Dr. Paul Hill's April 28 invited testimony to the Ohio Senate Education Committee

Today the Senate Education Committee heard testimony about school funding reform from Dr. Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and John and Marguerite Corbally professor at the University of Washington Bothell. Dr. Hill is one of the nation's leading school funding experts and was the lead author of Facing the Future: Financing Productive Schools, a five-year, $6 million, Gates-funded study of school finance systems (see here). Based on this national study, he authored an analysis of Governor Strickland's school funding plan, Ohio at the Crossroads: School funding-more of the same or changing the model? (see here). Earlier this month, Dr. Hill wrote an op-ed about the governor's funding plan that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch (see here). Dr. Hill's testimony challenges key pieces of Governor Strickland's Evidence-Based Model (see here) and is sure to trigger further debate about how best to improve the Buckeye State's school funding system. His testimony can also be found online here.

Dr. Paul Hill's April 28 invited testimony to the Ohio Senate Education Committee

Chairman Cates, Ranking Minority Member Sawyer, and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for inviting me to testify here today.

I come as a once and probably future Ohio voter, and as an Ohio State graduate.

The basis of my testimony is my Center's 5-year Gates-funded study of school finance, and its report, Facing the Future. Mr. Chairman, I have brought copies of the report for the Committee.

Based on the results of our school finance study, I recently offered a critique of the Governor's plan in the Columbus Dispatch (4/19/09). I will turn to that critique in a few minutes, but today I want to emphasize the positive, saying first what is needed in a reform of school finance, and then showing how the Governor's plan falls short.

On what is needed, Ohio (like other states) needs to raise school performance while increasing school spending little, if at all.

On performance, too many of Ohio's children are not learning what they need to enter college and be productive self-supporting workers. You are familiar with the statistics: about less than half of African American children in big cities graduating from high school, and minority children falling farther behind white and Asian children the longer they are in school. You also know that many children educated in small towns and rural areas are not ready for college or work in a competitive high-tech economy.

Ohio needs as a matter of social justice to provide schools that will work for these children, as well as they now do for white children in big cities and suburbs. The economic future of the state also depends on whether workers here can constantly learn new skills and adapt to constant changes in their jobs.

On school spending, the $8 billion state deficit clearly precludes major increases in school support in the foreseeable future.

The need to improve performance without extra spending is a tough challenge but it is not without precedent. Our country leads the world at finding ways to do things never done before, and at constantly finding better ways of doing important things.

Americans got to the moon and found therapies for AIDS and cancer by experimenting-by identifying promising approaches, investing in new methods, subjecting new ideas to trials, eliminating the least productive, and then if the results were not good enough, investing in additional new methods, trying them, and repeating the process. This process, called continuous improvement in most other fields, is sorely needed in public education.

But public education, in Ohio and elsewhere, is not built for continuous improvement. Instead, we have created an elaborate structure of rules, organizations, and job protections that prevents the very experimentation we need to make schools more productive.

Ohio needs to experiment, within realistic spending limits, with ideas that have already emerged elsewhere and can lead to mixtures of higher performance and lower costs, for example:

  • New ways of combining instruction with social services
  • Ways of extending learning time for children who fall behind
  • Ways of assessing a child's learning in real time so that the teacher can remedy any misunderstandings the very next day
  • Methods to keep young children out of special education by providing personal attention as soon as they show signs of struggling to read
  • New ways of integrating teachers' work with the use of technology, to free up teachers from lecturing so they focus on diagnosis, individualization, and tutoring
  • Ways to staff schools to minimize the numbers of adults who don't teach and to increase the numbers of students in contact with the best teachers
  • Technology-based instruction, especially in subjects such as math and physics, where regular classroom teachers are hard to find
  • Mixtures of in-person and online schooling, to provide top-quality instruction for children in remote areas, and for urban high schoolers who can't attend school at regular times because of parenthood, jobs, and other issues
  • Flexibility to allow schools to trade in some teaching and administrator slots so they can buy online instruction for children who need it
  • Obtaining music and arts instruction and sports coaches via lesson fees to experts working in the community, rather than by employing full-time teachers

These are starting points, not complete recipes for success. But they open up the possibility of schools that perform better, and cost little or no more, especially for children who struggle now.

This gets me to my critique of the Governor's plan. In short, it prevents experimentation with new ideas that can lead to continuous improvement. Instead of opening up experimentation and encouraging schools and districts to pursue more effective methods, the Governor's plan mandates particular uses of funds. It maintains, and even bulks up, an existing set of job descriptions, administrative structures, and rules on who can teach and how time is used.

The Governor's plan violates the common sense dictum that you can't get a dramatically better result by doing a little more of the same thing. His plan claims, implausibly, that students will stop dropping out, and unproductive schools will turn around, if only the state mandates hiring of more teachers, administrators, instructional specialists, teacher leaders, clerks, building managers, secretaries, media services staff, non-instructional aides, and nurse's aides.

Some schools might benefit from these uses of money, but many won't. In particular, schools serving the disadvantaged need to find ways of providing more effective instruction, instruction that meets their students' needs and remedies their earlier learning deficits, not bigger administrative structures. Similarly, the highest-performing schools in the state generally don't need these beefed-up staffing tables and would use extra money in different and more productive ways if they had the choice.

The school finance provisions of the Governor's plan promote stasis, not continuous improvement. It makes big bets on increased staffing, heavier administration, and other mandates on uses of funds. Unfortunately those bets are essentially shots in the dark: no other school system has improved detectably by using money in these ways.

How can Ohio move toward continuous improvement? The key is not to fund anything whose value is unknown, and that includes specific staffing patterns and programs. There is no evidence that any staffing pattern, salary schedule, teacher certification program, or for that matter any statewide program or mandate, reliably leads to increased student learning.

Fund students, not mandates or staffing patterns. Eliminate requirements that funds be spent in the same way all across the state. At the same time, promote experimentation with new uses of funds for forms of schooling, methods, technologies, and uses of time.

Continuous improvement is possible only with a school finance system that:

  • Drives funds to schools based on student counts. The goal should be to deliver real budgets to local principals, which they should be responsible for allocating and managing within their schools. Legislators can use weighting to allocate extra money for disadvantaged children.
  • Funds all schools, including charter and cyber schools, based only on enrollment. The state needs innovation to find less costly and staff-intensive ways of providing instruction. The state's practice of paying charter and cyber schools much less than regular public schools-not because they are less effective but because they cost less-is totally anti-innovation.
  • Keeps linked data about uses of funds and results, so that alternative methods of delivering instruction can be compared on cost and effectiveness.
  • Encourages innovation and experimentation with new uses of funds and imaginative new instructional programs. The goal should be annual measurable improvement in school and student performance. The state should also fund world-class data and analysis capacities, which are necessary supports for innovation and experimentation.
  • Holds schools and districts accountable for student performance and continuous improvement. The legislature should re-mission school districts and the Ohio Department of Education to manage portfolios of schools on the basis of performance. Make superintendents and the State Superintendent of Schools responsible for judging school performance and finding better options for children whose schools do not teach them effectively.

Continuous improvement does not guarantee instant success. Nothing does. What is certain is that without changes of the sort outlined here and a continuous process of evaluating progress and making needed adjustments, Ohio is unlikely ever to reach its goal of an adequate education for all students, at any level of state funding.