A grand experiment in New Orleans

What might happen if a city started its school system over from scratch? That’s not entirely a hypothetical question. New Orleans has offered something of a natural experiment after hurricane Katrina wiped out its schools, and much of everything else. Now, 60 percent of students attend a charter school.

In fact, the whole landscape is changed:  “Even in traditional schools, principals have unusual autonomy over the hiring—and firing—of teachers, since the city’s teachers’ union lost its collective-bargaining rights.”

How has this turned out? Newsweek concludes, “So far, the experiment appears to be working.” The percentage of students attending “failing” schools has been cut in half (though it still remains at a horrific one-third).

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Poor student motivation: What can be done?

We’ve got a problem with schools. Now what are we going to do about it? First, just how stagnant is American education? Robert Samuelson lays down some numbers:

  • In 1971,  the average score on the NAEP for high school students taking the reading test was, on a scale of 0-500, 285. In 2008, it was … 286.
  • In 1973, the average math score was 304. In 2008, it was … 306.

Not much “progress” was evident in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. What have we done to improve education?

Between 1970 and 2008, the number of students nationwide increased 8 percent. The number of teachers increased 61 percent. So much for simply adding more employees to school systems.

Samuelson then adds, “The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If the students aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail.”

I’d say that’s certainly not unmentionable. Go to any article about school performance published on the Internet by a major newspaper and you’ll find lots of people claiming that it’s all the kids’ fault.

When does this become “blaming the victim?”

Now, I don’t want to let students off the hook. There are certainly societal trends at work that don’t favor student performance: Minority students who apply themselves in school are sometimes derided for “acting white,” some parents don’t care enough about their children’s education, the rights revolution has undermined the authority of teachers in the classroom, and so on.

But if some kids don’t apply themselves in school, might in some cases the reason be that there’s something wrong in the classroom?

Grade inflation for 2008-09 school year

While there are many good people who toil away in Kansas public schools, the record of those schools is greatly overstated.

I’ve put up a new page that compares the record of Kansas’ schools on state assessments with their record on the Nation’s Report Card.

A Report Card for Kansas and the USA

How is Kansas doing on education? There’s good news and bad news, according to the Report Card on American Education, published by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The report measures states against this question: How well do children (without a special-education plan) who are from poor families doing on the NAEP, or the “Nation’s Report Card?”

Here’s the good news: (Numbers in parenthesis refer to pages in the report)

  • Kansas ranks 7 overall on the performance of low-income, non-special-ed students. (40, 112)
  • Kansas is ranks 4 for 4th grade math, 7  for 8th grade math, and 8 for 4th-grade reading. (113)
  • Kansas ranks 11 on improvements to 4th-grade reading. (114)
  • Kansas ranks 7 in a measure that combines NAEP overall scores and gains for 8th grade reading and math. (117)
  • Kansas gets a “B” for its regulation on homeschooling, which makes homeschooling freely available to families. (40)

And here’s the not-so-good news:

  • Only one-third of grade-four students (36 percent, specifically) are “proficient” in reading. (40)
  • Kansas gets a D+ on education reform, putting it in the same category as 9 other states. (112)
  • Kansas ranks 16 for 8th-grade reading. (113)
  • Kansas ranks 26 for improvement in 4th-grade math scores. (114)
  • Kansas ranks 26 in a measure that combines NAEP overall scores and gains for 4th grade reading and math. (117)
  • Kansas ranks 28 for improvement in 8th-grade math scores and 32 for improvement in 8th-grade reading scores. (115)
  • Kansas got a C- on its academic standards (compared with the NAEP); its proficiency standards have been lowered, not raised. (40)
  • Kansas has no private school choice plans that might give students more options, and its charter school law gets an “F” for retarding the development of charter schools. (40, 119)
  • Kansas does not have mandatory intra and inter-district enrollment (as do 10 other states), again, limiting student options. (40)
  • Kansas gets poor grades for its policies governing teachers: A C- for retaining effective teachers, a D- for identifying high-quality teachers, and a D_ for removing ineffective ones. In addition it does not have alternative routes for certifying teachers, as do 21 states.  (120)

I will add in two other facts not included in the report card:

  • One-fourth (28 percent) of grade-four students are illiterate (scoring “below basic”) on the NAEP. (State profile page, US Department of Education).
  • If you calculate drop-outs by determining how many students who enter ninth grade graduate with a regular diploma four years later, the Kansas dropout late was 26 percent, as calculated by the America’s Promise Alliance. (See a report I wrote about drop-outs in Kansas, drawing on the alliance’s work.)

