Thinking bigger about schools

Bob Herbert in the NY Times:

Our Schools Must Do Better

The latest federal test results showed some improvement in public school math and reading scores, but there is no reason to celebrate these minuscule gains. We need so much more. A four-year college degree is now all but mandatory for building and sustaining a middle-class standard of living in the U.S.

Over the next 20 or 30 years, when today’s children are raising children of their own in an ever more technologically advanced and globalized society, the educational requirements will only grow more rigorous and unforgiving.

A one- or two-point gain in fourth grade test scores here or there is not meaningful in the face of that overarching 21st-century challenge.

What’s needed is a wholesale transformation of the public school system….

“We’re not good at thinking about magnitudes,” said Thomas Kane, a professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “We’ve got a bunch of little things that we think are moving in the right direction, but we haven’t stepped back and thought, ‘O.K., how big an improvement are we really talking about?’ ” Professor Kane and I were discussing what he believes are the two areas that have the greatest potential for radically improving the way children are taught in the U.S. Both are being neglected by the education establishment.

The first is teacher quality, a topic that gets talked about incessantly. It has been known for decades that some teachers have huge positive effects on student achievement, and that others do poorly. The positive effect of the highest performing teachers on underachieving students is startling.

What is counterintuitive, but well documented, is that paper qualifications, such as teacher certification, have very little to do with whatever it is that makes good teachers effective.

“Regrettably,” said Professor Kane, who has studied this issue extensively, “we’ve never taken that research fact seriously in our teacher policy. We’ve done just the opposite.”

The second area to be mined for potentially transformative effects is the wide and varied field of alternative school models. We should be rigorously studying those schools that appear to be having the biggest positive effects on student achievement. Are the effects real? If so, what accounts for them?

Adjusting for demographics, our local school district (Cabrillo Unified, on the California coast south of San Francisco) ranks just about average among California schools. California ranks close to last nationwide, so that’s no cause for celebration. And the US overall ranks well down the list of developed countries.

The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), to cite one example, is a charter school network that has consistently gotten extraordinary academic results from low-income students. It has worked in cities big and small, and in rural areas. Like other successful models, it has adopted a longer school day and places great demands on its teachers and students.

I know nothing about KIPP, but taking Herbert at face value, we shouldn’t be distracted by the “charter school” label. We know by now that charters do just about as well, or as badly, as our regular public schools. We should be verifying that models like this really work, and try to apply those models to more schools.

Said Professor Kane: “These alternative models that involve the longer school day and a much more dramatic intervention for kids are promising. If that’s what it takes, then we need to know that, and sooner rather than later.”

Children Left Behind

Derek Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach (University of Chicago) discuss their recent paper, “Left Behind by Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-based Accountability”.

Roughly two decades ago, education policy makers in the United States began to rely more heavily on standardized test scores as performance metrics for teachers and schools. During the late 1980s and through the 1990s, many states adopted test-based accountability systems that spelled out rewards and sanctions for teachers and principals as a function of the performance of their students on standardized tests, and when the federal government adopted the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, test-based accountability became a nation-wide policy. The proponents of this development cite the need to bring “business practices” into public schools and the need to make schools “data driven” in ways that mirror the practices of private-sector companies.

In recent work [1], we explore a different effect of test-based accountability systems on the allocation of teacher effort, and we find evidence consistent with the hypothesis that test-based accountability systems not only shape decisions of teachers concerning what to teach but also whom to teach. We show that even though advocates of NCLB offered it as a remedy for disadvantaged children who receive poor service from their public schools, the design of NCLB almost guarantees that the most academically disadvantaged children will not benefit from its implementation and may actually be harmed.

Recently, the federal Department of Education allowed a few states to calculate AYP based, in part, on growth in student achievement during a school year rather than levels only. This is a step in the right direction, but without careful design work, these systems may simply create a different set of unintended effort distortions among teachers. Knowledge does not come on a natural scale, and given any particular scale, gains of a given size may be easier to achieve at some points on the scale than others. Thus, something as apparently pedestrian as the scaling of exams could have significant and unintended consequences for the allocation of teacher effort to different types of students if states do not carefully design value-added versions of AYP.

Because teachers are charged with fostering knowledge, character, and other things that are hard to measure, it is not obvious that incentive systems built around objective performance measures are even desirable strategies for monitoring teachers. Test-based accountability systems have nonetheless enjoyed strong support because school principals and others who monitor the performance of teachers in public schools are seen as agents of large bureaucracies that, especially in cities, have a long record of disappointing results. Nonetheless, our empirical results and the insights gained from research on the economics of organizations suggest that policy makers must tackle difficult design questions in order to construct accountability systems that deliver quality instruction for all students regardless of their aptitude and prior achievement. Policy makers should either take these design issues more seriously or follow the lead of many private sector firms and look for other ways to monitor and motivate teachers.

(Via Mark Thoma)

$6 billion “windfall” for schools?

From today’s SF Chronicle:

California schools are in line for a $6 billion windfall over the next five years, and interest groups are already lining up to get their share, promoting ideas like improving high schools, paying teachers more, and helping urban districts with severely declining enrollment.

The money is anticipated because K-12 enrollment is expected to drop while the state’s general fund revenues continue to increase. Several factors are contributing to the declining enrollment: Children of Baby Boomers are exiting the 5-to-17 age group, fewer people are moving into the state, and there has been a decline recently in the state’s birthrate.

