Chapter Five: Resources for Education

5.10 How are Resources Used in Schools?

Another way to consider the adequacy of funding is to ask what we buy with the money spent on elementary and secondary education. There are two usual ways of thinking about expenditure patterns. One is to organize them by functions. In Canada by far the largest item of expenditure is always salaries for educators. Typically, teacher salaries and benefits make up about 67% of school spending (Statistics Canada, Table 37-10-0064-01). Table 5.10.1 provides the budget for the Winnipeg School Division, a district with about 30,000 students. The table shows that more than three quarters of the budget is used to provide regular and special education, and of this amount, about 80% goes to salaries for teachers and other staff. Administrative and other costs tend to make up quite a small part of the overall budget.

Table 5.10.1

Distribution of Winnipeg School Board Expenditures (2020/2021 budget)

Regular Instruction 52.6%
(All subject areas, language programs, English as an additional language)
Student Support Services 23.0%
(Special education, clinician services, resource and counselling)
Community Education 2.4%
(Nursery, Adult programs, community use of schools)
Administration 2.7%
(Computer and information services, business functions, human resource functions, Board and central administration)
Instructional and Other Support Services 2.4%
(Staff professional development, curriculum development, library services and nutritional program)
Transportation 1.8%
Operations and Maintenance 12.9%
Fiscal and Capital 2.2%
(Payroll tax, banking charges and capital transfers)

Source. Winnipeg School Board, 2020-2021 Final Budget Infographic.pdf

A second way to think about spending has to do with the distinction between purchased and hired resources. Purchased resources are the things one buys – buildings, equipment, supplies, and so on. Hired resources are essentially people. Education expenditures are heavily focused on people, which is what is meant by calling education a labour-intensive activity. In schools, things are far less important than people. All salaries including those of secretaries, caretakers, bus drivers, and others total 80 percent or more of education spending. Most of the spending on non-salary items occurs at the provincial or school district level, as shown by the school budget (based on an elementary school in Manitoba) in Table 5.10.2.

In this respect, education is like other services (e.g., health care), but unlike many other economic activities that have switched resources from labour to capital in the form of equipment or improved production processes. A good example of the latter is agriculture, which has vastly reduced its work force while also vastly increasing its productivity by improving farming methods in various ways. Most industries other than human services have steadily reduced the number of workers required for a given level of production. However, in human services such as health or education it has proved much more difficult to replace people with equipment or know-how.

Table 5.10.2

A Sample School Budget for an Elementary School (Enrolment: 400)

1 principal, 0.3 vice-principal $175,000
20 classroom teachers $1,500,000
2 kindergarten teachers $150,000
1 ESL teacher $75,000
1 resource teacher $75,000
1 librarian $750,000
1 special education teacher $75,000
Total instructional staff $2,050,000
3.5 special education support staff $140,000
8 teacher assistants $300,000
2 clerical support staff $100,000
4.5 caretakers $225,000
Total support staff $765,000
Supplies and equipment $300,000
Textbook purchases $100,000
Technology purchases $200,000
Substitute teachers $200,00
Grand Total $3,615,000

Note. These figures do not include expenses incurred by the school district, such as transportation costs, larger maintenance projects, professional development, and other items. They do include benefit costs for staff, which typically add 20% to salaries. School budgets account for about 80% of total spending on education.

What Is the Impact of Resources on Education?

Closely tied to the question of whether we spend enough on education is the question of how much difference money makes. Obviously, money is important; without it we would not be able to build schools, hire teachers, purchase textbooks, and so on. Just as obviously, as was pointed out at the beginning of this chapter, money is not everything. A wonderfully constructed building is not a school without good teachers to work in it; and teachers who do not know their subject, or who do not care about their students, will not be effective no matter how much they earn. Nonetheless, it is important to ask how well we use the money that is available for schools.

One problem we face in studying the impact of resources on education is that learning is not a production process. Rather, education is a process of development. Cars or houses are produced by people doing things to raw materials such as metal or wood. But becoming educated is something students must do for themselves, although many other people may help them along in the process. Thus, while there are agreed-upon ways of making products, ways of becoming educated are likely to vary as much as people vary. We can’t say that if we just did a, b, and c, every student would become educated; indeed, such a claim is antithetical to the meaning of education. The impact of resources on educational outcomes, then, is likely to be a difficult subject on which to produce firm evidence.

Another problem we encounter in studying the effectiveness of education resources is that there is little variation in school spending and organizational patterns across Canada, which makes it difficult to judge what might happen under other arrangements. Just about all schools have a principal, a number of teachers assigned to grades or subjects, some specialist or support teachers (such as resource teachers), one or more administrative assistants, and one or more caretakers. Almost all schools organize students in grades in elementary school and by subjects in secondary school. The organization of time tends to be quite similar across the country. Even class sizes do not vary greatly across school districts or provinces. If schools varied more in their use of resources, we might be able to get a better sense of which combinations of resources were most effective.

Given the diversity in students, in communities, and in the subject matter of education, this standardized approach seems rather puzzling. One might well think that it would make sense to organize schools quite differently depending on the students, the setting, and the subject matter. There are pockets where these innovations occur, but schools have not engaged in significant restructuring of how they operate (except with the forced caveat of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic). In fact, there is a great deal of public resistance to the idea that we would experiment with students by trying different forms of learning to see which are more effective. As a result, we simply do not know very much about how resources affect the work of schools.