So Kansas does fairly well by some measures, but not by others. It scores high compared with other states, but not necessarily against countries around the world. The large number of drop-outs and illiterate children is itself a scandal. Finally, the policy environment restricts student options.

Quote of the Day

“Instead of trying to figure out how to get more money for education, schools across the state are figuring out how to get more education for our money. We should all follow their examples. And while we are at it, we must channel the resources we do have directly to student learning.” — Tony Bennett, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction

Are small schools better?

I’ve read for quite a while that small schools beat larger schools in promoting academic achievement. It’s a plausible argument, but I have never waded deeply into it.

Alex Tabarrok throws a match on the theory, saying it’s all due to misunderstanding a basic fact of Statistics 101.

because small school don’t have a lot of students, scores are much more variable.  If for random reasons a few geniuses happen to enroll one year in a small school scores jump up and if a few extra dullards enroll the next year scores fall.

Thus, for purely random reasons we would expect small schools to be among the best performing schools in any given year.

Portable pensions, please

“The most potent education reform may be the one that’s too often considered a side issue: pension reform.” That’s the word of the editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal.

Before you dismiss the suggestion based on the source alone, consider this: New teachers, once they get past the initial rough year or two, are sometimes the best teachers a school has. They haven’t had time to get worn down or cynical, for one thing. Yet the current retirement system effectively discourages them.

The Journal also quotes a report from Education Sector, which says under the current approach “”too many veteran teachers who are burned out stay because they do not want to walk away from the benefits and service time they have accrued.” That’s not exactly what students need.

For more on the report, see what I wrote a short time ago.

Standardized Tests: Good, bad, useful, or useless?

The New York Times has a symposium of 8 contributors who debate the value of tests in evaluating teacher effectiveness.

First up, the panelists who favor some use of value-added tests.

Lance Izumi on the plight of parents who can’t act on the data: “If, based on teacher assessment results, parents learn that their child’s teacher is lousy, then what’s their option? Most kids will continue to be stuck in assigned classrooms regardless of their teacher’s performance. Waiting for a teacher to be remediated or fired could take years, by which time their child’s learning could be derailed.”

Marcus Winters says we should use value-added tests, though cautiously: It would be irresponsible to use only value-added analysis to evaluate teachers. Nonetheless, imperfect value-added assessment is surely an improvement upon the current system, which makes no meaningful attempt to differentiate teachers by their effectiveness.”

Vern Williams says that value-added tests must be used in context: “One student with severe emotional issues can change the entire social and academic character of a classroom. Such situations are rarely if ever explained when value-added results are reported. These results should therefore be used carefully as part of a teacher’s evaluation when appropriate.” He also mentions using school-wide measures, which I think might be appropriate.

Kevin Carey says, “Value-added results should be interpreted carefully, in light of statistical margins of error. But perfection can’t be the enemy of the good, and annual testing is here to stay.” He adds that teachers should also be judged by peer evaluations and “more rigorous classroom observations,” which sounds about right.

Amy Wilkins sums up the logic of value-added testing this way: “Instead of relying on a single end-of-the-year test score, it examines growth over the course of a school year. So even when a student enters a classroom far below grade level, if that student makes big learning gains, the teacher gets credit for those gains. In fact, she gets far more credit for that student than for one who started the year a little above average but ended in the same place.”  She concludes, “No one is suggesting that ‘value-added’ measures be the sole criteria of teacher reviews,” and points out that in Los Angeles, teachers expressed “frustration” that they aren’t being given this information.

Now, those who oppose their use.

Linda Darling-Hammond says, “studies repeatedly show that these measures are highly unstable for individual teachers,” which of course is a serious methodological problem that draws into question the validity of such tests. She decries “evaluating and rewarding teachers primarily on the basis of state test score gains,” a proposition I don’t see advocated by anyone in that forum. She prefers, “the career ladder evaluations in Denver and Rochester, the Teacher Advancement Program and the rigorous performance assessments used for National Board Certification, all of which link evidence of student learning to what teachers do in teaching curriculum to specific students.”

