My first job teaching was in a tiny, rural Texas school district. “Out in the sticks,” I always feel like adding, on this and only this era of my past.
Being thus a greenhorn was unfortunate for my first students, but that year was an incredible learning opportunity for me. One, I realized teaching well requires much more than passion and creativity. Those two characteristics are crucial, don’t get me wrong. I had a good deal of both.
It’s just that structuring curriculum with the end goal in mind – what do I want students to know, exactly, at the end of all this? – is fundamentally key to effective instruction. And frankly, I’d have had no idea how to answer that question, even if I’d somehow realized I needed to ask it in the first place.
Two: the other major skill in an excellent teacher’s repertoire is rock solid classroom management. Students know what to do when they walk in the room, they know how to behave, they know when to talk, when to pipe down, when to be serious, and when there’s a little breathing room for jokes.
That doesn’t happen on accident. I know, because I lacked any semblance of that ability my first year teaching.
And finally: students are different. Some of them will absorb and learn every syllable uttered on campus grounds. Others just left an empty apartment or trailer, or spent the previous night on a friend’s couch. They’re not interested in participial phrases – they’re trying to survive. I didn’t get that, my first year teaching.
And here’s what that meant for my students: their learning was scattershot. It was sometimes engaging, sometimes effective, but often chaotic, and lacking a clear destination. Often, my instruction lacked any recognition at all of the realities my students lived with every day.
The teacher next door, however, was another story. A veteran of two decades, she ran her classrooms with precision and finesse, a flawless blend of military drill sergeant meets sophisticated docent. She understood how to reach each student, how to help them without coddling them.
Her students learned. So much. She worked miracles in that school, and everyone knew it.
And she required zero extra dollars in the process.
This is where the argument for more school funding necessitates some nuance, and an honest recognition of what role money can and cannot play in improving student academic outcomes.
Take California, for instance. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) went into effect in the Golden State back in 2013. Seen as a revolutionary step in funding equity for schools, the initiative aimed to equalize the budgets of high and low poverty districts from L.A. to Sacramento. Districts with more high-needs students received more funding, and they were given the autonomy to spend it as they saw fit. In theory, this would better allow for optimizing academic progress, since each school district could now pair extra dollars to its own unique student body population.
It seems like a recipe for success, but a study recently published proves quite the opposite. The Education Trust-West analyzed the results of LCFF three years in, and found that though funding has become far more equitable, “access gaps” remain prevalent.
A few details help illuminate just how great is the disappointment of LCFF. Before it went into effect, the highest poverty districts in California had $829 less to spend per student than districts with the lowest poverty rates. Three years after LCFF, districts with the highest poverty actually had $334 more than their wealthier counterparts.
By focusing on opportunity gaps, the study found that students in high-poverty areas still had far less access to certain courses, such as Calculus, Physics, Computer Science, and Music. Additionally, students in lower income areas attended schools with fewer counselors and librarians. The Education Trust-West research showed “The highest poverty schools still have less access to crucial school support staff, and a rigorous and broad curriculum – in some cases these gaps have widened.”
High needs students of the sort LCFF aimed to help include English Language Learners, low income students, and kids in foster care. But it seems some districts did not target the extra funding to programs specifically for these at-risk youth. Los Angeles Unified district was sued, in part for spending some of that money on teacher raises. Other districts have also come under scrutiny for how they’ve spent the state’s funding, with student advocates pointing out that many of these at-risk students need full-time nurses more than “nice” frivolities, like AP exam waivers.
There’s the disconnect – what students need and where the money gets spent. For many of the kids LCFF specifically set out to help, a counselor to talk to, or meaningful medical assistance, would be the most beneficial use of that money.
But it’s also worth noting that rigorous and artistic classes were apparently left off many a district agenda as well. For many at-risk students, a teacher like the one I worked next to during my first year in rural Texas would make all the difference in the world. Educators with the experience, knowledge, and commitment to make upper level courses engaging and rewarding. Districts could certainly spend funding to hire more of those sorts of teachers.
Money can open plenty of doors in education, but it’s up to those in charge of spending to pick those doors wisely. In the case of LCFF, it seems far too many districts can’t be trusted to do that.