How much of a “windfall” are we talking about here? With 6 million students in the system, $6 billion comes to $1000 per student. Spread that over five years, and we’re looking at $200 per student per year (never mind that we also have to assume that the economy stays healthy).

My local district, not atypical, spends about $7000 per student now. An extra $200 would of course be welcome, but it’s less than a 3% boost. Some windfall.

(Falling enrollment, by the way, has been a way of life in my district for the last ten years.)

School parcel taxes are bad public policy

Last June, a parcel tax proposal by my local school district failed, for the fifth time in recent memory. This Tuesday, Californians will vote on Proposition 88, an initiative that seeks a perpetual statewide $50/year parcel tax.

Sidebar: California School Funding

California school districts are primarily funded by the state, through a complicated formula that needn’t concern us here. As a consequence of Proposition 13 (1978), school districts are limited to parcel taxes to raise money locally for operating expenses.

In California, parcel taxes differ from ad valorem property taxes in that they’re assessed at a flat rate per parcel. Amounts vary; my local district’s requests have varied from $75 to $250 per year, generally for a period of five years.

(This 1997 report from the Little Hoover Commission is nearly ten years old, but it’s still the best treatment of K-12 funding in California that I’ve ever seen.)

Reliance on local parcel taxes to supplement public education funding is bad public policy, for two main reasons.

Parcel taxes are regressive

First, parcel taxes are regressive. Whether you live in a 10,000 square foot McMansion in Beverly Hills or in a shotgun shack on a postage-stamp lot, your parcel tax assessment is the same (if you’re only renting the shack, the parcel tax will almost certainly show up as a rent increase).

Parcel taxes are inequitable

Second, affluent school districts are much more likely than poor districts to be able to pass substantial parcel taxes, and so supplement California’s rather low level of state funding for education, leaving poorer districts stuck at the bottom. This flies in the face of the state supreme court’s Serrano decisions in 1971 and 1976 that basing school funding primarily on local property taxes is unconstitutionally inequitable.

Maybe in an emergency…

There is some merit in the argument that, during an acute budget emergency, a short-term parcel tax may be justified on the grounds that it’s the only recourse available to the district (or at any rate the least bad recourse). I accepted that argument, for example (and made it myself) in 2003, though not in 2006.

55%: even worse

Various people have advocated lowering the election threshold for a parcel tax to 55%, from the current Prop 13-mandated 2/3, as was done some years back for facilities bonds. That’s a bad idea, and more than a little disingenuous. Lowering the threshold for parcel tax measures requires a constitutional amendment. But once we’re amending the constitution, we’re no longer bound by the strictures of Proposition 13, and are free to restructure public school funding equitably. That is, if we’re going to pass a constitutional amendment, why not fix school funding right?

Fix it right.

K-12 funding in California is broken and needs to be fixed, and one way or another that will require higher taxes. But parcel taxes, whether local or statewide, are the wrong way to do it.

What about California Proposition 88?

A statewide parcel tax, as proposed by Proposition 88, largely avoids my second criticism; it will be collected (and presumably distributed) more or less uniformly across the state. On the other hand, it does nothing to address existing inter-district inequity.

Proposition 88 introduces a variation not found in local parcel tax proposals: no time limit. Local parcel taxes run for a few years, often five, and generally in the range of three to seven. But the statewide parcel tax proposed by Proposition 88 has no time limit at all. It would become a permanent part of California public school financing, embedded in the state constitution.

Because Proposition 88 includes a constitutional amendment, it could have implemented a more progressive revenue source (such as income taxes) instead of relying on regressive parcel taxes. It’s a bad measure, and should be defeated.

CUSD Measure S Parcel Tax: Argument Against

In the previous post, we reviewed the ballot argument for Measure S, and its rebuttal. Here we look at the argument for the measure, and its rebuttal. See this post for an overview of CUSD’s latest parcel tax request.

Arguments Against Measure S
Cabrillo Unified School District wants another $875 from local homeowners with this proposed tax. Worse yet, they plan to spend the money on operating expenses. Will they ask for more when this tax expires? What do you think?

The argument is referring to the total run of the proposed parcel tax: $175/year for five years is $875.

The school district pleads poverty, but what do its financial reports show?

Data from
1993-4 2003-4 Increase (%)
Revenue (in $millions) 14.1 23.5 66
Number of Students (ADA) 3430 3600 5
Books,Supplies/Student ($) 184 215 17
Employee Salaries, Benefits
(in $millions)
11.7 20.4 74

Inflation over that time was just 27%. And in 1994, we still had school buses!

These numbers are correct, though the urban CPI increase in the SF Bay Area is a more appropriate figure for inflation, and is 34% rather than 27%. The share of revenue going to employee expenses has risen over time, and is due at least in part to higher benefit costs–especially for health care.

Ten years ago, voters gave the school district a $35 million bond for an “urgently needed” middle school. We’re still waiting for it.

Much of the 1996 Measure K bond money has been spent on facilities improvements at all the CUSD sites, including the middle school, and the middle school rebuild is finally under way. It’s true that a new middle school was an explicit goal of Measure K, and that it appears that it will ultimately have taken 15 years from the passage of the bond to complete the middle school.

On the hand, the urgency of the new middle school was substantially reduced as enrollment unexpectedly shrank, and the barriers to spending the parcel tax proceeds are much lower than those to building a new school.

Throwing more money at this district will make things worse, not better.

Local taxpayers already fund students generously ($4427 here versus $2115 statewide, in local taxes per student, 2003-4). And if the district ever gets around to spending its $35 million bond money, we’ll pay for that, too.

