Education on a Shoestring Budget and Determination

"Money don't get everything, it's true/
What it don't get, I can't use/
Now give me money (that's what I want)" -- Barry Gordy and Janie Bradford

This is the song that many school districts and states are singing right now as they compete for funding. While the general public is quick to point fingers at teachers for low test scores, they don't realize what is going on behind the scenes in some states. I will use my state, Missouri as an example as to what is happening in education. I suspect that other states and their educators are facing the same challenges as many states have cut education or proposed cuts because they face budget deficits.

Let me preface my piece by saying that Missouri has been on the forefront of improving instruction and learning. The state set the bar high implementing rigorous GLEs, aligning the standardized test cut scores with NAEP, promoting student-centered instruction, and our state assessment; the Missouri Assessment Program requires complex thinking.

From an educator's perspective, a big part of our problem right now is money; the lack of it and how it is dispersed. Missouri has recently been identified as one of six states that do not fairly distribute education funding as determined by a national study conducted by Rutgers University researchers and the Education Law Center in Newark, NJ. It is one of 20 states that have a regressive funding system, providing high-poverty districts with less state and local revenue than low-poverty districts. This does not come as a surprise to teachers teaching in the low poverty districts.

In addition, for four years Missouri educators have been fighting to keep professional development funds in our state and we lost that battle when Missouri state budget restrictions eliminated $6.4 million for Missouri's 11 Regional Professional Development Centers (RPDCs). This left educators asking how this could happen. Part of No Child Left Behind mandates that schools possess "high quality teachers." How can schools maintain high quality teaching if our teachers do not receive quality professional development? Can you imagine if your doctor never received information or current training on medical procedures? "Let me get my hacksaw and take care of that pesky bone spur, Mr. Smith." It's sad to say, but some schools may not learn about the latest instructional practices and could resort to activities that do not promote 21st century thinking skills. "Ok, kids, today we're going to read Chapter 7 in your Science book and then you will fill in a study guide using your textbook. "

Let me explain the big shoes that our RPDCs fill: They provide an invaluable service, particularly to rural areas, who cannot afford to provide their teachers with quality professional development. They are funded by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and serve teachers, administrators and school districts. More than 250,000 teachers each year receive professional development through Missouri's RPDCs. My region's RPDC covers 16 counties. These qualified educators provide a variety of services in areas from Migrant English Language Learners to Positive Behavior Support. These folks provide workshops, community resources, consulting and evaluation services and information about learning models and current research. The RPDC's are a wonderful asset to our 532 school districts.

Slowly but surely, services that assist teachers and ultimately, our students are being cut. Two years ago, our districts lost an important program at the RPDC due to lack of funding; the STARR Teacher program. The STARR (Select Teachers As Regional Resources) selected top classroom teachers to learn about and share with educators instructional practices which have been proven most effective. These teachers attended many hours of professional development given by national education experts and then traveled to districts and shared new research findings, modeled researched-based instruction and provided support to districts. The loss of this program hit the districts in my region hard as they received high quality professional development at no cost.

Teachers also lost a valuable opportunity to learn about assessments and how students are required to think when lack of funds discontinued our in-state scoring of the MAP test. Teachers were taught what is expected when students answer questions and how to assess these types of questions. They took this information back to their classrooms and taught their students how to think.

Due to the budget cuts, this year we lost the MAP division at the RPDC. The MAP division housed the educators who assisted teachers and schools with increasing rigor in instruction and provided valuable information about our state standardized test, the MAP. Many are wondering if it's a matter of time before we lose all the Regional Professional Development Centers.

Schools' transportation budgets were also cut this year which eliminated summer school in many districts and affected tutoring programs. Summer school is important for students that need additional learning opportunities; particularly in reading.

And the hits just keep coming... We just received word that there is another casualty due to lack of funding; two portions of our state standardized test, the MAP. For the next two years, (until the Common Core Standards are implemented) there will not be performance events or a writing session. Just as we are being asked to increase rigor, leave no child behind and compete with other nations, we are not assessing writing and students are not required to demonstrate knowledge through performance on the test. We will have multiple choice questions of high rigor and constructed response questions. This letter from DESE details this and other changes in our state assessments due to budget concerns.

So before the public blames teachers for all the ills in education, realize that teachers are on the front line. They are where the rubber meets the road. In order to do their jobs effectively, they need support. Support in the form of quality professional development, support in the form of funds for transportation in order to provide additional services for students in need, and support from parents, communities and the public.

Being an educator today is like competing on Survivor. All states are a tribe competing for funds and we are given a minimal number of tools in order to try to survive. We're facing challenge after challenge, making square pegs fit into round holes with nothing but shoestring budgets and determination. Times of change are hard, there's always a period when even the leaders wonder if the change is going to be successful. Educators are wondering if the changes proposed will be successful when things are so difficult right now. Yet, many educators are hanging in there because they believe in education; even if it feels like no one believes in them.

This is a second part of my "Whistle-Stop" blogging where I attempt to take my message about education and teaching to the people. By the way, if you want to track your state or district's spending of federal stimulus funds, check out,