One Good Question with Dr. Michael Goetz: How school spending impacts change

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Education Equity / One Good Question

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

The biggest myth is that education can cure all social ills.  Given the diversity of the population, it’s not possible to equalize outcomes when the inputs are so different.  That said, I think it’s the greatest goal of the education system and should in fact be promoted with new effort.  Therefore, schools districts and states and the federal government should continue to close gaps based on socio-economic class, as well as the conscious and unconscious racism and sexism inherent in our culture.

Happily, those programmatic strategies that help all children learn, have the greatest effect on those struggling to learn, including the disenfranchised youth, that is : a focus on intensive, embedded teacher professional development, tutoring and other extra help strategies for struggling students, and early interventions, such as quality preK programs should top the lists in most schools. These programs have shown the most impact on academic growth.

For decades, the US education funding system has been designed to ameliorate the academic and social inequalities produced by our economic and cultural disparities.  Our federal, state, and local funding system all contribute to priority in different ways. Federal funding, such as Headstart and Title I, and state/local funding formulas are designed to subsidize needs of low-income and/or marginalized groups.  Despite their design, these funds don’t necessarily perform in the ways that the public assumes.  For example, the formula built for Title I funds includes a geographical sparsity index, which means that more funds per student may go to Wyoming than to inner city LA.  There is a similar disparity with state financing that links to property wealth.  State formula funds are allocated to counteract the property wealth of local municipalities.  In the 80s, states began spending more money on education than local governments.   Since states were « purchasing » education at a higher rate, they felt more entitled to have a say about what happens in schools.  Essentially, these funding inequities compelled states to introduce standards based movements. Standards and accountability based movements at the federal level show disparities between and within states as well as between and within districts and schools.

Often, we use our preconceived notions about education outcomes to inform our decisions.  What are the biggest myths about how education works in the US, that we continue to fund?  What could be possible for education outcomes if we shifted our funding away from X and did Y instead?

The other big myth is that the sheer existence of additional funds can help cure education shortcomings.  School finance experts debate all the time whether more money matters. But all of us agree that how money is used matters. For example, in every economics research study, I ask a group of teacher leaders what they need to bring struggling students up to par.  The answer is always an additional program and it’s always 20% more funding than they currently receive.  We have returned to the same community after a decade of the program implementation and they ask for another 20% budget increase !  What happens is that they take the new funds and use them to reinforce existing programs and services instead of restructuring their expenditures.

They supplement vs. supplant? Yes, you’re on the right track.  What they’re doing is taking the money and applying it to things that they already do.  When a school or district’s programs are not producing results, more of the same does not lead to improvement :  redistribution of current resources and infusing of new, evidence-based programming is the smarter decision.

So what should schools ask for ?  Most educators and education lobbyists approach funding requests from a loss mindset : we have endured budget cuts and we want you to restore our full funding.  When educators understand what achievement students will make as a direct result of the new program, they can make needs-based asks.  If awarded an extra $4,000, I will be able to graduate one more student, because that’s the proven result of ABC program.

Statistically, we know many programs, when implemented well, impact student achievement for all students, such as intensive embedded teacher professional development, which requires full-time instructional coaching, and introduction of certified teachers as tutors.  Those are two of the most effective strategies and the hardest ones to implement with fidelity.  What education economists will tell you is that if you don’t mandate implementation, you likely will not see positive academic outcomes because resources will be used for the existing programming.  We suggest that states start with no mandates and then look at the schools that are not performing.  If they haven’t implemented these strategies yet, then start slowly mandating the interventions—start with instructional coaches in year 1, then maybe certified tutors.

What should districts and schools stop funding ?  This is highly controversial, but what continues to elude me is how many facets of life the schooling system attempts to take part. Schooling should be good at educating students to standards. This is their priority. Rhetorically, « why are schools in the business of transportation, food service, security, medical care, and athletics ? » I’m not saying that these are not useful periphery services to academics, but I do suggest schools should be focusing on what they do best :  educate students. These perifery services may take place on campus, but I question whether the education system should be directly responsible. I do not expect superintendents to lay concrete at the new school, but I do expect the superintendent to contract out this service to a reputable company that actually has experience laying concrete. This is what people would be calling community involvement in education.  Struggling schools should cut out all athletics from their school and move to community-based sports teams.  This will increase community involvement for athletics and be aligned with international practices.  Economically, it may create a surplus to fund necessary academic interventions or it may not. However, it would allow schools to get on with educating students.

Goetz ImageMichael’s One Good Question :How much input should local, state, and federal governments have on the programmatic strategies of schools,  given their variation in education goals and knowledge of effective programs ?

Dr. Michael Goetz is the Executive Director of Research on Social and Educational Change (RSEC). Clients include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Picus Odden and Associates, Council for Better Education, Foundation for Child Development, National Academies, National Center for Innovation in Education, and several legislative and gubernatorial committees.

 Dr. Goetz received a B.A. in Educational Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at University of Wisconsin—Madison. He received a Wisconsin-Spencer Doctoral Research Program Fellowship, a dissertation grant from the American Educational Research Association (AERA), and the American Education Finance Association (AEFA) New Scholar Award.

The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.


  1. Pingback: The Year in Review: 10 Good Questions | One Good Question

  2. Pat Gostz says

    Do you believe master teachers who come in and present lessons to students while teachers are present can help raise standers. Sometimes teachers get stuck doing the same things the same way. New ways to present the same material may help some children learn better.


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