A Brief Review of Kenneth Daniel’s Testimony

Here’s a follow-up to the entry on Kenneth Daniel’s critique of the LPA report on school finance.

Daniel was invited to testify before the House education committee. As expected, he blasted the report, calling it a “badly broken, unfair, and dishonest school funding formula,” and asked legislators “to discount and ignore virtually all of the ‘conclusions’ and recommendations of the new LPA Cost Study.”

That said, his testimony did raise some important questions and observations. Assume that there’s a correlation between family income and student achievement. (That is, the free-lunch group scores lower on tests than the reduced-price group, which in turn performs lower than the full-price group.)

Point 1: Are those differences statistically significant?
Are differences in student achievement by different income groups statistically significant? We must confess that we need to spend some time looking in to this question. Daniels makes much of the low correlation between the two.

Point 2: And if those differences are statistically significant, what then?
Assume that there are statistically significant differences in achievement according to income group. Can we propose a theory for why this is so? Daniel suggests native intelligence, a provocative and possibly inflamatory idea that, whatever its merits, is unlikely to be the entire or even major explanatory variable.

Is there anything that policy can do to address the achievement gap? Popular solutions include smaller class sizes and higher across-the-board teacher pay. But it may be that none of these solutions work. The evidence on small class size is inconclusive. Across-the-board teacher pay rewards incompetent as well as effective teachers, and actually harms the best teachers by sucking up money that could be used for merit pay.

Point 3: The state has two definitions of “at risk.”
Low income is often used as a proxy for at-risk students. But shouldn’t at-risk actually focus on students with a history of low achievement? Daniel has a point here. It’s hard to defend increased spending for “at risk” students if we do not use a consistent definition of “at risk”–and target services at those students, and those students alone.

So What Should Lawmakers Do?
Say Daniel:

Provide at-risk funding for the actual students who are not performing at proficiency. Provide a strict definition. Provide monitoring and audits. Do not allow at-risk funds to be rolled into general fund budgets. We are testing every year now, so the qualifying data as fresh as the free-lunch statistics, and will be much more reliable and tamper-proof.

We would prefer to introduce some more market forces into the delivery of education. But what we have under consideration (put on the plate by the Supreme Court) is increased funding for “at risk” students. It would seem that the path to take is to identify schools with the most students who are at risk–based on poor scores on state assessments–and then direct money in that direction.

How to spend that money? Simply putting money in the hands of school officials would be akin to rewarding poor performance. A better solutions, perhaps, is to extend money to parents of students in poorly performing schools–and let them use the money for any approved purpose they wish. That could mean supplemental tutoring, text books, computer programs, or even for tuition at private schools.

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