Saturday, April 30, 2011

Key Work of School Board Model focuses Board Governance on Student Achievement

On Wednesday, I'll be leading a short discussion on the District's use of the National School Board Association's Key Work of School Board's model.  This is the cover memo for the discussion materials which will appear in our online Board Book on Monday.

In 2006, our Board of Education adopted a new governance model recommended by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) called the “Key Work of School Boards.”  The decision to adopt the Key Work model resulted from a consensus on the Board that we needed to replace the Carver-base modeled that had been adopted by the Board in 2003.   Adoption of the Key Work model was preceded by a great deal of study and committee work and several work sessions.   The purpose of the presentation Wednesday evening is to refresh our recollection of what the Key Work model calls upon us to do and how it may be integrated into our governance and our board meetings. 

The Key Works is a systems approach designed to promote educational excellence and accountability through vision, standards, assessment, alignment, and continuous progress.   It is modeled in part on the Malcolm Baldridge Excellence model that leads to the  Baldridge awards in education and business. 

Board Policy 5(B) adopted in 2006 states:
The Board of Education operates under the National School Boards Association Key Works Framework. It focuses governance on the Vision and Mission, High Standards of Excellence, Assessment, Accountability, Alignment, Climate and Culture, Collaboration, and Continuous Improvement.

The Key Work model is a robust model supported by the highly respected National School Boards Association.  It has been adopted by an increasing number of school boards across the country and is supported by many state school boards associations, including the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which has launched a website to support the governance model. 

The purpose of the Key Work process is to focus the school board on things that count--the big picture issues that involve policy such as standards, goals and accountability.   The Key Work process envisions a collaborative process that allocates operational and leadership responsibilities to the Superintendent and his leadership team, and policy making functions to the Board of Education.


The National School Boards Association’s Key Work model has not remained stagnant.  The NSBA is attempting to integrate the model with emerging research on school board governance practices that result in improved student achievement.  Attached to this cover memo is a document entitled “eight characteristics of effective school boards” based upon research, including the “Lighthouse” study that looked at districts which significantly improved student achievement.  The NSBA argues that boards in high-achieving districts exhibit habits and characteristics that are markedly different from boards in low-achieving districts.in low-achieving districts.   The Key Work model asks us – if student achievement is important, where is it on your agenda?  If student achievement is important, what work should a board of education be doing to focus on student achievement?   You will see in the slide show Wednesday that we are asked to think about where the components of Key Work appear on our agenda.  By that NSBA does not mean, do you put the words from the model on the agenda, but how do you integrate the work that you do into your board discussions? 

Effective school boards are accountability driven, spending less time on operational issues and more time focused on policies to improve student achievement. In interviews with hundreds of board members and staff across districts, researchers Goodman, Fulbright, and Zimmerman found that high-performing boards focused on establishing a vision supported by policies that targeted student achievement. Poor governance was characterized by factors such as micro-management by the board.
Effective school boards are data savvy: they embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement. The Lighthouse I study showed that board members in high-achieving districts identified specific student needs through data, and justified decisions based on that data. Board members regularly sought such data and were not shy about discussing it, even if it was negative. By comparison, board members in low-achieving districts tended to greet data with a “blaming” perspective, describing teachers, students and families as major causes for low performance. In these districts, board members frequently discussed their decisions through anecdotes and personal experiences rather than by citing data. They left it to the superintendent to interpret the data and recommend solutions.
How do we focus on student achievement?  The NSBA is telling us that we must do more than celebrate examples of student achievement.   If we receive a presentation from science teachers on how they are improving elementary science, there is nothing wrong with that, of course.  But that is a communication function.    Effective boards that care about elementary science focus like a laser on data that tells the board whether the district is making progress in elementary science by examining data.

It is the Key Work model that drove us to support the Vision Card system.   The Vision Card system is designed to fulfill several important components of the Key Work model.  It is designed to provide us data.   It is designed to set standards of excellence.  It is designed to assist us in assessing the progress that we are making towards our standards of excellence.

The Key Work model and research regarding effective school boards suggest, then, that we must spend a significant portion of our board work on understanding data, especially the data that measures student achievement, evaluating our progress towards measurable objectives in Vision Card 1A.  

The Key Work model says that when a school board does not focus its work on measurable objectives, the data that measures our progress (or lack of progress) towards those measurable objectives, and aligning resources to meet those objectives, we necessarily tend to focus instead on operational matters.   Instead of focusing on whether our students are learning science, we focus on who is teaching it, what curriculum we are using, or which teachers are using fabulous techniques.  