Much of the bond has in fact been spent on facilities improvements, and we’re paying for the entire bond regardless. Because much of our school funding comes from the state general fund, local taxes per student is not a particularly useful statistic.

Tell them: Enough is enough.


/s/ Donald F. Pettengill, March 17, 2006, Treasurer, Coastside Citizens for Good Government

Rebuttal to Arguments Against

Like anything else, if we want great schools, we have to invest in them.

Our opponent is right + operating a school district costs more today than in 1993. Years of cutbacks in state funding in the face of rising costs continue to challenge our local schools financially.

Actually, district revenue per student has more than kept pace with increasing costs (ie inflation). Funding may not be adequate, but it has kept pace with costs.

Proponents of Measure S argue separately that health benefit costs have risen faster than overall inflation, and additionally that district revenue has fallen compared to anticipated revenue, if not compared to actual historical revenue.

Funding formulas based on geographics mean that Coastside schools receive less funding than the statewide average and 30-50% less than wealthier districts over the hill. Consequently, our schools struggle to retain experienced teachers and support excellent academics. Coastside schools nonetheless are moving in the right direction.

CUSD receives about 92% of the average per-student funding across California unified school districts. The proposed tax will lift it to about 97% of average.

This figure may be misleading, though, because Bay Area living costs are considerably higher that the state average, and living costs (in the form of employee salaries and benefits) account for over 80% of the district’s operating budget. Additionally, when cost of living is taken into consideration, California ranks near the bottom of school funding nationwide, so the California average is not in itself a very ambitious target.

Groundbreaking for the new Cunha Middle School has begun.

A slight exaggeration. While a groundbreaking ceremony has been held, actual construction is not likely to begin for another year or so. However, architectural work is well under way, and it looks like the school will actually be built, albeit much later than originally planned.

Student performance is strong and demonstrates sustained improvement over the past six years in the Academic Performance Index (API), a statewide system for measuring scholastic achievement.

To ensure the academic excellence our students need to succeed in a competitive, demanding, and rapidly changing world, we need Measure S.

Measure S supports high-priority academic needs by focusing on excellent teachers, smaller class sizes, and basic and advanced academic programs, including additional classes in science, math, technology and literacy.

Independent annual audits will provide strict accountability. Measure S funds are controlled locally and cannot be taken by the state.

The bottom line + Measure S will help students meet and exceed high academic standards. That’s a goal we all can agree on.

Please Vote Yes on Measure S.

/s/ Lenny Mendonca March 24, 2006, Chair, Bay Area Economic Forum
/s/ Ellen Wright March 24, 2006, Former Chair, California Commission on Academic Standards
/s/ Jerry Trenter March 24, 2006, Science Teacher at Cunha Middle School
/s/ Charise McHugh March 24, 2006, President & CEO, Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Bureau
/s/ Kevin Lansing March 27, 2006, Senior Economist

CUSD Measure S Parcel Tax: Argument For

(See the previous post for an overview of Measure S, CUSD’s latest parcel tax request.)

In this post, we look at the ballot argument for Measure S, along with its rebuttal. My intention is to refrain from taking sides, but to clarify ambiguous or potentially misleading language in the Measure S ballot arguments. Feel free to comment here or by email; I’ll update these posts as needed.

Arguments For Measure S
Measure S is needed for two priorities: great teachers and great academics.

Measure S will fund additional teachers and important academic classes and programs in order to improve student achievement in the classroom:

Measure S will:

  • Help recruit and retain qualified, experienced teachers;

This description differs somewhat from that of the actual measure, more clearly suggesting that tax proceeds will be used for teacher salary increases, as opposed to in-service training. The ballot language, not the ballot argument, is controlling, though.

  • Strengthen students’ academic foundation by adding additional classes in science, math, technology and literacy;
  • Guarantee small class sizes from kindergarten until third grade so young students get individualized instruction;

K-3 class size reduction (CSR) is already funded, and is unlikely to lose its funding. This provision raises the question of what the existing $540,000 in K-3 CSR funding would be used for if the tax proceeds were used instead to fund CSR.

Measure S proponents have suggested privately that $120,000 in School Improvement Plan (SIP) funding now being diverted to CSR would be returned to the site councils to be spent on more traditional SIP purposes (classroom aides, librarians, technology coordinators, etc). This is reasonable, but should have been specified in the measure.

  • Reduce class sizes in middle and high schools to improve student achievement;
  • Help teachers continue to improve by funding staff training programs;
  • Provide funding for books

All Measure S funds will be used locally to improve schools in the Coastside and Kings Mountain communities. No funds can be taken by the state. Independent annual audits will provide strict accountability over the use of these public funds.

Our local schools strive to provide excellent teachers in every classroom.

We have dedicated and creative teachers, but our schools struggle to compete with neighboring districts “over the hill,” which can hire more teachers, support more programs and offer higher salaries. Years of state funding cuts, rising costs and mandates have eroded our district’s ability to fund the academic programs our students need to succeed in a competitive world.

Costs have risen, of course, but “years of state funding cuts” is somewhat misleading. CUSD’s per-student revenue, adjusted for inflation, has increased more than 20% in the last 10 years, though last five years have been essentially flat, increasing only 1%. In that period, services such as busing have been cut, so that the revenue available to be spent in the classroom has increased even faster.

State funding may well be inadequate, but it has been rising, not falling.

Proponents of Measure S argue separately that health benefit costs have risen faster than overall inflation, and additionally that district revenue has fallen compared to anticipated revenue, if not compared to actual historical revenue.

