Maryland schools are spending a fortune to raise achievement — $60,000 for each additional student who becomes proficient. It's too high a price for the results we have been getting. We need to do better.
Between 2003 and 2009, Maryland increased school funding by nearly 50 percent, or more than $3.5 billion a year. The impact can be measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Fourth- and eighth-graders in each state are tested in reading and math. Proficiency on these tests is, according to the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, the clearest indicator of whether a student has the minimum skills needed to succeed in the international economy.
The percentages of Maryland students achieving proficiency have increased. However, the cost per additional proficient student ranged from $35,000 in fourth-grade math to $136,000 in eighth-grade math.
Many other states have done much better. Maryland ranks 17th to 26th, depending on the subject matter and grade. The state's overall cost-effectiveness is 23rd in the nation.
2003 is the best year to start, because this is the first year that all states began using the NAEP. And 2009 is the most recent year for which spending data are available for each state.
Several studies of Maryland education spending have found that school systems spent almost all of the infusion of new money for across-the-board salary increases for teachers. Little or no money went to additional services for students or professional development for teachers. In other words, school systems paid more for what they already had. Some of this extra spending trickled down to benefit lower-performing students, but the return on investment was very poor.
Ironically, Education Week, which rates Maryland schools as No. 1 in the country, gives states extra credit for spending more money, regardless of the effect on achievement. The more inefficient a state is, the higher it is ranked.
The painful lesson is that more funding did not yield wise investments by school systems in Maryland. As Maryland enters yet another round of school reform, it is important to learn from this disappointment and ensure that more cost-effective changes take place.
Improvements in the quality of classroom instruction are most critical, yet often ignored. Instruction in a typical Maryland classroom has remained largely unchanged for generations, despite significant increases in understanding of brain development and how children learn.
For teachers to improve their instructional practices requires much more than a one- or two-hour off-site workshop. Teachers need intensive, in-classroom coaching by people who know what they are doing.
New teachers need even more assistance. In no other profession are people with hardly any practical experience asked to provide direct services completely on their own. That is a formula for malpractice. New teachers need to be treated as apprentices for at least their first year, working hand in hand with skilled teachers until mastery is demonstrated. Strong support will also reduce the very high attrition rate of new teachers.
Technology needs to infuse the instructional process, to identify students in need and to provide individually tailored instruction. Technology is no substitute for a good teacher, but it can enable a good teacher to transform the quality of instruction.
The quantity of instruction must also increase for students who are most likely to fall behind their peers. Extended school days and school years should be the norm for low-income and other at-risk students.
Extra academic interventions should also be available at the moment a student first exhibits difficulty. This is sharply different from the current special education system, which waits until it is too late.
Parents must be incorporated fully into the instructional process, with regular homework assignments that require children and parents to work together. Schools can find volunteers for children whose parents are unable or willing to serve as educational partners.
Finally, schools must integrate their services with those of other agencies that address the multitude of barriers students and their parents face. Students should have ready access to dental, health and other social services.
None of these changes are cost free. However, after a period of massive increases in education spending that occurred, notwithstanding an economic meltdown, school systems must recycle some of the new money into programs that are most likely to provide the biggest bang for the buck.
Matthew H. Joseph has worked in education policy in Maryland for more than two decades. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.