Tie state school funding to performance

Corbett's Ready to Lean plan would encourage achievement

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Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2014-2015 school budget proposal contains an important provision some observers believe represents a game-changing concept in the struggle to improve educational outcomes for all students. With $240 million proposed for the Ready to Learn Block Grant, Pennsylvania’s education funding can align funding and flexibility to reward success.

The block-grant program would provide a menu of options for public schools to use the funds. Options increase for schools that fare better in the school-performance profiles that Pennsylvania’s Department of Education released last year and include powerful tools like competency-based learning and programs that leverage technology to personalize classroom instruction.

Most significantly, it represents the only part of the education budget that makes a clear connection between academic outcomes and education funding and flexibility.

Elsewhere, funding is duly provided, year after year, to all schools and districts regardless of whether academic outcomes improve or decline, which hardly helps students at low-performing schools. The existing system fundamentally discourages the kind of no-excuses efforts to improve the academic outcomes for every child that characterize the highest-performing schools and districts.

How do we know the current system isn’t working well? More than 65 percent of eighth-grade students statewide didn’t reach proficiency in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And, based on rankings compiled annually by the Pittsburgh Business Times, which looks at outcomes on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests over three years of scores, Pittsburgh has consistently ranked in the bottom 10 percent of Western Pennsylvania districts in terms of overall student proficiency rates.

Further, according to a Cato Institute analysis, Pennsylvania students perform worse, on average, on the SAT now compared to 1972, despite an almost 120 percent increase in spending per student (adjusted for inflation). Clearly, something needs to change.

Mr. Corbett’s new performance-based funding approach is built on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile. The SPP provides a score to a school based on a 100-point scale, taking into account important factors such as students scoring at or above proficiency on the state test, students showing higher-than-average improvement over previous year test scores and students graduating from high school.

Because students from low-income backgrounds often start school behind their peers, Mr. Corbett’s plan sensibly addresses this concern by considering student growth over time equally with test-score proficiency. This adds a critical piece of equity, mitigating any built-in bias toward historically underserved student populations.

The governor and those who support the plan deserve great credit for taking on one of the most misunderstood but pernicious problems in education today: the misalignment of education funding with academic outcomes. Pennsylvania would be the second state this year to approve a performance-based component to its education budget. Arizona did so in April, also largely based on student growth over time.

U.S. taxpayers spend 5.4 percent of the nation’s GDP on elementary and secondary education. This system may not be sustainable at its present low level of productivity. Rewarding schools for both achievement and improvement can promote classroom innovation, competition and student performance.

The Ready to Learn plan can be a crucial step in breaking away from a funding structure that disperses money to all schools regardless of performance. A performance-based funding approach provides an opportunity to make strategic investments in schools by focusing school funding on desired results. Expect to see other states move in this strategic education direction as well.

Doug Mesecar, a former official at the U.S. Department of Education, and Don Soifer are education analysts at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.

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