Some ways to change the downs to ups

The wrong things are going down: test scores and revenues. And the wrong things are rising: cost of operating US public schools, the number of legislative restrictions, more administrators at a time of shrinking enrollments.

Astoundingly, many school people are sounding alarmist over the fact that the birth rate is going down and that there will be a smaller number of children entering school each year. For public schools, smaller enrollments are a positive -- not a negative -- factor.

Smaller enrollments mean that school districts can stop adding to capital investment; that they can offer more inservice training programs to improve their mature staff; they can solidify experiments in teaching method and curriculum; and most importantly, they can get to know their students as individuals and hence improve the quality of what's taught as well as what is learned.

But what about revenues and test scores? They aren't related, yet they are. A skeptical public, quite sure that schools are neither running efficiently nor doing a top-quality job, are voting down bond issues and asking that school district budgets be reduced.

Also, the public has been treated to a very puzzling controversy. On the one hand, schools say that test scores cannot be used to rate teachers or to compare one school with another; on the other hand, clearly how well or how poorly individual students do on national tests does play a significant part in what academic doors are opened (or closed) to them.

Hence, the willingness of the taxpayer to pay for public schools is closely related to test scores -- no matter that if it is true that test scores are going down, then one solution is to put more (not fewer) resources into the schools (at more cost) and to either pay for better teachers or to spend what's necessary to improve the present teaching staff.

In other words, if test scores are going down and this accurately reflects a decline in quality, then revenues ought to rise in order to compensate for deficiencies.

Costs, of course, continue to rise, with teachers' salaries being among the most inflationary in the US. But everything is costing more -- utilities, heat, books, paper, maintenance, transportation, and staff salaries.

Also, legislators have been passing laws asking schools to not only take on more and more responsibilities, but to offer costly special-aid programs. The handicapped deserve to get appropriate schooling, there's no doubt about that. But a school district which ignored these pupils in the past and now must offer them appropriate educational services will have enormously increased costs.

The school district which did little to achieve racial balance in the building of its schools to accomodate housing patterns must spend thousands of extra dollars now on transportation. And the school district which has not been hiring or training teachers who know how to cope with learning problems must now add thousands of dollars to the budget to make up for this "lost" time.

Strangely enough, there is one place in every school budget which could be cut -- and seldom is. That's the rapidly rising number of administrators.

Folk wisdom has it that between 80 and 90 percent of a school districts budget goes for instructional staff.And folk wisdom maybe correct as to what that portion should be.

But a reverse law has gone into effect over the past two decades. The larger the school district, the smaller the budget for instruction, until some districts spend as little as 50 percent of their budget directly on instruction, and more than 30 percent on administrative costs.

I know of no study which shows that the number of administrators in a school district is directly related to improved student output. That is, do more administrators show a gain in test scores?

Or do added administrators show a trimmed budget? Or do added administrators mean that inservice training is improved?

Larger school districts, for example, have curriculum coordinators. They may even have several for each field of study. Is there a connection between these administrators and the curriculum offered to the pupils? Does a school district with a team of 10 math coordinators have a better math program than a district with no coordinators, but a highly trained staff?

This directional chart, showing trends rather than empirical evidence, rather dramatically pictures the dilemna facing today's school districts.

The costs are rising, the number of tasks that schools are asked to carry out are rising, and the cost of noninstructional staff is rising.

This at a time when the public wants to pay less, not more, when the number of pupils is going down calling for school closings and staff cuts, and when pupils with few academic skills are being tested along with the brightest hence lowering the average.

The pull from colleges and universities is enormous. They, too, feel the enrollment drop and so want a larger and larger percent of high school graduates to go on for further education. But secondary schools have only so many college-prepared students and cannot meet the college demand.

The hue and cry over unprepared college freshmen starts the viscious round again: The public pulls back on expenditures, the legislatures demand more, another layer of administrators is introduced, and costs rise again.

Is there an answer?

Not an easy one, certainly, but there are some steps which might improve some of these curves.

Treat enrollment drops as a positive not a negative development. Look for efficiencies not only in management, but in delivery of basic skills. Use more aides and fewer administrators. Call on community volunteers, use students to teach students, welcome part-time qualified teachers into classrooms and learning centers.

Call for legislation which will bring state revenues in to cover extraordinary costs (special education, transportation, skill training, inservice teaching, cooperative education programs), and tie local revenues to basic and appropriate school needs.

Ask private business to help with accounting, distribution, transportation, food, maintenance, and utility efficiencies.

And stop giving national tests.

Give local tests. Ask concerned community people to help devise appropriate tests for those who would leave school at 16 before they have completed Grade 12 . Devise school tests in all subject fields and in basic skills.

Make some of these diagnostic tests and use them to alter both teaching method and level of material to each student.Use diagnostic tests to evaluate individual teachers.

Some of the tests should establish a local norm, just as one of the faster runners at the high school has established the "fastest" 100 yards. Keep working on test items to make them most reflective of what you would test, and answer for yourselves whether you are or are not doing a better or worse job of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Use community people to help with ways to cut costs. Are you using two high schools? Put all the students on cooperative education programs with one set of students in school for a week and on a job the next week. Then switch, bringing the other set into school after a week on a job.

One staff, one building, one heating system, one set of lights, one fleet of buses -- all serve twice as many students and at the same time achieve a long-time goal for every student, whether college-bound or not. Every student takes an active part in the world of work before graduation from high school.

And finally, review all state legislation, eliminating or altering those laws which are too costly, too restrictive, too negative, or inappropriate.

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