You might read the oft-repeated claim that Colorado underfunds its schools. Trying to dig into that claim, you’ll find that one group says it looks that way because the reporters don't use an apples-to-apples comparison — i.e., our state is not the sole source of funding for schools. Districts get money from many places: the Feds, the state, local bodies, and so on. Cherry-picking a few funding streams will indeed make our schools look woefully underfunded. Add all the sources up and you’ll see that our state is about average.
Now, take that claim back to the folks who say we’re underfunding. What you’re likely to hear is that, yes, we are average in that regard, but if you adjust the funding according to their rubric (and, in case you were wondering, different groups do have different rubrics), we're back at the bottom. Or maybe we're fair, but still near the bottom.
So now it’s off to the government. Who better than dull bureaucrats to give you something to work with? What do you get from the government? The state Department of Education sent me to this site. I would suspect the site is reliable and not pushing an agenda, but now the catch is that the numbers on it are tough to compare because the government organizes and categorizes the money — you guessed it — differently than other organizations.
How are you to plant your feet and hold up something that is true and fair?
Maybe it's my nature, but I still have room for optimism: while I don’t have numbers I feel comfortable making emphatic claims about, I do have something to share. I have a starting point; I have a question that slices through the details, claims and rubrics.
Judging from previous years, we are spending more on Colorado students, but are we getting our money's worth in educational outcomes? I don't think a reasonable person would say yes. Why is it that way? That’s a good question, and I’m not going to cheat us both by pretending I know enough to give definitive answers that would explain every situation.
In my view, teaching is a craft, that is, a blend of both skill and art, and its product involves all the variability and diversity that we see in humans. I believe we can improve educational outcomes. I believe that more money does help, but only to a point. Learning is not a process where we titrate inputs and can expect a proportional amount of output.
Sadly, I think that’s what we’re doing every year when we trot out the same solution — throw more money at the problem. We are offered and choose political expediency in lieu of things that take longer, are not amenable to soundbites, but have more value.
Let me flesh out what I’m talking about. I remember my first-ever (and longest-held) teaching job. It was at Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver. I am guessing that the statistics there may have changed since I left a few years ago, but I doubt by much. Most of our students were from low-income families, most were minority students, and a sizeable number were from families where English wasn't the language spoken at home. Despite these challenges, and despite the fact that we didn't have anywhere near the budget of many schools around Colorado, our students excelled.
I know what works at that school for those particular students because I and my colleagues worked hard to make it work. Would it work everywhere? Probably not. As I said, students are different, schools are different, teachers are different.
That’s not the point though. The point is, it shows that we can improve education without more money. If our little school did, any school can. It demands hard work and a willingness to try new ideas and refine the ones we’ve tried. It demands that we look outside the easy answers politicians offer. It demands we have the bravery to admit more money is not helping things.
Cory Gaines is a physics instructor at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling. He runs the Colorado Accountability Project on Facebook and lives for what Richard P. Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”