by Jay Mathews | Washington Post Education Columnist
April 10, 2009 — Hard battles lost long ago leave a mark. (The worst for me was the 1973 Super Bowl.) University of California at Berkeley professor W. Norton Grubb, for instance, still replays the 1971 Serrano v. Priest decision by the California Supreme Court. It threw out the state’s education financing system based on property taxes. He thought the decision was going to make heroes of school financing experts like him who would, he hoped, “improve the minutiae of finance formulas, and equitable and powerful schooling would spread to all children.”
Except that didn’t happen. Federal courts and the property-tax-limiting ballot Proposition 13 got in the way, and Grubb eventually learned his dream was based on a misunderstanding, what he calls the money myth, which he uses as the title of a very detailed and enlightening new book.
“The Money Myth,” published by the Russell Sage Foundation, has a subtitle, “School Resources, Outcomes and Equity,” which sounds like a really bad homework assignment. But once you get into it, it is hard to put down. Grubb makes a daring attempt to identify exactly which approaches will improve our children’s academic performance, and by how much.
He fails to produce a magic formula, beyond some charts in the appendix too complicated to describe in standard English. But the text of the book has enough clarity to start some good arguments. Here, for instance, is what Grubb says improves high schools, my favorite topic, based on a close examination of a much-mined but still rich database, the National Educational Longitudinal Survey of the Class of 1988, known as NELS88 to its fans.
1. Replace vocational and general course tracks with more demanding courses that focus on college, or that integrate both vocational and academic subjects.
2. Replace drill-filled remedial efforts with methods enriched with projects and problem-solving, like well-taught upper-track courses.
3. Provide more counseling.
4. Create school climates that reverse negative effects of family background, like low parental education and aspirations for their children, and student behavior, such as failure to complete homework, poor attendance, frequent TV watching, after-school jobs and pregnancy.
5. Recognize that some reform efforts, such as smaller pupil-teacher ratios, extracurricular activities and more student choice, raise graduation rates but not achievement levels.
6. Recognize that other reform efforts, such as more professional development and teacher innovation, raise achievement levels but not graduation rates.
The book is Grubb’s effort to bury what he calls the “Black Box” model for school improvement. Figure 1.1 on Page 28 sums it up: Two small boxes labeled “Funding/School Resources” (government money) and “Family Background” (parental money and education) feed into the Black Box and come out the other end as “Educational Outcomes.” Many important influences are ignored in this diagram, he says.
“While many school resources have significant effects on outcomes, none of these effects is overwhelmingly large by itself -- with the exception of placement in a general, traditional vocational or remedial track,” which is very bad, he writes. “A school, then, is a combination of many different influences -- teachers and their approaches to instruction, aspects of climate and peers, forms of internal stratification like tracking, and certainly some simple resources, each with small to moderate effects. School improvement requires getting a large number of practices ‘right.’ Good schools pay attention -- because of leadership, teacher selection and staff development, consistency between students and teachers (and parents), support services, the internal organization of schools -- to a large number of practices.”
The book supplies some ammunition for nearly every combatant in the various curricular and structural wars. When Grubb’s analysis becomes particularly complex, he sometimes seems to be on both sides at the same time. But in planning good schools, that is not always a bad thing.
Grubb tries to apply his data to the schools we have now, and suggests which approaches they need to improve. That part of the book would have been better if Grubb had personally investigated more charter schools. He focuses on what he says are prime characteristics of organizations that manage charters, including principals not being much involved in instruction and teachers using prescribed lessons. But charter schools that have the best records in raising student achievement, and thus in my view are likely to have the most influence on future charter growth, do exactly the opposite. Their principals are selected on the basis of their teaching skills. They are deeply involved in instruction and they and their teachers decide how and what to teach.
That is an issue for Grubb’s next book. This one, in nearly every case, endorses practices that the best teachers I know all use. It is an instructive read that will prepare us for what I expect will be disappointment after we see what happens with the $100 billion federal education stimulus that so many people hope, likely in vain, will significantly improve our schools.