The secret sauce to education reform

Lannie Castagne teaches first grade at Brimley Elementary School in Michigan. She does monthly reading assessments to keep her students on track.
Lannie Castagne teaches first grade at Brimley Elementary School in Michigan. She does monthly reading assessments to keep her students on track. MICHIGAN PUBLIC RADIO

Brimley Elementary, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is a small rural school where more than half of the students are Native American and many of the students are poor. Nationally, minority children and children living in poverty post lower scores on standardized tests than their wealthier peers, yet the students at Brimley are, as a whole, performing above the statewide average. The Native American students are also doing better than the other Natives in Michigan.

NPR’s Jennifer Guerra visited the school recently to find out what the “secret sauce” for their success might be.

Brimley Elementary teachers have lots of help. The school of 300 keeps its student-teacher ratio low – averaging 22 students per class. The kindergarten, first and second grade classes all have teacher aides who perform a multitude of tasks.

First graders who struggle with learning to read and write get individualized attention from a language arts specialist.

Another teacher works exclusively with students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades who have difficulty with math. Brimley Elementary also has its own special education teacher and speech and language pathologist.

All the extra personnel pay off. The statewide standardized scores echo what teachers already know in their classrooms – the children are learning.

Yet Brimley wouldn’t be able to afford the help if they weren’t in the peculiar situation of serving a large Native American population. Most schools depend heavily on property taxes to fund schools. Because Brimley can’t collect property taxes from the Native American reservation, the federal government subsidizes the school with a special supplement called Impact Aid. This past school year Brimley Elementary received about $2000 in extra funding for each student.

Principal Pete Routhier points to this money as the “special sauce.”

“So that does help, big time,” he said. “That really gives us an extra pot of money.” Rather than spending on fancy technology or equipment, the school invests in people.

Having more people onboard means that teachers, with fewer students and more support staff, can do the kind of testing teachers want to do – regular formative assessments that give a snapshot of what students know and can do.

Who knew that money for more staff was the secret sauce all the education reformers have been looking for? Well, every teacher working in a high-poverty school knew, and every parent whose child benefited from a small class size knew, and every student who felt safe at school because the teacher aides made sure they got on and off the right buses knew.

The old adage that you get what you pay for is true in education as well. Not many schools are able to take advantage of federal Impact Aid, but legislators who make education a priority should rethink how we fund our schools.

Lawmakers in Raleigh and Columbia should pay attention.

De-professionalize teaching and pay teachers poorly and they leave. Cut support staff and the children they serve suffer. Divert money into charters and vouchers and the majority of children in this country lose, because the majority of our children go to public schools.

Public education is not only our responsibility to the common good, it is a wise investment in our personal well-being. The children we invest in today will be the workers and voters of tomorrow. Cut corners now – skimp on the secret sauce – and pay the very negative price later.

Kay McSpadden is a teacher from York, S.C.