As you look at the material regarding Key Work, you might want to ask the following questions:

  • Does the Board still support and believe in the Key Work principles?
  • If so, does the work we do at the board and in board committees reflect the Key Work philosophy, and especially the focus on the use of data on student achievement?
  • Does the work we do in committees support the focus on student achievement and data reflecting student achievement – what is the balance between operational issues and work on understanding the data and connecting that data to our deliberations at the board level?
  • What does each of the components of the Key Work model look like on our agenda:  at business meetings and at workshops? 


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Jeb Bush urges Minnesota to emulate Florida's educational mediocrity!

Jeb Bush visited the State of Minnesota and everyone was fawning all over him to tell us how to run a public school system.  Not to be sarcastic, but really, is that what were supposed to do.  Implement reforms so that we we can get to where Florida is!   For some reason, conservatives have a love affair with leaders of failed Southern state school systems.   Its incomprehensible.  We're supposed to copy the States at the bottom of the educational heap.  Just about as incomprehensible, really, as fawning all over Arnie Duncan, former Chicago superintendent, who came to Minnesota and lectured us on how to close the achievement gap.

So what are we being offered if we model ourselves after Florida?  Florida's NAEP average Mathematics scores for 8th grade are not all that bad:  279.  Just a few points under the national average.  Minnesota's average mathematics scores for 8th greaders are 294, putting Minnesota right near the top of the nation.  African American 8th graders in Minnesota average 264, substantially behind white students, and we need to work on that, but that's exactly the same average score for African Americans in Florida, 264.

In reading, Minnesota 8th graders average 270, which is right around the national average.  Florida does pretty good, just about 6 points behind the national average, at  264.  Minnesota's white students do better than Florida's, while Minnesota's African Americans are behind.  

What about Florida's Graduation Rate?  By one measure, Florida's graduation rate in 2006-2007 was  about 72.4%, one of the lowest in the nation, spawning a "worst to first campaign" in that state, a laudable goal.   Graduation rates are controversial, because there are so many  ways to report them. Minnesota reports its own high school graduation rate at 91% using No Child Left Behind standards.  The US Department of Education reports our graduation rate at 86%.   So the best way to compare states is to use an independent source that uses the same method for both states. 

 Alliance for Excellence in Education says that Florida's graduation rate is much lower than Florida admits, at 60 percent. That's right, folks, 40 percent of the students in the system that  conservatives want us to emulate fail to graduate.  That same source reports Minnesota's graduation rate, using identical calculation methods at 78 percent.  About 100,000 students drop out of high school in Florida every year. If Florida could get to the Minnesota graduation rate, why 50,000 more students would graduate in Florida each year.  Keep in mind that when students drop out of school, their testing results don't show up in comparisons for 12th grade results, so that high drop out rate makes Florida's average test scores look way better than they would look if more students stayed in school.

What is the real reform of significance that took place during Jeb Bush's tenure?  Conservatives don't want to talk about this, but the key reform in Florida public education during the Jeb Bush term is not the tiny little changes that he hypes. In 2002, over Bush's objection, Florida voters passed a groundbreaking Constitutional amendment that caps class size for K-12 education.   

Now, the folks in St. Paul who are hyping the Bush reforms don't want to mention this, but the Florida Legislature appropriated more than $16 billion toward operational expenses and $2.5 billion in facilities funding to implement the Class Size Amendment. Below are the funding amounts for each category since the amendment was put into law.
Year Operating Funds Facilities Funds Total Funds
2003-04 $    468,198,634 $   600,000,000 $ 1,068,198,634
2004-05 $    972,191,216 $   100,000,000 $ 1,072,191,216
2005-06 $ 1,507,199,696 $     83,400,000 $ 1,590,599,696
2006-07 $ 2,108,529,344 $1,100,000,000 $ 3,208,529,344
2007-08 $ 2,640,719,730 $   650,000,000 $ 3,290,719,730
2008-09 $ 2,729,491,033 $                     0 $ 2,729,491,033
2009-10 $ 2,845,578,849 $                     0 $ 2,845,578,849
2010-11 $ 2,927,921,474 $                     0 $ 2,927,921,474
Total to Date $16,199,829,976 $2,533,400,000 $18,733,229,976
Could it be that the gains in Florida come from these funds, and the class size limitations, and not from Bush's school rating system?

Florida has made some gains in public education, but the idea that Florida is a model for Minnesota could be advanced only by people who get their information about Education from partisan television.