By focusing more resources on additional teachers, basic and advanced academic programs, and smaller class sizes, Measure S will make it easier for students to learn and teachers to teach, thereby improving students’ success in meeting and exceeding academic standards.

Measure S also offers senior citizen exemptions. The measure automatically expires in five years and can’t be extended without voter approval.

We support Measure S for our children, our community and our future. On the Coastside, we deserve great schools. Please vote Yes on Measure S!

/s/ Victor S. Tigerman, March 15, 2006, Senior Coastsider
/s/ Cameron K. Palmer, March 16, 2006, Half Moon Bay Business owner
/s/ John H. Muller, March 16, 2006, Farmer
/s/ April A. Vargas, March 15, 2006, Environmental Activist
/s/ Jayne Battey, March 17, 2006, Parent Volunteer, Half Moon Bay High School & Cunha Intermediate School

Rebuttal to Arguments For
“Years of state funding cuts”? Look at state funding trends:

State K-12 Budget (General fund, billions)
1999-0 2001-2 2002-3 2003-4 2004-5 2005-6 2006-7
$27.5 $30.6 $30.7 $29.3 $34.0 $36.5 $39.8

These figures are misleading. It would be more fair to present inflation-adjusted per-student funding. As we’ve noted above, inflation-adjusted revenue per student has risen about 20% over the last 10 years, and 1% over the last five. It is neither falling, as claimed by the proponents of Measure S, nor rising as fast as its opponents suggest.

A parcel tax now, as state funding ramps up, is unnecessary. In 1994, California spent “only” $15.6 billion for K-14. These long-term increases are huge, but throwing money at our schools’ problems hasn’t worked; reform is what’s needed. And that’s the exact opposite of Measure S:

“Recruit and retain qualified, experienced teachers” – business as usual. How about, instead, paying teachers for performance, rather than longevity? Paying teachers in short supply (math, science) more? Paying AP teachers more than elementary school teachers?

“Reduce class sizes in middle and high schools” – popular with teachers and their unions, but studies show class size is far less important than teacher quality + which will be lowered to find the extra teachers needed! Other countries choose larger classes + and better teachers. American 12th graders were dead last in Physics and tied for last place in Math, in the 1998 TIMSS.

It is correct that there is little if any hard evidence that K-3 class size reduction, now nearly universal in California, has had a measurable effect on student performance. On the other hand, it’s clear that CUSD class sizes in the upper grades are often very large, with middle school teachers often seeing 160 or more students per day.

These are complex questions that are not likely to be resolved in the ballot arguments over a parcel tax measure.

“Provide funding for books” – As usual, at the bottom of the heap. Cabrillo Unified School District has seen huge increases in funding, but we’ve seen little for it + as with the middle school bond debacle, or the ending of student busing. Until voters insist upon fiscal responsibility and meaningful reforms, district schools won’t improve for our children.

Send a clear message: Vote NO on Measure S!

/s/ Donald F. Pettengill, March 27, 2006, Treasurer, Coastside Citizens for Good Government

Regardless of revenue trends, which neither the proponents nor opponents of Measure S represent as accurately as they might, the critical question is whether current funding levels are adequate, and the extent to which the proposed 5% increase will significantly improve the quality of education in the district. The two sides obviously disagree, but neither presents much in the way of supporting evidence.

District revenue (inflation-adjusted, per student) has risen 20% in the last ten years, and CUSD receives about 92% of the statewide average funding for unified school districts. School funding in California is low compared to other states, especially when taking our cost of living into account, and the cost of living in the Bay Area is higher than the California average.

How serious this funding problem is, and whether Measure S is the appropriate means to address it, must be answered by the voters on June 6.

Next: the argument against Measure S, and its rebuttal.

CUSD Measure S Parcel Tax

The Cabrillo Unified School District is asking for a $175 parcel tax on the upcoming June ballot. Measure S is the district’s fifth attempt at a parcel tax in recent memory; the preceding four all failed, more or less narrowly, to achieve the 2/3 vote required in California since Prop 13 for such taxes.

In this post, I’ll look at the provisions of Measure S itself. In subsequent posts, I’ll take a close look at the ballot arguments for and against the measure.

First, the ballot question.

To further student academic achievement by retaining and recruiting highly qualified teachers, supporting their ability to focus on individual student needs through lower class sizes and providing academic resources at all grade levels, shall the Cabrillo Unified School District levy an annual tax for 5 years of $175 on improved parcels, $30 a year on unimproved parcels, with senior citizen exemptions and annual audits?

The full text of the measure continues:

Pursuant section 50075.1(a) of the Government Code, the proceeds of the special tax shall be spent to provide and maintain academic achievement priorities through the following:

1. A highly qualified and well-trained teaching staff;
2. Small classes in kindergarten through third grade;
3. Lower class sizes at the middle school and the high school;
4. An increased range of academic programs at the high school level;
5. Academic programs including, but not limited to, honors classes, science, math and technology courses, literacy programs, extracurricular programs, materials and supplies, and staff development time to promote coordination of teaching efforts.

Basis of Tax

The special tax shall be levied on all parcels of taxable real property in the District, as defined below, for 5 years starting with the 2006-2007 property tax year, at a rate of $175 on improved parcels and $30 on unimproved parcels.

“Parcel of Taxable Real Property” shall be defined as any unit of real property in the District that receives a separate tax bill for ad valorem property taxes from the County Tax Collector’s Office. All property that is otherwise exempt from or upon which are levied no ad valorem property taxes in any year shall also not be subject to the special tax in such year.

An exemption shall be granted on any parcel owned by one or more persons aged 65 years or older as of July 1 of any applicable tax year who occupies said parcel as a principal residence, upon annual application for exemption.

Any such parcels which are contiguous, used solely for owneroccupied single family residential purposes and held under identical ownership, shall, upon approval of an annual application of the owners of such parcel, be treated as a single parcel for purposes of this special tax.

If a parcel of taxable real property has an assessment for improvement(s) on the property, such parcel shall be considered an improved parcel for purposes of this special tax. If a parcel of taxable real property has no assessment for improvement(s), or an assessment only for personal property (such as a manufactured or mobile home), such property shall be considered an unimproved parcel for purposes of this special tax.

With respect to all general property tax matters within its jurisdiction, the County Tax Assessor shall make all final determinations of tax exemption or relief for any reason, and that decision shall be final and binding. With respect to matters specific to the levy of the special tax, including the Senior Citizen Exemption and the classification of property for purposes of calculating the tax, the decisions of a District administrative review panel shall be final and binding.

Pursuant to California Constitution article XIIIB and applicable laws, the appropriations limit for the District will be adjusted periodically by the aggregate sum collected by levy of this special tax.

Accountability Measures

The proceeds of the special tax shall be applied only to the specific purposes identified above. The proceeds of the special tax shall be deposited into a fund, which shall be kept separate and apart from other funds of the District. No later than January 1 of each year while the tax is in effect, the District shall prepare and file with the Board of Education a report/audit detailing the amount of funds collected and expended, and the status of any project authorized to be funded by this measure.


The Board of Education hereby declares, and the voters by approving this measure concur, that every section and part of this measure has independent value, and the Board of Education and the voters would have adopted each provision hereof regardless of every other provision hereof.

Upon approval of this measure by the voters, should any part of the measure or taxing formula be found by a court of competent jurisdiction to be invalid for any reason, all remaining parts of the measure or taxing formula hereof shall remain in full force and effect to the fullest extent allowed by law.

The general provisions are unremarkable. $175 strikes a middle ground in the range of taxes the district has unsuccessfully requested in the past. The $30 tax on unimproved parcels is new, and tries to strike a compromise between taxing these parcels at the full $175 rate and not taxing them at all. It would raise about 10% of the total proceeds of the tax.

If passed, Measure S is expected by the district generate about $1.3 million for five years, a 5% revenue increase over the district’s current budget of approximately $25 million.

The senior and contiguous parcel provisions are routine. Taxpayers will need to apply annually for the exemptions.

With two exceptions, the proposed uses for the tax proceeds are self-explanatory. The first exception is use #1, “A highly qualified and well-trained teaching staff”. This might mean additional training for the existing staff, or higher salaries for the existing staff (in order to attract and retain such teachers), or some combination of both.

Use #2, “Small classes in kindergarten through third grade”, is more difficult to understand. The district already implements K-3 class size reduction (CSR), funded by a combination of categorical CSR funds from the state, with the district making up the balance with about $540,000 from its general fund and other categorical programs. This funding is already in the budget, and (unlike prior years) is in no real danger of going unfunded. If the $540,000 is funded from the parcel tax, it effectively frees up $540,000 in mostly unrestricted funds to be spent on items not listed as parcel tax uses. This should be clarified by the district.

My analysis of the ballot argument for Measure S, and its rebuttal, is here.

My analysis of the ballot argument against Measure S, and its rebuttal, is here.

Public vs private schools

“The performance of private schools actually turns out to be worse or about the same as that of public schools, not better”

Kevin Drum summarizes a study of private vs public school performance, based on an analysis of 2003 NAEP results, with links to the study itself, as well as to a NY Times article about it.

Do private schools do a better job of educating our kids than public schools? Lots of people think so. But a new, large-scale statistical analysis of the 2003 NAEP test results suggests that when you control for things like income, race, home environment, and so forth, the performance of private schools actually turns out to be worse or about the same as that of public schools, not better.

Of course, parents send their kids to privates schools in large part in order to “control for things like income, race, home environment, and so forth,” but study goes more to the question of whether the privatization of education is likely to have any benefit for the rest of us.

No Child Left Behind Fails to Close Achievement Gap

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday had a nice piece by Claudio Sanchez; give it a listen.

Weekend Edition – Sunday, January 8, 2006 · Four years after the No Child Left Behind Act became law, test results show progress in some areas. But many schools are not reducing the achievement gap between white and minority students, and closing that gap may take longer than the law’s requirements.

In the piece, we hear from Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute. In the introduction to his book, Class and Schools, Rothstein argues,

Good teachers, high expectations, standards, accountability, and inspiration are not enough
As is argued in this book, the influence of social class characteristics is probably so powerful that schools cannot overcome it, no matter how well trained are their teachers and no matter how well designed are their instructional programs and climates. But saying that a social class achievement gap should be expected is not to make a logical statement. The fact that social class differences are associated with, and probably cause, a big gap in academic performance does not mean that, in theory, excellent schools could not offset these differences. Indeed, there are many claims today, made by policy makers and educators, that higher standards, better teachers, more accountability, better discipline, or other effective practices can close the achievement gap.

