Too often public education is debated on the narrow terrain of what individuals already hold true. The late University of California anthropologist John Ogbu was invited by concerned parents of the middle-class black community in Shaker Heights, Ohio to help ascertain why some black students in their highly regarded suburban school system were “disengaged” from academic work and performed below their white counterparts. He concluded that “the black students’ own cultural attitudes hindered academic achievement and that these attitudes are too often neglected.” Ogbu was vilified largely in the black community for his findings and praised largely by conservatives as proof positive of their claims — a gross oversimplification on both sides. My fear is that University of California Professor W. Norton Grubb’s latest book, “The Money Myth: School Resources, Outcomes, and Equity (Russell Sage Foundation, 2009),” may risk being placed in the same oversimplified box as Ogbu’s work for the convenience of debate.
Those who argue for greater resources for public education will undoubtedly differ with the premise they prematurely attach to Grubb’s work, which focuses primarily on high school education. Likewise, those opposed to additional money will see this as another clear example that sides with their thesis. Both sides only prove the importance of actually reading the material that is not nearly as black and white as either side wants to make it. For Grubb, the question: “Can money buy quality education?” is one that takes too broad of a view. His work suggests that money is at the very least overrated, and by itself unrelated to student achievement. “Dollar bills don’t educate kids and we have to figure out what does educate kids,” he said. “There are some resources that actually do cost money. In my results, the adult-pupil ratio in high school makes a difference. That is not a class-size measure — it is a measure of the number of adults around; it really measures the personalization of the school. That obviously costs money and the research shows its effective.”
But Grubb also contends there are a number of effective resources in schools that don’t cost much money. Perhaps the most obvious is instructional improvement. Using statistical analysis, Grubb demonstrates that teachers who teach in more innovative ways, which means to go beyond mere information dissemination toward a more conceptual method, can really have an impact on student achievement. This would, of course, demand that such teaching could only happen in an environment that allows for such innovation as well as offers teachers more control of the classroom. Again, Grubb offers that these factors are not directly related to money. It does, however, address one of the areas that all well-functioning schools tend to have in common. According to Grubb, a well-functioning school climate that is supportive of academic work and rids itself of gangs, violence and crime is key to success.
Grubb’s research indicates that students who interact with their counselors do better than those who do not, in terms of ensuring that students are prepared for entrance into four-year institutions. Grubb also cites fair, equitable and supportive treatment of students as an abstract resource, particularly with students of color, is key to student achievement. Though not something that one can necessarily quantify, it does go to the climate that schools create. Part of the problem, according to Grubb’s findings, is that often money fails to reach the school, at least not in the most timely or effective manner. In my conversation with Grubb, he never suggests that money should not be spent or that it is irreverent to the conversation. But, as he points out, school climate cannot be purchased — it is something that must be developed and nurtured by the school. I’m quite certain the black and white understanding of Grubb’s findings will be that money makes no difference in education, prompting cheers on the right and derision on the left. But I find Grubb’s work in the amorphous gray, where our ideas are usually best informed, shouting that money spent unwisely makes no difference.