Jesse Rothstein prefers “more frequent visits from trained evaluators and master teachers will require substantial additional resources.” He points out that student gains can fade over time. While he casts this as an argument against value-added testing, I think it points to the importance of having good teachers throughout a student’s career.

Diane Ravitch, the current darling of the education establishment for her about-face on school choice (she was for it before she was against it) says, “There is no technocratic fix for the problems of American education,” apparently thinking that value-added tests qualify as a “technocratic” fix. No, I think it’s an attempt to add another dimension to the evaluation process. She also mentions problems of cross-time validity (something to consider) and the possibility that tests will narrow the curriculum.

Summary: It’s really a mess, isn’t it? Reading these articles takes me back to my beginning classes in graduate school.  Validity and reliability are key concepts for any researcher. Validity, roughly speaking means whether your measurements measure what you want them to measure. Reliability, on the other hand, asks whether, if you take one measurement, you get a different result when you take a second measurement, even though nothing has changed.

These are serious questions that need to be addressed. But as one of the panelists said, we should not let the pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good. And what we have now is, too often, “not good.” As a scientist, I may want to see another ten year’s worth of research into this matter. As a human being who knows that thousands if not millions of children suffer from poor teachers, I am saddened to think that their futures will be compromised as we seek the “perfect” means of evaluating teachers.

How do we learn?

For all the work that’s been done in the world of education, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the process of learning. One professor of psychology, quoted by the New York Times, says, “we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works [in learning] that are mistaken.”

All the more reason to decentralize learning. The more centralized education is–national standards, statewide curricula, large districts with thousands of administrative employees–the more likely it is that invalid assumptions will be solidified into conventional wisdom and practice.

Even some of the most basic “tips” are of questionable value: “psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. ”

Read the article and you’ll get a bonus: Why making students take tests can be useful for their education.

Gubernatorial candidates on K-12 schools

What do the two major party candidates for the office of Kansas governor say about education and K-12 schools?

Sam Brownback, Republican speaks about his views in this video:

Some points from his speech:

1. The Legislature, not the courts, should have primacy.
2. “We’ve got to engage the funding formula,” which is “a major political issue.”
3. “We’ve got to address the reform agenda.”

Tom Holland, the Democratic candidate, has a page on education on his website, which you can see here. He says, in part, “Entrepreneurs will not invest in a community that lacks an educated workforce. That’s why I voted for the three-year $466 million school finance plan increase during the 2006 legislative session.”

Click on each link to learn more. If you have suggestions for other Internet resources that describe the views of each candidate, please leave a comment and I will include them in a new post.

TV, music, and “words” publishing are changing–what about schools?

Are changes in the way we use media–iTunes, TiVO, podcasts, online newspapers, etc.–making the traditional ways of conducting school obsolete?

It appears that listenership on radio is changing dramatically. First of all, satellite radio allowes individuals to listen to their favorite radio station whenever and wherever they are. Secondly, iPods allow individuals to listen to exactly the music that they enjoy most. In fact, iTunes with the use of Genius even helps you find new music aligned with your personal taste. And thirdly, some of the most popular radio is talk radio. So what does all this mean? In society today individuals want to listen to what they like, when they like it, and in many cases they want to interact, not just be passive listeners.

I think students in classrooms feel the same. It is just no longer acceptable, just because somebody is an adult, to stand in front of the room and spew information and expect the student to eagerly soak it up. Students want more say in what the content is, and more interaction.

Can schools change? Perhaps. The the possibilities for change are hindered to the extent that schooling is a top-down enterprise “managed” by the President of the United State the U.S. Congress, a state board of education, or even local school boards.

Use value-added analysis as a trigger to subjective, consequential evaluations

What is a fan of school reform to do about the weak state of teacher-evaluation models?

Marcus Winters writes about the need for doing something about the appalling state of teacher evaluation: While “studies show that the difference between a student’s being assigned to a good or bad teacher can mean as much as a grade level’s worth of learning over the course of a school year”, “even the nation’s lowest-performing school districts routinely rate more than 95 percent of their teachers as satisfactory or higher.”

