The challenge of so much money

April 14, 2002

VIRTUALLY ALL the debate over the Thornton Commission's sweeping recommendations on how to improve state funding of schools has been about money, and understandably so. The Thornton formula, enacted by the General Assembly this month, infuses an unprecedented amount of cash into our public schools, if there's sufficient revenue.

Across the state, politicians and educators are glowing over this historic financial commitment. But for everyone involved with Maryland's more than 1,350 public schools, this landmark legislation poses an even more difficult question than paying for it: How can we most wisely spend the coming largesse?

That big but little-discussed issue now needs to take center stage.

Thornton promises an additional $1.3 billion a year for the state's schools within five years, a 35 percent increase. This provides a unique opportunity to improve Maryland's schools, now of middling quality even though we're among the richest states. Unfortunately, the money also represents an opportunity that -- without serious forethought and vigilance -- could easily be squandered.

Conventional wisdom asserts that as state funding increases, student achievement should also increase. But the connection between money and learning is hardly that simple. As with many human endeavors, successful schools hinge less on cash than on rigorous choices about how to focus key resources, mainly teachers' skills and class time. So whether Thornton achieves gains in learning will depend on much clearer thinking at every school as to what actually works. Therein lies the crux of the problem.

The new state funding formula dramatically raises the base given to each of the state's 24 school districts and provides them with additional funds according to their numbers of low-income, special education and non-English-speaking kids. It also abolishes 28 state programs, including one lowering early-grade class sizes. Instead of these piecemeal efforts, districts will be free to divvy up much larger pots of money to meet their students' needs. This gives Maryland's schools strikingly wider latitude about how to spend the river of funds soon to flow their way.

And that makes us nervous.

In too many ways, public education still lacks a commitment to standards, solid research and accountability. Programs are adopted and dropped on unproven, often highly politicized notions -- or even whims. Remember "open" classrooms? Most educational research is thin; if it were medical research, many of us would have expired long ago. And despite all the recent talk of accountability, usually there's still no real price to be paid for poor results.

Consider the concept of grounding initial reading instruction in intensive phonics, so students learn the sounds that make up words and how to blend them. Nothing else in education is more clearly the right approach. This is indicated by the best available research and by recent panels studying our national reading instruction failures.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has been pushing phonics for years, even increasing the courses in reading instruction required of all teachers. The result: In many Maryland schools today the P-word is bandied about for the first time in decades, but many students still only get a window dressing of phonics rather than systematic instruction. And the state's colleges still turn out new teachers who don't know how to teach phonics.

Similarly, an evidence-backed formula for success, at least in early grades, has emerged in recent years that would be safe for schools to bank on. The key is much earlier instruction, diagnosis of learning problems and remediation. Thankfully, Thornton prescribes by the 2007-2008 school year pre-kindergarten classes for all low-income pupils and all-day kindergarten classes for everyone. But other early-grade-success components -- including smaller classes and adjusting the school day to provide more time for academics -- are now left up to school systems.

If you doubt this formula works, look at the dramatic test-score gains the last few years in Baltimore. Many city elementary schools have rapidly improved, often primarily from adopting reading programs based on systematic phonics. The problem is not so much achieving success here and there as it is one of consistency and persistency, of spreading effective practices so they stick in every classroom.

Dr. Grasmick says that when it comes to this, the buck will stop with her. She envisions enforcing a greater statewide commitment to evidence-backed instruction through a much more explicit state curriculum, much more highly defined instructional plans by each district, and much more concrete state tests yielding much more usable data about each student.

She vows to clamp down on systems that aren't using effective programs, by threatening to withhold state funds. "This has to be," she says. "Otherwise, we'll be breaking a promise to the children of this state."

From a state official, this is quite a public promise to more than 850,000 public schoolchildren, one that even outstrips Thornton's financial promise. And we won't forget it. But to make it reality will require unprecedented vigilance -- not just by Dr. Grasmick, but by everyone with a stake in the quality of our state's schools. Anything less would be tragic.

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