Monday, March 7, 2011

Some Students Cost More to Educate than Others (2)

Yesterday, (click here for yesterday's post) I began a discussion of the reasons that some students cost more than others to educate. Some commenters responded by asserting that the extra cost should be the responsibility of parents, or that we shouldn't try to educate all students to a high level of proficiency. I've responded that leaving the additional responsibility to the private effort of parents is not the issue I'm exploring in this series.

The topic of this series is predicated on the mission that has been assigned to public schools today under existing law.
Public schools were assigned a different mission, back when I was in elementary and high school. The mission of public schools in those days was to offer classroom education to all students (well, most students, really) for a state mandated number of course hours, without state mandated results. That mission was radically changed with three major developments in the law of education. The first began in the Courts, with Brown vs. Board of Education, which required all States to provide equal opportunity to a free education and which ruled that equality of opportunity meant provision of that opportunity in the same public schools, not separate ones. Brown v. Board of Education, however did not mandate educational results. Nothing in Brown v. Board of Education forced local schools to educate all students to any particular level of proficiency or spend any particular amount of money on any student.

The second fundamental change was embodied in 1974 federal legislation, now embodied in IDEA, which requires every state and every school district to provide a Free and Appropriate Education for students with disabilities from ages 3 through age 21. Federal special education radically increased the cost of public education for a significant percentage of the school aged population and accounts today for roughly $1.7 billion in additional education expenditures per year in Minnesota alone, an obligation which is underfunded by about $500 million per year.

The third great change was embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. No Child Left Behind radically changed the obligation of public schools, from an opportunity based system -- in which public schools formerly were required to provided classroom learning opportunities, to an outcome based system, in which public schools are now required to educate all students to State mandated proficiency levels. These last two pieces of legislation, IDEA and NCLB, drastically changed the total cost of education in the United States, and moreover, introduced a new legal paradigm in public education that makes some children to be far more expensive to educate than others. I'm not arguing that NCLB is a bad thing: effectively implemented, these two laws likely will make a larger percentage of our population more productive, and reduce the number of adults in the future who lack sufficient skills to meet 21st century employment requirements. My point is that meeting these requirements increased dramatically the inflation adjusted overall cost of education, and required significantly higher expenditures for some students as compared to others.

I've been quoting the conservative Thomas Fordham Foundation's 2006 Report, Fund the Child, because I find that skeptics are more willing to listen to the prestigious foundation which advocates a number of conservative reforms in education: "Although we may wish that achieving this [proficiency] goal were easy for every student, numerous studies have shown that some students require more resources than others:
  • Some start behind because their lives prior to school did not provide them with the same educational opportunities as other children.
  • Some home circumstances present problems related to health, nutrition, parental support, and other conditions, all of which materially impact children’s performances.
  • Some have disabilities that lead them to require additional education services and attention.
  • Some are from homes where English is not the primary language.
  • Some are recent immigrants who had little formal education in their home countries"
These three developments, Brown, IDEA and NCLB, encompassed a federal obligation to educate all children, regardless of race, creed, or disability to a high level of proficiency. If you are one of those people who thinks that we should go back to the 1940's when we educated just some of our nation's children, or to the 1960's, when we were obligated to offer educational opportunities, but not to assure proficiency, you are entitled to your opinion, but this series of posts is about the cost of educating children under currently existing law. Those of us who are elected to school boards are required to comply with today's law, and today's law gives us a mission that cannot be achieved without spending considerably more money than was spent back in the 1950's. Whenever I hear people rail against the fact that the cost of educating today's students is allegedly higher than the inflation adjusted cost of students back in the good old days, I have to say, you know what, you are right, for sure. But we've been tasked with a fundamentally different mission today. If you think that we can accomplish that expanded mission for the same inflation adjusted cost, then you are just plain fooling yourself. If you think that you can accomplish that objective by spending the same amount of money on all students, then you are mistaken.

