Education Secretary Arne Duncan told school officials Nov. 17 to look at saving money in their districts by increasing productivity. Duncan spoke at an American Enterprise Institute event called “Bang for the Buck in Schooling,” and he warned that schools will “have to face the challenge of doing more with less.”
“It’s time to start treating the problem of productivity as an opportunity,” said Duncan. He called the current crisis affecting school budgets “the new normal,” suggesting that education leaders should get used to tighter school budgets and should adjust their practices accordingly.
“The strategy is to pare back less-than-essential costs while minimizing the effect on children,” said Duncan. He suggested lowering textbook costs by using more digital or open-access materials, consolidating bus routes, and reducing office personnel as ways for districts to cut back on spending.
“My hope is that the new normal will encourage all of us to explore productive alternatives to the old way of doing things,” he said.
Duncan spoke of high-cost money-wasters, such as the millions of dollars spent on remedial education. He told the crowd that ed tech can be a wise investment, saying that it “gives each person the tools they need to be successful and reduce[s] wasted time, energy, and money.”
“It is important to remember that boosting productivity may actually cost more money [in the short term]. The government may have to spend more money now to get a return on that investment,” he said.
Duncan did not rule out the possibility of class size increases, saying it might be a way for districts to save money.
“Districts could vary class size by subject matter or skill of the teacher, or through the use of part-time staff,” he said.
Watch Duncan at AEI
He noted that many high-performing schools in Asia have far larger class sizes than those in the United States, and he said school districts might want to weight modest increases in class sizes against the loss of music and other arts programs.
He also discussed the pay boost that teachers who hold master’s degrees receive, and he suggested a change in how schools should value these instructors .
“Districts today pay $8 billion every year to teachers because they have a master’s degree, even though there’s little evidence that teachers with master’s degrees improve education—with the exception of those who have master’s degrees in math and science,” said Duncan. He suggested that schools spend the energy finding out who the best teachers are and work on rewarding and retaining them instead.
Duncan’s major point was to keep the cuts in school budgets from affecting student learning.
“Keeping the cuts out of the classroom as much as possible is hugely important,” Duncan said. “We’re at a point where, financially, we have to put these tough issues on the table.”
Duncan also said that the current model most schools are using is based on the century-old factory model of education and is obviously not working. He encouraged schools to work with students on an individual basis, with the help of ed-tech tools, to keep students who don’t need them out of special-education programs and to prevent remedial education.
“The alternative is simply to do less with less, and that is fundamentally unacceptable,” said Duncan.
(Editor’s note: For more information about how schools can do more with fewer resources at their disposal, see our Educator Resource Center on “Surviving the school budget crisis.”)