid who's going to smash the pointers up?) they are not motivated.Because what society takes life and liberty and replaces them with wallpaper?
We indeed know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

money matters in education

posted by: Amy Cohen on 2/12/2017 1:28 pm

1. Charter schools paid little. That, and the lack of respect, is one reason why their teacher corps turns over so rapidly. And there is good reason to believe that experienced teachers can cope with poor texts and poor curriculum materials better than inexperienced teachers.

2. Public schools have a hard time getting decent budgets passed - especially in high needs districts. I have heard of schools whose textbooks have been so tattered that teachers need to cope with classes using two or more textbooks since there aren't enough of any one to go around. Let's not go to what that says about highly paid administrators not caring about the realities of teaching

3. Buildings in bad shape, Morale in bad shape. etc

4. The disrespect for teachers that discourages undergraduate with an interest and talent in math and science from teaching in those fields when there are better paid and better respected fields open to them.

5. now that the private prison systems are no longer growing, the proponents of vouchers and publicly funded (but not accountable) charter schools are attracted to making money by privatizing public education

Dubious value of "stuff"

posted by: Talbot Bielefeldt on 2/13/2017 5:55 pm

Regarding the value of all the "stuff" in classrooms, there is research out of Carnegie Mellon suggesting that visually crowded classroom environments may actually interfere with learning. See Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014 (

Talbot Bielefeldt
Clearwater Program Evaluation

stuff and distraction

posted by: Brian Drayton on 2/14/2017 7:47 am

This is a very interesting paper, Talbot, and thanks for sharing. i can tell we need to have a separate discueeion on classroom environments for STEM!
I note two things. First, this paper reports on a study of kindergarten children. They are termed "elementary school children," but I would expect that part of what they have not yet learned are expectations and self-management with respect to classroom behavior. So of course these children will be more distractable -- they are still llearning that in school the teachere directs their attention to tasks and particular materials.
So second, I note that the authors themselves leave open the question of generalizability to older children, which was a salient question for me as I read it.
Finally, I will state here a "prejudice," in order that some alert reader will find research pro or con, which is that in the science classroom at least for middle and secondary school, objects (plants, skulls, structures, etc.) are stimulative in a positive way-- at an age when spontaneous questions start to disappear...
What do you think?

Classroom environment

posted by: Talbot Bielefeldt on 2/15/2017 12:11 pm

What I think is: (1) this topic has veered away from it's subject. My fault. Is there a sysop who can split these threads (2) Teachers work their butts off plastering the walls of their rooms with stuff. If we could find an optimal density of visual stimulation, we might save some dedicated professionals a lot of time. They have enough to worry about with the new Secretary of Education. I'm hoping people who know this research will join in.

I recall that as a child my classrooms were as festooned with stimuli as any I visit today. But I cannot recall a single substantive image of what was on those walls, except maybe a ribbon of cursive letters circling the room above the clutter. The rest is a blur. It was a blur then. And those teachers worked so hard.

money and materials

posted by: Edna Schack on 2/16/2017 7:08 am

I agree. There may be two different threads. My apologies for introducing the classroom environment discussion. On the other hand, my intention was to address the money question by raising some issues about how education dollars are spent and the potential impact on learning. For example, are decisions to not spend dollars on textbooks (or digital versions of horizontally and vertically articulated curriculum materials) misguided and perhaps even detrimental to learning?

Classroom Walls

posted by: Sara Silver on 2/16/2017 8:36 am

Hello Talbot, our observation in NY is that all the regalia adorning classroom walls are supposed to be dynamic--in that they change during the academic year. For e.g., when principals do their classroom walkthroughs, they monitor the current relevance of these wall postings. Teachers being observed are asked to defend the currency--and economy--of these visuals, as part of their evaluation. If students' thinking is more advanced in January than it was in Sept, then certain visuals are no longer needed--or fewer visuals are needed. If the classroom is very diverse in terms of learning needs, certain visuals might stay on for the entire year. But the idea is that less is more and they have to be discerning. How much of this policy is explicitly enforced has not been studied.

"Stuff" thread will split off next week

posted by: Brian Drayton on 2/17/2017 10:03 am

Since the topic of "stuff" has drawn some interest, I'll give it a proper start with my next blog post, so that people that want to focus more on that will have a place - but of course "stuff" and money are clsely intertwined and "money" also means how it gets appropriated, allocated, and spent -- on stuff, among other things.

David Berliner pieces relating to money and ed quality

posted by: Brian Drayton on 3/7/2017 3:26 pm

You are probably all familiar wtih David Berliner's trenchant writings on education, poverty, "reform, "and social policy. Here's a nice short piece, with links to others: