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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Spend Less on Test Prep, More on Great Books and Teachers

Governor Mike Rounds is asking for a 5% cut in state aid to K-12 education, and Governor-Elect Dennis Daugaard says he is likely to support most of the cuts in Rounds's plan. The proposed $353.6 million in state aid to K-12 education represents 29.6% of proposed FY2012 state general fund expenditures. Pre-Rounds, K-12 state aid made up 39% of general fund expenditures.

Daugaard and I and everyone else agree that what matters most is not how much we spend on education but the results our kids and teachers achieve. (There is some minimum cost of doing business, and Rounds has pushed local districts too close to that line, but we can argue that elsewhere.) So whatever amount the Legislature has the courage and foresight to invest in our children, we need to figure out how best to spend that money.

One place to start: ask the kids. A huge study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation finds school kids really do have a pretty good sense of which teachers are doing the job right.

Teachers whose students described them as skillful at maintaining classroom order, at focusing their instruction and at helping their charges learn from their mistakes are often the same teachers whose students learn the most in the course of a year, as measured by gains on standardized test scores, according to a progress report on the research [Sam Dillon, "What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Kids," New York Times, 2010.12.10].

One result that really stands out to me: kids who report that their teachers drill them a lot on standardized test exercises ended up not gaining as much on their state tests as other kids. That doesn't say that teaching to the test won't improve kids scores, but it does say that you can raise your kids scores even more by simply focusing on "the key concepts of literacy and mathematics."

So whatever money we get for our schools, this study suggests that we should spend less on test-prep books and special courses and more on great books and teachers.


  1. Michelle Rhee had an interesting interview last week. To paraphrase she said we've been increasing the budget in education while test scores go down (she does not accept the correlation). She is at odds with the teacher unions who want more money and fast tenure, and said the reason Asian students do better is their culture doesn't allow for excuses. Let's face it, ours does. Actually, teachers tell me parents are now the first ones to say it's not their kid, it's some outside factor, very different from years ago when parents backed the teacher.

  2. John, perhaps related: this new survey finds "68 percent of adults believe parents deserve heavy blame for what's wrong with the U.S. education system — more than teachers, school administrators, the government or teachers unions."

  3. I watched the Michelle Rhee interview (Oprah, last week) with interest. As a former teacher I wondered which state hired her to turn their education department around. I was delighted that she is going to be putting her efforts into a new venture aimed at helping those teachers/districts across the nation who choose to help themselves. Check out www.studentsfirst.org to see her plan.
    Now for my input for change--smaller class sizes. Period. It starts with that. 20 students in an elementary classroom guarantees more time for each student. Fewer parents to handle. Teachers who take advantage of the extra time to explore different teaching techniques will have the opportunity to reach every type of "learner" in their classroom. Remember this motto--Think globally but act locally.


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