I can't explore all of the reasons in one post. I want to mention today the impact of special education and the impact of the requirement that all students graduate to a high level of proficiency in mathematics.
The federal special education law accounts for a dramatic difference in cost per student. Roughly 125,000 students receive special education in Minnesota. The extra cost of special education for those students (excluding the regular education funding provided for those students) is about $1.7 billion or about $13,600 per student (plus regular education funding for those students). The average funding provided by the State and federal government combined for those 125,000 students is approximately $4,000 short for each student with disability here in Minnesota, on the average, but as I've explained on other occasions, that shortfall is unequally distributed from district to district. Some school districts are underfunded at a rate which is double that amount, and others considerably less.
Special education is just one example of why it costs more to educate some students than others. The failure to recognize and confront these additoinal costs is a measure of the level of denial that characterize the folks who claim to be educational policy experts and pundits.

No Child Behind mandated that school districts meet higher levels of standards each year through this decade, and into the next decade. In previous posts I've included the following chart that shows the different paths taken by Minnesota and Wisconsin, representing State committments to increase the level of student performancein math and reading. Let's look at the increasing level of expectations for mathematics alone here in Minnesota and for our neighoring state, Wisconsin. The score levels shown here are a measure of state required peformance levels, not of actual achievement levels experienced in either state.

How many of you genuinely believe that these two states could possibly acheive marked improvement in the percentage of students scoring at the state mandated algebra-II level of proficiency for the same cost, inflation adjusted? Come on now! Just by way of reminder, Minnesota's implementation of No Child Left Behind for mathematics not only demands that a significantly higher percentage of students perform at the proficient level in mathematics than ever before in history, it defines proficiency at significantly higher level than ever before. We are expecting students to perform proficiently at a second-year algebra level, when many of their parents were not even required to take or pass first year algebra. Trying to accomplish this at the same inflation adjusted price would be like trying to equip everyone with a private jet for the price of an automobile. If you are scoffing at that, just remember what algebra II consists of: factoring, elementary matrix algebra, solution of multiple linear equations, graphing of and solution of quadradic equtions, inequalities, probability, and a whole lot more.

I want to be clear. There is evidence that we can do a much better job of educating more children at a very high level of mathematics. Some of the necessary changes require new teaching methods. Some of them require more classroom time. Some require more teachers who have strong subject matter backgrounds in mathematics in the earlier grades. And some require more mentoring, more parental support, more individual attention for students who are falling behind. Some of the necessary changes don't require more expense, but some require significantly greater expense, and the special help required for some students make those students more costly to educate than other students. If the State wants more students to perform proficiently, and that is the current requirement in Minnesota, then a much greater investment is going to be required for those students who would otherwise fall behind.

Listen. The concepts required to attain proficiency in mathematics (by way of example) are like a pyramid of learning. The first layer of skills forms the foundation of the pyramid on which the rest of mathematics is built. If a student falls behind in the early grades, her mathematics understanding is built on a shaky foundation, and it becomes impossible to construct the rest of the pyramid. As a result, catching up in the later grades is virtually impossible without special help of some kind -- individualized instruction, mentoring, summer school, remedial instruction. When I was in school, our peers, many of them, fell behind and stayed behind. They explained that they hated math, or didn't plan to use it in the future, or lacked the aptitude. In high school, they took consumer math, or a repeat of junior high math, or just didn't take any high school math at all, to speak of. Many of our peers had the ability to do math, but somewhere along the way, they missed some of the critical foundational building blocks of mathematics, and it was just expected and understood that they were not going to be proficient at graduation. They were assigned to the non-proficient track, as it were. If you think that everybody was a superstar in math back in the golden days of your youth, you are living in never-never land. In Minnesota today, we expect everyone to graduate proficient in math, and we enforce those requirements by penalizing schools who fail to reach that objective. This requirement is one of the critical factors that cause some children to be more expensive than others to educate, and you can't wish that fact away with a magic wand.

I've mentioned two examples of why it costs more to educate some students than others in today's post, but there are many more examples and I'll discuss them in a future post.
Yesterday's Post: "Some Students Cost More to Educate ....Part I."

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