The most prominent of these claims has been made by a conservative policy institute (the Heritage Foundation), by a liberal advocacy group (the Education Trust), by economists and statisticians who claim to have shown that better teachers do in fact close the gap, by prominent educators, and by social critics. Many (although not all) of the instructional practices promoted by these commentators are well designed, and these practices probably do succeed in delivering better educations to some lower-class children. But a careful examination of each claim that a particular school or practice has closed the race or social class achievement gap shows that the claim is unfounded.

In some cases, the claim fails because it rests on the misinterpretation of test scores; in other cases, the claim fails because the successful schools identified have selective student bodies. Remember that the achievement gap is a phenomenon of averages — it compares the average achievement of lower- and middle-class students. In both social classes, some students perform well above or below the average performance of their social class peers. If schools can select (or attract) a disproportionate share of lower-class students whose performance is above average for their social class, those schools can appear to be quite successful. Many of them are excellent schools and should be commended. But their successes provide no evidence that their instructional approaches would close the achievement gap for students who are average for their social class groups.

For nearly half a century, the association of social and economic disadvantage with a student achievement gap has been well known to economists, sociologists, and educators. Most, however, have avoided the obvious implication of this understanding — raising the achievement of lower-class children requires amelioration of the social and economic conditions of their lives, not just school reform. Perhaps this small volume can spur a reconsideration of this needlessly neglected opportunity.

No child’s behind left: the test

Yes, but which people?

Greg Palast:

New York — Today and tomorrow every 8-year-old in the state of New York will take a test. It’s part of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind program. The losers will be left behind to repeat the third grade. Try it yourself. This is from the state’s actual practice test. Ready, class?

“The year 1999 was a big one for the Williams sisters. In February, Serena won her first pro singles championship. In March, the sisters met for the first time in a tournament final. Venus won. And at doubles tennis, the Williams girls could not seem to lose that year.”

And here’s one of the four questions:

“The story says that in 1999, the sisters could not seem to lose at doubles tennis. This probably means when they played

A) two matches in one day
B) against each other
C) with two balls at once
D) as partners”

OK, class, do you know the answer? (By the way, I didn’t cheat: there’s nothing else about “doubles” in the text.)

My kids go to a New York City school in which more than half the students live below the poverty line. There is no tennis court.

There are no tennis courts in the elementary schools of Bed-Stuy or East Harlem. But out in the Hamptons, every school has a tennis court. In Forest Hills, Westchester and Long Island’s North Shore, the schools have nearly as many tennis courts as the school kids have live-in maids.

Now, you tell me, class, which kids are best prepared to answer the question about “doubles tennis”? The 8-year-olds in Harlem who’ve never played a set of doubles or the kids whose mommies disappear for two hours every Wednesday with Enrique the tennis pro?

Is this test a measure of “reading comprehension” — or a measure of wealth accumulation?

If you have any doubts about what the test is measuring, look at the next question, based on another part of the text, which reads (and I could not make this up):

“Most young tennis stars learn the game from coaches at private clubs. In this sentence, a club is probably a

F) baseball bat
G) tennis racquet
H) tennis court
J) country club”

Helpfully, for the kids in our ‘hood, it explains that a “country club” is a, “place where people meet.” Yes, but which people?

Why the United States Should Look to Japan for Better Schools

“Faced with lagging test scores and pressure from the federal government, some school officials have embraced the dangerous but all-too-common view that millions of children are incapable of high-level learning.”

Brent Staples writes in the NY Times,

No Child Left Behind was based on the premise that embarrassing test scores and government sanctions would simply force schools to improve educational outcomes for all students. What has become clear, however, is that school systems and colleges of education have no idea how to generate changes in teaching that would allow students to learn more effectively. Indeed, state systems that have typically filled teaching positions by grabbing any warm body they could find are only just beginning to think about the issue at all.

Faced with lagging test scores and pressure from the federal government, some school officials have embraced the dangerous but all-too-common view that millions of children are incapable of high-level learning. This would be seen as heresy in Japan. But it is fundamental to the American system, which was designed in the 19th century to provide rigorous education for only about a fifth of the students, while channeling the rest into farm and factory jobs that no longer exist.

The United States will need a radically different mind set to catch up with high-performing competitors. For starters we will need to focus as never before on the process through which teachers are taught to teach. We will also need to drop the arrogance and xenophobia that have blinded us to successful models developed abroad.

Real Education Reform…in Denver

“The teachers union agreed. Why? Because it was brought into the discussion from the start as a partner.”

Michael Hiltzik blogs over at the LA Times,

While the crack education reformers in Gov. Schwarzenegger’s office have been busy picking fights with teachers, Denver took a step Tuesday toward real reform.

The voters there approved, by a handy 60-40 margin, a $25-million annual property tax increase to fund a new teacher pay system that may actually improve teacher performance. Here’s a curious fact: The teachers union agreed. Why? Because it was brought into the discussion from the start as a partner.

Denver ProComp links teacher pay to performance, but it’s not designed to punish. Rather, it’s a way to involve the teachers in setting their own goals and meeting them. Nor does it encourage them to set fake goals easily met—the system encourages them to be ambitious, and gives them the tools to succeed.

Homework considered evil

“Say it flat out: homework is most likely evil.”

Brad Plumer:

But let’s do Waldman one better and say it flat out: homework is most likely evil. Yes, evil. Any educational system that relies on parents at home to help with the “learning process” will only end up perpetuating inequality, as long as some parents can help their kids and some cannot; as long as some parents can speak English and some cannot. And homework, for all its uselessness, is far more likely to put undue stress on family life than anything else. Of course, let’s also be honest, the whole point of public school isn’t to turn students into well-educated citizens but rather to produce good consumers and dutiful worker bees—people with short attention spans who follow authority, care deeply about status, and will attend with all due diligence to humiliatingly pointless tasks. Get used to working overtime, kid, you’ll need it. In that regard, homework is indispensible.