What about classroom observations? He says they are “thoroughly subjective.” While he applauds value-added assessment, Winters warns that “given its messiness—especially when tied to stakes as high as people’s jobs—it cannot be used in isolation.”Yet, he says, we shouldn’t ignore value-added assessments altogether. Use them as triggers: “The real lesson [of the Los Angeles Times’ analysis] is that test scores are best used to raise red flags about a teacher’s objective performance; rigorous subjective assessment should follow, to ensure that the teacher is truly performing poorly.”

But due to collective bargaining agreements, tenure, and inability of teachers to evaluate teachers, that evaluation–and subsequent booting of incompetent–seldom happens.

Can schools find a perfect way of evaluating teachers?

The Economic Policy Institute agrees with something I’ve been saying for a while: “American public schools generally do a poor job of systematically developing and evaluating teachers.”

So what does it recommend we should do? In a press release, it says,  “While there are good reasons for concern about the current system of teacher evaluation, there are also good reasons to be concerned about claims that measuring teachers’ effectiveness largely by student test scores will lead to improved student achievement.”

So what’s the place for value-added assessments? It says making them half of an evaluation system is “unwise.” In a blog post, the institute’s Andrea Orr says, “the accuracy of these analyses of student test scores is highly problematic.”

A 29-page briefing paper (PDF) published by the institute says that change in test scores “should be used only as a modest part of a broader set of evidence about teacher practice.” It mentions several objections; I list them in a rough order of decreasing important persuasiveness, in my opinion:

  1. When value-added models have been used, their performance over time suggests that they’re not quite ready for prime time: “One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%.” Now that’s a problem. While an individual teacher’s effectiveness can change over time, when such a large number of teachers change over just one year, the methodological validity of the measurement is called into question.
  2. There are many non-school factors at work: “Student test score gains are also influenced by family resources, student health, family mobility, and the influence of neighborhood peers and of classmates who may be relatively more advantaged or disadvantaged.”
  3. Student test score gains are also influenced by family resources, student health, family mobility, and the influence of neighborhood peers and of classmates who may be relatively more advantaged or disadvantaged.
  4. A variety of other factors inside the school can affect student test scores. They include: “curriculum materials, specialist or tutoring supports, class size, and other factors.” (OK, then, how about giving bonuses to the entire school staff if students excel? That recognizes the role of employees beyond the classroom teacher.)
  5. A student’s performance in subject X may be effected by his performance in subject Y; as a result, the measured effectiveness of one teacher may be tied up by the measured effectiveness of another.
  6. When schools use team teaching, block scheduling, or some other techniques, it’s hard to single out the contribution of a specific student.

The report admits that “Used with caution, value-added modeling can add useful information.”

Though I’m fairly sure the authors of the report did not mean to endorse school choice, their conclusion offers some support for that option: “Yet there are many alternatives that should be the subject of experiments. The Department of Education should actively encourage states to experiment with a range of approaches that differ in the ways in which they evaluate teacher practice and examine teachers’ contributions to student learning. These experiments should all be fully evaluated.”

A wide range of approaches? Well, that’s what we use in automobiles, where consumers can choose from the reviews offered by Car & Driver, Edmunds, Kellys, the Institute for Highway Safety and so forth. For service companies, you can look at reviews provided by Angie’s List, Yelp. Consumer Reports, and others. Yet in schooling, we’re trying to find the one reliable and valid approach to evaluating teachers.

Why? Because unlike the cases of  automobiles or carpet cleaners or doctors, when it comes to schooling, we expect everyone in a given geographic area to purchase from the same provider–the local school district. Naturally, there’s going to be an incredible amount of controversy over what the appropriate metric of quality is or should be.

I agree with the authors who say, “School districts should be given freedom to experiment, and professional organizations should assume greater responsibility for developing standards of evaluation that districts can use.” But that freedom will be most effective in a free market for schooling, with significant choice among schools, and competition for student dollars. That’s a far cry from what we have now.

Teachers union defends teacher, not student, interests

As I noted last week, the LA Times used official data to judge teachers by their effectiveness through a value-added analysis. The union in Los Angeles is not amused. It issued a statement, saying in part, “It is the height of journalistic irresponsibility to make public these deeply flawed judgments about a teacher’s effectiveness.”

Note the emphasis on teachers. How about students?

Give the Times credit for asking an important questions: Which teachers are having a measurable impact for the good, and which are not? Apparently the public wants to know; the Times says traffic to its website has soared. Even the education establishment has responded; the administration in LA has started efforts to do its own analysis–though it promises to keep the results confidential, which is to say, hide them from the public.