An editorial in the Palm Beach Post comments on Bush's legacy in Florida as follows:

Although fourth-grade results are much better than they were 10 years ago, the improvements are not sustained through high school.  For example, Florida high school seniors scored below the national average on the NAEP ......Florida high schoolers also scored below the national average on the SAT. Even judged by Gov. Bush’s beloved FCAT, high schoolers aren’t doing well. Ten years ago, 37 percent of 10th-graders were reading at or above grade level. After a decade, that improved by just 2 percentage points. So 61 percent of 10th-graders still read below grade average. Just 14 percent of Florida schools met federal standards under the No Child Left Behind law. That’s due, in large part, to continued lagging scores among minority students.
We have some major issues in Minnesota.  Our African American Graduation rate is appallingly low.  But bringing it up to where Florida's graduation rate is, 48%, hardly seems like a success strategy.    Everyone's looking for a magic bullet, a simplistic strategy, and when a guy with the name of Bush comes to town selling something, I'd say its time to run for cover.   If we really want to close the achievement gap, there are some folks right here in Minnesota who have set their sights on something more ambitious than modeling our school systems after Florida (Jeb Bush), Chicago (Arnie Duncan) or Texas (Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings).

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Does your school district keep track of its textbook inventory?

For about five years, I've been urging that our school district provide the board of education with a report on the state of our text book inventory.  The superintendent has agreed to provide that report, but it has taken a lot longer than I had hoped it would.  The first surprise has been that our district does not keep track of our textbook inventory in a way that is usable.  That has caused me to wonder if other districts have the same problem. 

Nobody seems to know when our district stopped keeping an accurate inventory,  but certainly, by the time that I joined the board of education in 2004, it is clear that our district did not maintain this information.   Based on my experience as a teacher, I had assumed that each teacher, or each department, would be accountable to someone in each school to account for the number of textbooks, and that this information, in turn, would be kept at each school.  But, as it happens, it has taken a lot of work to rebuild an accurate inventory of what we have, and the work is still not done.
 
I believe that our district, and yours,  needs an inventory of what we have for several reasons.
  • Some student continue to report that they are attending classes which do not have individual textbook for every student.   If that is true, we need to know that, so that we can understand the academic consequences.  If a particular course doesn't need a textbook, that's fine.  But if a course doesn't have a textbook for each student because we aren't budgeting enough money, then that is not acceptable. 
  • Textbooks are capital assets of the school districts.  Let's say that an average textbook, and the workbooks and other materials that come with the book, costs $75.   Assume that the typical student has four textbooks.  (I'm just pulling that number out of my hat at this point.)  But that would mean that we'd have about $3 million dollars in textbooks, when valued at cost.  From a sheer accounting standpoint, the public has a right to expect that we monitor that asset, so that we can be sure that lost books are replaced, that we have neither too many, nor too few in stock.  Surely we should know where we are keeping millions of dollars worth of instructional assets. I'm not discounting the fact that locally, teachers and principals are most certainly monitoring textbooks in some way, but the difficulty in obtaining a count, on request, suggests that there are significant flaws in our current system. 
  • We cannot effectively budget for maintenance of the textbook stock, if we don't maintain information on the number of textbooks we have, their age, their currency, the ratio between students taking the course and available textbooks.    If you assume that we have about 50,000 textbooks in stock, and if you assume that the average replacement cycle is 6 years, and if you further assume some books are lost or damaged beyond repair, that would translate into about 9000 new books purchased per year.  If you accept the $75 per textbook cost, then that translates into about $675,000 just to maintain the textbook supply in adequate condition.  (Sometimes, the state changes the standards for a particular subject matter, and that forces you to unload a set of books and replace them out of cycle.  In Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Education recognizes an average textbook and testing supplies cost for non-public schools at about $85, for purpose of the non-public school budgetary allotment, so that number seems about right.  Prudence would seem to require that we make sure at budget time that we know whether we are maintaining our stock and assuring that every student who should have a textbook actually has one.
  • In tough budget times, there is a grave risk that decision makers will make temporary cuts in textbook and other capital-like assets in order to shield the district from unwise staffing or other reductions.   However, because school budgeting tends to focus primarily on cuts rather than increases, there is a danger that these temporary cuts may become permanent, and over time the deterioration of textbook stocks will become systemic and built into the budget assumptions.
  • Once the textbook supply for a particular course falls below the number of students taking that course, it can lead to permanent changes in the delivery of instruction.   The course can no longer rely on the textbook as required reading.  The teacher may be forced to deliver material by lecture.   Students begin to believe that reading a textbook is not necessary or beneficial to the learning process.  
  • Proper use of textbooks is essential to teaching students to learn independently.   Learning from a text, a journal article, a manual, or some other written material is an important life skill.  If we require students to learn from a lecture, or from a worksheet, we are disabling them from a critical higher learning strategy necessary in most productive careers.
As we discuss this issue, I hear people say that keeping track of the textbook budget isn't maybe as important as it used to be, because everything is going digital.  To that I say, keeping track of what you are purchasing, and how much you are purchasing, is an essential part of  making decisions about whether you can replace textbooks with some form of digital replacement.    Frankly, I think textbooks still represent a critical part of the curriculum.