San Diego charter schools

Marsha Sutton, education writer for Voice of San Diego, has a four-part series, Unraveling the Mystery of Charter Schools, that takes an interesting, if somewhat uncritical, look at the role of charters and their recent proliferation.

Part One: Chartering a course for the future
Part Two: San Diego — A Leader in the Charter School Movement
Part Three: ‘Education Is Our Business’ — Charters and Unions
Part Four: Teachers Provide the Key to Improved Learning

SAT Essay Test Rewards Length and Ignores Errors

“It appeared to me that regardless of what a student wrote, the longer the essay, the higher the score.”

A couple of years ago, the College Board added essay writing to the SAT college entrance exams.

…when the new SAT was announced two years ago. College Board officials described it as a tool that could transform American education, forcing schools to better teach writing. A “great social experiment,” Time magazine said.

Cynics say the new essay is window dressing added to placate California officials who in 2001 were calling the old SAT outmoded and were threatening to stop requiring it. In a recent paper, Edward White of the University of Arizona notes, “As long ago as 1999, in College Board Report No. 99-3, a research team pointed out that ‘writing assessments based on a single essay, even those read and scored twice, have extremely low reliability.’ ”

The situation sounds even worse than the cynics might have feared.

IN March, Les Perelman attended a national college writing conference and sat in on a panel on the new SAT writing test. Dr. Perelman is one of the directors of undergraduate writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He did doctoral work on testing and develops writing assessments for entering M.I.T. freshmen. He fears that the new 25-minute SAT essay test that started in March – and will be given for the second time on Saturday – is actually teaching high school students terrible writing habits.

“It appeared to me that regardless of what a student wrote, the longer the essay, the higher the score,” Dr. Perelman said. A man on the panel from the College Board disagreed. “He told me I was jumping to conclusions,” Dr. Perelman said. “Because M.I.T. is a place where everything is backed by data, I went to my hotel room, counted the words in those essays and put them in an Excel spreadsheet on my laptop.”

In the next weeks, Dr. Perelman studied every graded sample SAT essay that the College Board made public. He looked at the 15 samples in the ScoreWrite book that the College Board distributed to high schools nationwide to prepare students for the new writing section. He reviewed the 23 graded essays on the College Board Web site meant as a guide for students and the 16 writing “anchor” samples the College Board used to train graders to properly mark essays.

He was stunned by how complete the correlation was between length and score. “I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one,” he said. “If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you’d be right over 90 percent of the time.” The shortest essays, typically 100 words, got the lowest grade of one. The longest, about 400 words, got the top grade of six. In between, there was virtually a direct match between length and grade.

He was also struck by all the factual errors in even the top essays. An essay on the Civil War, given a perfect six, describes the nation being changed forever by the “firing of two shots at Fort Sumter in late 1862.” (Actually, it was in early 1861, and, according to “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James M. McPherson, it was “33 hours of bombardment by 4,000 shot and shells.”)

Read the whole NY Times article.

Doing something right in Finland

Finland finishes first in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams that test 15-year-olds in all of the world’s industrial democracies.

An article in the Washington Post takes a look at what Finland is doing right with their schools.

Superb schools symbolize the modern transformation of Finland, a poor and agrarian nation half a century ago, and today one of the world’s most prosperous, modern and adaptable countries.

Finland finishes first in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams that test 15-year-olds in all of the world’s industrial democracies. Finland also finishes at or near the top in many global comparisons of economic competitiveness: Internet usage, environmental practices and more. Finland, where the modern cell phone was largely invented, has more cell phones per capita than any other nation — nearly 85 per 100 citizens.

The article is hardly a rigorous study, but there are intriguing hints.

The Finns long ago decided that 7 is the right age to begin school, so in every grade the children are a year older than they would be in the United States. Six-year-olds have kindergarten (and a high percentage of Finnish youngsters come to school from state-run day-care centers, which are also generously staffed and supported). But according to Raili Rapila, a kindergarten teacher at Arabia, there is no pressure to begin reading before the first grade. Three of 10 in her class are readers, she said, but all 10 love to be read to, and are often, every day. “Social skills and learning to play are more important than reading” for the 6-year-olds, she said.

I doubt that we need to delay the start of school for our children, but it does suggest that our emphasis on ever-earlier starts—kindergarten, universal pre-school—are unlikely to be the answer.

Buried in the paragraph, though, is another hint: a class size of ten. California spends big bucks reducing K-3 class size from 30 to 20, even though class-size research, such as it is, suggests that 20 is still a large class, not a small one, and that the benefits of smaller classes aren’t reached until we get down to 12 or 15.

There’s another factor: teachers.

“The key,” said Pekka Himanen, 31, a renowned scholar with a PhD in philosophy (earned at age 20) who is a kind of guru of information-age Finland, “isn’t how much is invested, it’s the people. The high quality of Finnish education depends on the high quality of Finnish teachers. You need to have a college-level degree to run a kindergarten. You need a master’s-level degree to teach at a primary school. Many of the best students want to be teachers. This is linked to the fact that we really believe we live in an information age, so it is respected to be in such a key information profession as teaching.”