I’d agree that value-added analysis should be but one tool used to evaluate teachers. But for too long, teacher unions have resisted any and all efforts to use such an analysis. How important should a value-added analysis be in teacher evaluations is an open question, given the state of the art. But avoiding it altogether is something that shouldn’t be done.

The other question is “to whom should the information be disclosed?” Randi Weingarten, the president of the second-largest teacher union in the country (and ironically, the one most open to reform), says “not many people.”

“Although she said parents should have the right to know whether their child’s teacher received a satisfactory evaluation, she said the public should not have wide access to the scores.”

But if the public is paying the teacher salaries, shouldn’t it have access to the information? The local union, for its part, said releasing the information to the public, “could also have long-lasting impact on the careers of teachers.” Perhaps. But then again, are we running schools for the sake of teacher–or of children?

Is college a debt-fueled asset bubble?

President Obama wants to see the number of people with college degrees increase by 50 percent. Unfortunately, the attempt to get to that goal (through various taxpayer subsidies and public encouragements) could easily lead to wasted taxpayer funding, unnecessary personal debt, and wasted years.

Take for example, Amanda Magnus, a young woman profiled by Richard Vedder in a guest column he wrote for Forbes magazine. Magnus did get her bachelors degree, but now she has  a debt of $50,000 and few prospects for a good-paying job. Multiply that situation by thousands of graduates across the country and you’ve got a problem.

But at least Magnus has a degree; for every five students who start a four-year degree, only three finish within six years. What of the others? Most likely they never earn that degree–and quite possibly end up with a lot of debt.

This situation would be bad enough if the problems were simply confined to thousands of personal stories. But the debt incurred by college non-graduates (or even college grads who can’t get work in cinema or journalism, such as Magnu) robs the economy of valuable investments in businesses or even consumer purchases.

Even though students are taking on an increasing amount of legal responsibility through taking on more and more loans and receiving fewer grants, college imposes financial costs on society. This prompts Vedder to ask, “Why should society subsidize people to go to college for five or six years in order to take jobs requiring at most a high school education and some on-the-job training?” We might be witnessing, he warns, a “debt-fueled asset bubble.”

As someone who has not one but two college degrees–and liberal arts degrees at that–it pains me to say that Vedder is onto something. College has become an expensive screening device, a signal to employers that a person is willing to put up with a certain amount of work and discipline to get a degree.

As some people–including my professors–would say, the measure of a college education isn’t merely any extra money that a person might earn throughout his work history as a result. And they’re right. A college education can result in a person receiving the benefits of the examined life, wrestling with important philosophical questions that can’t be captured by dollars and cents.

But at some point, we–that is, policy makers and the citizens at large–need to question the utility of public subsidies to such pursuits.

Teachers make the difference–so why treat them the same?

It should be intuitively obvious that it’s better to have a good teacher than a bad one. The Los Angeles Times recently put some data analysis into that observation. Comparing two classes in what might be called a “disadvantaged neighborhood,” it said:

Yet year after year, one fifth-grade class learns far more than the other down the hall. The difference has almost nothing to do with the size of the class, the students or their parents.

It’s their teachers.

As the Times points out, districts usually treat teachers alike. And it’s not accidental. District policies and state laws–and we’re not talking just about LA or California here–ensure that it happens. Those policies, in turn, are driven by the demands of teacher unions and a mindset within the education industry that teacher effectiveness can’t be measured. Besides, goes the thinking, every teacher is excellent. Would that it were so, but there’s no reason to think that teaching is unique among all professions in having a uniformly high quality of performance among its practitioners.

The article in the Times is the first of several that will come out over time, as its researchers pour over district data. (Indeed, one of the saddest parts of this story is that the district could have done the analysis years ago, but has not.)

Compare students who had one of the top 10 percent of teachers for two years in a row with students who had one in the bottom 10 percent for two years in a row, the Times says. The first group of students had English scores that were 17 percentile points higher, and math scores that were 25 percentile points higher.

The best and the worst teachers were scattered throughout the district, and not limited to the wealthiest or the poorest schools.

And here’s the most damning fact regarding personnel policies: “Although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training, none of this had much bearing on whether they improved their students’ performance.”