There has been great debate in the educational research literature about whether the funds devoted to education have been spent to the greatest benefit (a good example can be found in Review of Educational Research, 66(3)). Conventional wisdom poses that more money means better education (i.e., by providing better facilities, more equipment, smaller classes, and better-qualified teachers). However, research evidence suggests that past a certain basic level, per-pupil spending levels are not strongly related to student outcomes in the form of test scores (Vegas & Coffin, 2015). Nor has this research linked spending levels to other outcomes of education, such as employment, career success, or life satisfaction; rather it is best correlated to quality teachers.

More than 80 percent of the money in education is spent on people, particularly teachers and other instructional staff. The overall ratio of students to teachers (which is not the same as class sizes, since it counts all educators whether they are teaching a class or not) has declined in Canada for most of the last 40 years, though it has risen slightly again in times of reduced education funding.

The impact of reduced class size on pupil outcomes has been the subject of a great deal of controversy. Recent evidence does suggest that reductions in class size may have a positive impact in primary grades (Bascia, 2010). As a result, a number of jurisdictions, including British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario, have committed to controlling the size of classes in the primary years, and class size has become a major negotiating feature in collective negotiations. However, studies have generally found that the effect sizes on achievement based on class size are usually close to zero, suggesting that it is things other than class size alone that has the greatest effects on student achievement (Filges et al., 2018; Watson et al., 2016). Many teachers will say that it is class composition, combined with class size, that creates difficulties for teaching and learning.

Changes of this order are both difficult and expensive to make. To give an indication of the financial impact of changes in the pupil–teacher ratio, at current staffing levels and salaries, a further drop of 1 in the ratio of students to educators in Canada would cost several billion dollars more per year, or about an extra 3 percent in operating expenditures. Class size matters a great deal to teachers, who find teaching less stressful when classes are smaller. Teachers’ views and preferences are important, and workload issues are a primary concern. Decades of research on class size has not been firmly linked to educational outcomes, even though we would expect the impact of class size to depend on the teaching methods used, the students in the class, the subject being taught, the quality of the curriculum and resource materials, and other such factors. One would also want to compare the relative benefit of smaller classes with using the same amount of money for some other purpose such as improved professional development for teachers or developing stronger links between parents and schools (Vegas & Coffin, 2015).

No single educational practice is likely to be effective all the time. Thus, it is probably not the best policy to focus too many resources on a single approach to schooling, whether it be smaller classes, more technology, or new curricula. But there are two related ways in which to consider improvements in the use of educational resources. The first is to employ a broader conception of resources. The second is to use resources in more diverse ways to meet the diversity of educational needs and settings.

We noted at the outset of this chapter that schools have tended to employ a narrow definition of resources, focusing on money and on paid staff. Yet there is good reason to believe that other factors are at least as important in affecting the success of students in our schools. If one were to try to list those things that will have an important impact on the kind of education students obtain, one would probably begin with aspects of the students themselves motivation, background, self-concept, and so on. We do not ordinarily think of students or their families as resources for educational purposes. Yet an increasing body of research (Pushor, 2015) points to ways in which, by altering our view of students and families, education might be strengthened. Schools that walk alongside parents are better able to support children’s learning. Chapter Eight discusses these issues in more detail.

It is also the case that schools currently organize their resources around teaching by grade levels, though, as we have said, education is better viewed as a process of development and learning by students. If schools were to take seriously the idea of students as active learners, they might make more use of some different organizational practices. Among those practices that appear to have support from the research are multi-age learning groups, land-based learning, experiential learning, project-based learning, inquiry learning, flipped classrooms, student learning centres, and digital learning through gaming, robotics, programming, etc. Approaches that emphasize the role of students as learners also have the advantage of stressing skill development in the areas of independence, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, digital literacy, and socio-emotional development (Datta, 2018; Oracki, 2020).

Even within the usual focus on teaching, there may be ways of bringing new resources into play by modifying organizational and instructional practices. For example, the ways in which time is used in schools could be reconsidered. Time allocations to subjects are relatively standard across classes and grades. In other cases, time allocations are based on our view of which subjects are most important. But evidence indicates that students require more time for some subjects, particularly those such as second languages or mathematics, that are primarily learned in schools. Time allocations should depend not on the priority of the subject, but on the background, interests, and needs of students. To use another example, the idea that every secondary-school course should consist of an equal number of hours of instruction seems quite out of step with what is known about learning. Perhaps some subjects should have more time devoted to them than others.

There are many other possibilities. Some research (Hwang & Capella, 2018; Hughes et al., 2018) shows that such common practices as retention in grade and ability grouping do not appear to be helpful and may actually waste resources. The assignment of students to particular teachers is often made on bases other than the learning preferences of the students or teachers. Classes tend to be of similar size in most subjects, even though different subjects may well lend themselves to teaching styles that work better in smaller or larger classes. One of the most interesting areas of work recently has been about how to organize teacher learning most effectively so that teachers are more able to assist students (Miller & Kastens, 2018; Prast et al., 2018).

Experiments with a variety of practices such as those mentioned, with careful assessment of the results in comparison with more standard practices, would be an appropriate way of learning more about the relative merits of alternative uses of resources. Later chapters examine some of these questions from the standpoint of teachers and administrators in schools. The main point to be made here is that it might well be possible to get more value from the resources we use for education.


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