The principal of the Arabia Comprehensive School, Kaisu Karkkainen, 49, has the same answer when asked the reasons for Finland’s educational accomplishments. “Three reasons,” she said over a tasty lunch of chicken, rice and green salad in her school’s cafeteria: “Teachers, teachers and teachers.” Then she grinned an un-Finnish grin at one of her favorites, English teacher Riitta Severinkangas, 47, who has been teaching for 16 years.

A visit to Severinkangas’s eighth-grade class demonstrates that her students can all read and speak in English, a language that has virtually nothing in common with the Finns’ obtuse and complex native tongue.

“The teachers did it” is pretty much the universal answer to questions about Finland’s educational successes. Seppo Heikkinen, 45, a producer of educational programs for the Finnish Broadcasting Co. and a member of the governing board of the Arabia school, credits “the professional level of the teachers,” who are “highly motivated.”

Read the whole article.

‘Good effects’ of small classes

A long-term study in the USA suggests children benefit from being taught in small classes over several years.

The BBC reports:

A long-term study in the USA suggests children benefit from being taught in small classes over several years.

There’s a catch, though: “small” in this context means 13-17 students per class, not the 20 that California’s class-size reduction calls for.

There’s more information at the HEROS site.

Findings from the current major well-designed class size studies, seem to have influenced policy makers toward the institution of reduced class size. Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has laid out a four-point plan to ensure that all children are educated to their full potential, which includes reducing classes to “no more than 15 students per teacher” for the early elementary grades. In addition, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Delegate Assembly has revised their class size policy statement from 20 to 1 down to recommending a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1.

California needs to set up a pilot program to test these results in our own schools. CSR is a very expensive program; we should be measuring its results.

Do parents matter?

Parents matter–but maybe not for the reasons you thought.

In an article in USA Today, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (the authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything) look at the US Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and highlight some interesting conclusions.

The ECLS program has been designed to include two overlapping cohorts: a Birth Cohort and a Kindergarten Cohort. The birth cohort follows a sample of children from birth through first grade. The kindergarten cohort follows a sample of children from kindergarten through the fifth grade.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) Program provides national data on children’s status at birth and at various points thereafter; children’s transitions to nonparental care, early education programs, and school; and children’s experiences and growth through the fifth grade. ECLS also provides data to test hypotheses about the effects of a wide range of family, school, community and individual variables on children’s development, early learning and early performance in school.

Dubner and Levitt flag a few interesting effect–and non-effects:

But the ECLS data show no correlation between a child’s test scores and how often his parents read to him. How can this be? Here is a sampling of other parental factors that matter and don’t:

  • Matters: The child has highly educated parents.
  • Doesn’t: The child regularly watches TV at home.
  • Matters: The child’s parents have high income.
  • Doesn’t: The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten.
  • Matters: The child’s parents speak English in the home.
  • Doesn’t: The child’s parents regularly take him to museums.
  • Matters: The child’s mother was 30 or older at time of the child’s birth.
  • Doesn’t: The child attended Head Start.
  • Matters: The child’s parents are involved in the PTA.
  • Doesn’t: The child is regularly spanked at home.

So it isn’t that parents don’t matter. Clearly, they matter an awful lot. It’s just that by the time most parents pick up a book on parenting technique, it’s too late. Many of the things that matter most were decided long ago — what kind of education a parent got, how hard he worked to build a career, what kind of spouse he wound up with and how long they waited to have children.

If correct, this is a deeply pessimistic study for the project of eliminating systematic inequality in our public education system.

Evaluating charter schools

Charter schools are just as good–and just as bad–as conventional public schools, and that’s a problem for NCLB.

Charter schools are just as good–and just as bad–as conventional public schools, and that’s a problem for NCLB.

JENNIFER RADCLIFFE, LA DAILY NEWS – Fueling the politically charged debate over the merits of charter schools, a study released Wednesday finds the innovative campuses perform no better than traditional public schools, and they may actually have a negative impact. The report by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., and generally regarded as progressive, collated data from 19 studies in 11 states, including California, about charter schools — tuition-free public campuses that operate under fewer federal and state regulations.

“Overall, we conclude that charter school students certainly did no better, and in many cases did worse,” said Martin Carnoy, a Stanford University professor of education and economics who helped compile the research results.

And while charter advocates might attribute lower test scores at some charter schools to a higher proportion of students living in poverty, EPI researchers said their study showed that charter schools attract slightly more affluent students than traditional campuses do. . .

The research piggybacks on an American Federation of Teachers’ analysis from last summer that showed charter students were one-half grade level behind on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Charter school advocates, however, disputed the new study, saying it didn’t take demographic differences into account and was too narrowly focused on test results from a fraction of students.

In their artillery is a Harvard University study, released last fall, which showed that charter students are 3.8 percent more likely to score as proficient readers on state standardized tests and 1.2 percent more likely to be proficient in math.

The EIP report is available online.

I don’t have an axe to grind one way or the other, but it’s increasingly apparent that being a charter school per se is not only no guarantee of success, but is at best a neutral indicator. There are good and bad charter schools just as there are good and bad conventional public schools, and it seems that we have yet to find anything like a reliable formula for success.

That’s a problem for No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which prescribes conversion to a charter school as one of the possible remedies for a failing public school. I’m ambivalent about NCLB as well; one of its critical failings is that its remedies are expensive and disruptive, but lack good evidence for success.

NCLB seems to be saying, “We all know how to create a good school, where all the children test above average, and if you don’t shape up on your own, we’ll force you to.” But of course we don’t know how to do that, at least not on a large and repeatable scale.