Is the situation any different in Kansas? If you’re aware of a district that financially rewards teachers whose students excel, please leave a comment and tell me. Not “rewards teachers who acquire a new credential,” but teachers who, more than the average teacher, help students learn.

Another lesson from the Times’ article is that we should not assume that the “best” teachers get that way by luck of having the “right” students:  “Other studies of the district have found that students’ race, wealth, English proficiency or previous achievement level played little role in whether their teacher was effective.”

Will including statistical measures in a teacher’s evaluation lead to automatons, teachers who are act alike? Hardly. “On visits to the classrooms of more than 50 elementary school teachers in Los Angeles, Times reporters found that the most effective instructors differed widely in style and personality.”

On the other hand, a teacher widely heralded for being an effective teacher isn’t, at least according to the value-added analysis used by the Times.

There’s much more in the article that I have mentioned here. It’s definitely a must-read item for anyone with even a passing interest in education.

UPDATE

Newsweek offers another take on this topic, which includes this remarkable statement: “local laws prevent some school districts from publicly identifying their most ineffective teachers by name.” How’s that for recognizing excellent teachers?

Do public schools respond to competitive pressures?

Arizona has one of the most vigorous school choice environments in the country, with several tax-credit programs and a strong charter-school sector.

The Arizona Republic reports on school districts in the East Valley (Phoenix area) that have seen enrollment fall off in recent years. The growth of independent charter schools is one factor. Others include the collapse of the housing bubble and illegal immigrants leaving town.

One district is spending $38,000 to advertise itself via moving billboards (school buses), ads in movie theaters, and other means. Is that a waste of money? If that’s all the district is doing, yes. But if the district is creating new programs or new options for parents who don’t know about the innovations, advertising can be useful, both for the district and the parents who learn of new options.

Unfortunately, advertising is one of the easiest things for a district to do. If the district hires an outside agency, it’s easier yet: Turn it over to somebody else. Advertising is easy, as it does not require the heavy lifting required to make more fundamental changes that might attract new parents:  Get a new curriculum, hire a new set of teachers, cut the red tape and put more money into the classroom rather than administration. After all, traditional public schools are bureaucracies, with all the strengths–and weaknesses–that implies.

Still, some districts are, to their credit, may be responding. One is continuing all-day kindergarten, though state funding has been discontinued. The Republic mentions another district that “has tried to distinguish itself with specialized programs, called magnet schools,” though if you read carefully, you’ll find it’s not clear whether the schools were in fact created as a response to declining enrollment–which may yet be proof that districts still haven’t been able to respond appropriately to competitive pressures.

Kansas’ teacher retirement plan is underfunded, obsolete

It used to be that the teaching corps was made up primarily of the brightest and best of women, who had few other job options available to them. The world has changed, and it’s time–past time–for our personnel policies to change with them. One such necessary change is to the retirement system.

The group Education Sector has a new report, “Reforming Teacher Pensions for a Changing Workforce” (PDF). It says that most states have several problems with their pension systems for teachers and other government employees:

First, they’re woefully underfunded, with long-term obligations exceeding expected revenue by $450 billion. (For perspective, that’s about 12 percent of the entire budget of the U.S. government, with its far-flung military bases and many domestic programs.)

Next, and most important for our purposes here, current retirement policies are bad for education. The current approach “features elements that compel teachers to stay on the job, regardless of burnout or a desire to pursue a new career, until they reach a certain career milestone, after which they retire immediately or else begin to lose out financially.”

There are a number of political and legal obstacles to achieving both financial solvency and a retirement policy that encourages excellence in education, the authors admit. They survey the various ways in which defined benefit, defined contribution, and cash balance plans affect teachers differently.

Today’s pension schemes are built around a profession that practitioners remain in for 20-30 years with an expectation that performance and value continue to improve over time. But gains in teacher effectiveness are heavily concentrated in the early years.[So there’s less need to keep teachers employed in the same job for decades on end.] And younger workers, including teachers, are much more likely to move between careers. Solutions to the pension problem should be designed with an eye toward how the profession will look in the future, not how it looked in the past

By the way, how is Kansas doing? Not very well.  A state with a “funded ratio” of 100 percent has all the money it needs to meet its long-term obligations. A state with a ratio of over 100 percent has more than it needs. Kansas? Its ratio of 59, second-worst in the country. Only Illinois does worse. Kansas’ unfunded liability (for state employees, not just teachers) is over $8 billion, or nearly $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the state. Note that these numbers are based on data from 2008–before the economy turned south.

For a more detailed look at the financial health of KPERS, see this report (PDF) from a research center at KU.

Sen. Brownback offers weak tea of reforms

Bob Weeks, writing at Voice for Liberty in Wichita, offers a quick review and commentary on the school reforms recently proposed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Sen. Sam Brownback. I’d have to say that they leave me underwhelmed.

Kansas should enact the following reforms, none of which Brownback mentions:

Merit pay for teachers. Make teacher pay at least partially dependent on measures of teacher performance. This can include standardized test results on a value-added basis (did students learn more or less than expected over the course of a year?), but since there are some significant methodology problems in such an approach, it probably shouldn’t be the only metric. Classroom observations, for example, can supplement test results. There’s more work to do in learning from and adapting the few merit-pay programs out there in other states, but that’s no excuse for not trying. Basing teacher pay primarily or even exclusively on time-and-service and number of college credits is akin to the factory system–and I mean the factory system of Henry Ford’s day (I want your hands and your back, not your brains), not today’s factories.

Tenure reform.  Kansas law is fairly weak in the requirements for obtaining tenure–job protection that few people in the private sector have. Then again, so is the law in most states. But Kansas can lead the way.

KPERS reform. The current retirement system rewards a teacher for hanging onto his job for decades, perhaps long after he’s lost interest in teaching. That’s because the accumulation of benefits isn’t spread out evenly over time; instead, it’s loaded on the back end. That should change.

Charter school reform. Make charter schools legally and financially independent of school districts, so they serve as true alternative providers of educational options. Give them something approaching financial parity with district schools, so as to attract charter operators. Set up alternative, specialized authorities, such as a state charter board or a unit of a state university, that focuses on helping charter schools thrive.

Weighted student funding. According to Weeks, “A focus of a new funding formula will be on getting dollars into the classroom.” The state has tried dictating that a certain percentage of spending be on “instructional” purposes, but such a top-down approach invites creative accounting. The state should move to implement weighted student funding, in which money government spends should be allocated on the basis of students rather than districts. This sounds a lot like a voucher system, but it’s more of a different approach to accounting than anything else, especially if the money can be spent only on “public schools.” It does, though, depart from the current approach by making the spending focus on students rather than systems.

Those are some of the shortcomings of Brownback’s plan.  But on the plus side, Brownback has endorsed:

Alternative certification. Ways for people to get teaching certificates aside from the usual “drop everything and become a college student again” approach.

A new place for career and technical education. Not all high school students want to or should attend a four-year college program.

Brownback calls for people in Johnson County (and elsewhere for that matter) to supplement state funding with local tax levies if they wish. I’m ambivalent about that, as I’d prefer supplemental local funding to be channeled through charitable foundations or a tax credit program. The Legislature ought to fund what it deems to be an appropriate amount for education (no judges please, funding decisions are inherently subjective and political), and then parcel out money on a per-student basis, perhaps adjusted for student circumstances. (Younger students get more money than older students, for example.)

In any case, it’s good to hear a candidate start to talk about schooling, even if his ideas leave something to be desired.

Understanding homeschoolers: Who are they?

Recently I came across an interesting back-and-forth on the social and other characteristics of homeschooling families.

Robin L. West, a professor at Georgetown University, wrote a journal article titled, “The Harms of Homeschooling” [PDF].  As you might expect, that was not a popular article among the homeschooling community. West claims that homeschooled children are at a higher risk for child abuse, disease, and to put things bluntly, a lousy education.

One person who responded to West was Milton Gaither, a professor at Messiah College. Gaither, who has studied homeschooling himself, wrote a response to West on his personal website, which in turn inspired a number of comments from readers.

Homeschooling still retains a bit of a “freak show” reputation in a few quarters. And I suppose that among homeschooling parents, as you’d find in any subset of the population, you or I will find people very different from ourselves–people we’d rather not simulate or live next door to or whatever.

A self-described secular, progressive homeschooling mother replied, on Gaither’s blog, to West’s characterization of homeschoolers:

It’s not very compelling to read, over and over again, the words of people outside the homeschooling community who reluctantly concede that, well, sure, I suppose legally we have to let them homeschool, but they’re a little creepy, those people who like spending all day with their kids, so let’s just write some laws to keep an eye on ‘em.

If you’d like an introduction to the cultural controversies surrounding homeschooling, the two items I’ve linked to might be a good place to start. One lesson from observing this debate may be that “education” is often not about whether or not children understand logic, how to do math, or know key facts, but whether they are spending their time in ways that are approved by the powerful.

Tutoring for academic gains and profit

Public schools promise an education for everyone, but they don’t always deliver. Hence the rise of for-profit tutoring companies. Here are a few of the largest ones that I’m aware of:

Kumon: Focuses on math and reading. Over 1,300 locations in the United States. I couldn’t get a specific number of locations within Kansas, but there are 5 on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro area, and one in Wichita.

Sylvan Learning: Six locations in Kansas; 900 company-wide.

Huntington Learning Centers: About 400 nationwide, though none in Kansas or the Kansas City metro.

Mathnasium: The company has 200 locations, including two in Kansas.

Ivy Insiders: It focuses on ACT and SAT test preparation, as well as preparing for AP tests. It has a substantial online presence.

Learning RX: With 70 locations nationwide, and one in Kansas, the company promises to deliver “cognitive skills training.”

The existence of such companies offers several lessons. As I’ve said, is that public schools don’t meet the needs of everyone. It says “we’ll take your taxes and tell you where your child will attend school.” But sometimes, private, voluntary exchanges of money for services fulfill the needs of families. There is, contrary to many in the education establishment, a role for profit.

In district size, how large is too large?

While people in various states debate whether school districts should consolidate, a less frequently asked question is, “how large is too large?” While doing some research on another question, I came across a list of the biggest school districts in the country.

During the 2003-2004 school year, 87 school districts had more than 50,000 students enrolled. (In Kansas, USD 259 Wichita ranked 91, at just under 49,000 students.)

At that size, economies of scale disappear and size becomes a liability rather than an asset.

Bloat on Campus

A new report on American colleges and universities reveals a problem with bloat:

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent.

The problem, says author Jay P. Greene, is the third-party payment system, in which governments pay a substantial portion of the costs of running universities. Of course, in K-12 education, governments pay all the costs of operation. While many parents of K-12 students do pay  taxes (along with everyone else), even they don’t pay fees directly to the school, aside from incidentals such as lab fees or fees for participating on sports teams.

For many reasons, some of them good, we don’t expect poor families to pay for the costs of educating their children. That’s why we have government-run public school systems. But at least a voucher system or its equivalent would make those parents (and in fact, all parents) acutely aware of the costs of schooling. That, in turn, would provide some market discipline on the costs of schools. After all, which is more powerful: 1,000 parents who are watching the dollars and cents spent for their children’s education, or 100 members of a legislature?

U.S. Supreme Court to hear case on Arizona tax credit program

The constitutionality of school voucher programs under the U.S. Constitution has been long-established, under the 2002 case known as Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which arose out of a program in Cleveland, Ohio.

Arizona takes a different approach: Donate to an organization that gives scholarships that students can use to attend a private school, and you get a tax credit. The organizations are called “student tuitioning organizations,” as you might expect, they’re a hit with both donors and the families that benefit from the resulting scholarships. Since Arizona adopted this approach in 1997, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have followed suit.

The ACLU and others have challenged the constitutionality of the Arizona program, saying that it creates an establishment of religion. Some students use the scholarships at religious schools.

The Court will hear oral arguments in October, and deliver its opinion in May or June, 2011.

The Arizona Republic has more on the controversy. The Goldwater Institute is a party to the lawsuit, on the side of families receiving STO money.

“Virtually None” of Kansas Black 8th-grade boys read at advanced level

The Schott Foundation for Public Education has good news for Kansas, of sorts, when it comes to educating black children:

Black Male and White Male, non-Latino, students in Kansas in 2007/8 graduated at higher rates than the national averages for each, as they had in 2005/6. The racial gap is narrower in Kansas than the national average.

That’s the good news.

And then there’s some not-so-good news. By the foundation’s reckoning, the graduation rate for black boys in the state is only 60 percent, while for white boys it’s 85 percent.

Academic performance is another area of concern: “Virtually none of the state’s Black Male students read at the Advanced level in Grade 8.”