We can have a discussion, and we probably should,about whether textbooks are going out of style.   I tend to be really skeptical.  I believe that textbooks may go digital, but you still need a textbook of some kind, whether it resides in a book or on a compact disk, or on a server.   The old paradigm was that you purchased enough books for the number of students taking the course (plus a suitable number of extras).  The new paradigm may well be that you purchase enough digital licenses for the number of students who will use the textbook software online.   But you still need to manage your textbook inventory, whether the textbooks are digital or in hard copy format.

I agree that the textbook of tomorrow is likely to facilitate individual learning.  It may have links to online tutorials, online quizzes, online enrichment opportunities and accelerated learning tracks.   The textbooks of the future will be more productive than the textbooks of the past, I believe, and as such they are certainly not going to be any cheaper   Just as a bulldozer is more expensive than a shovel, so the digital textbook of the future is likely to be more powerful and more expensive than the textbook of the past.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Win Win Win! Take the 700 Million Dollar Constitutional Challenge Win Win Win

In the next few weeks, I want you to help me analyze what I think are serious constitutional defects in Minnesota's school finance system.  I've been having a dialog with folks throughout the state who are in the "I've had enough" camp when it comes to the financial mess that is our public school finance.  More and more people are telling me that its time to challenge the constitutionality of our school finance system, and to force the legislature clean up the mess once and for all.   Some of the issues are pretty boring to read about--the law being pretty dang dry.   So, I decided to try to find a way make a dull topic a bit more interesting.  


To whet your interest in a bit of constitutional law, I'm offering  a reward to the person who accepts, and wins, the 700 million dollar constitutional law challenge.   You don't need to be a lawyer to take the challenge.  In fact, being a lawyer probably is going to get in your way.   All you have to do is to be a rational person, and that surely is what you are, or you wouldn't be reading my blog, right!  Can you anticipate a rational reason why the current system can be justified?  

What's the challenge?  What's the reward?  Be patient.  First the challenge, then the reward.    Here's the challenge:
The Challenge:  Provide a "Rational Basis" -- a rational reason -- for Minnesota's System for Special Education Funding, which will soon force local school districts to spend nearly $700 million ($700,000,000) per year more than the revenues provided to fund that spending.
To answer the question, you need to know how the special education finance system works.  The state makes districts spend more money than they have, and some way way more than others.  St. Cloud spends about nine million dollars more than it has, and can't do anything about it.  Anoka-Hennipen spends $28 million more than it has, and can't do anything about it.   If we get into financial difficulty, we can't cut the amount that we are spending.  We have to keep on spending the same amount, no matter how tough your financial difficulties get.  But that's not all. The state purposely increases the amount that school districts must spend, year after year, and purposely increases the difference between mandatory spending and revenues year after year.

Now your almost ready to answer the question.  But you need to know a bit more about the way special education finance system works.  Over the last several years, the Federal Government has been putting more money into special education and sending it out to the states.  So that helps, right.  No, actually, for many school districts, the State reduces the amount of state money paid to the local district for special education by more than the federal government's increase.
Now, when County or city government is required to run a program at a loss, the state gives the county or city government taxing power to make up the difference.  School districts used to have some taxing power to cover the deficit in special education funding too.  But the state took that taxing power away.  Why?  Because the legislature decided that the State should cover ALL of the special education costs not paid by the State.  But it didn't take very long for governors and legislators to forget about the revenue promise -- and the local districts were left with a growing unfunded deficit in special education, but no local revenue source to cover it.
Now this idea of a "rational basis," has a legal meaning.  If you are going to go for the big prize, you need to understand what it means.  "Rational Basis" is a legal term.  The House legislative research service explains rational basis as follows:
A rational basis test applies to economic regulation not involving suspect classifications and, thus, to most of the classifications involved in the tax laws.  In general, a classification has a rational basis and is constitutional, if it reasonably related to or has some rational relationship to the objective the legislature sought to achieve.  The rational basis test gives the legislature considerable flexibility in creating classifications.
So the idea is this.  Do you think that a court could look at the system I've described above and find a rational reason for setting things up that way.  Any reason? In order to convince me that there is a logical reason, any logical reason, for forcing school districts to spend $700 million more than they take in on special education. and keep growing the deficit more and more, year after year.

You get the idea.   The winner has to come up with a rational basis for the system.  By way of example, if I asked you to find a "rational basis" for the law that says that you can't build a glue factory in a residential neighborhood, you could say, "glue is too smelly; people can't live next to it."  Or, "glue fumes are dangerous to children."   But I wouldn't accept, "don't put anything that starts with a 'g' in a residential neighborhood."  Or, "I don't believe in glue." Or, glue is usually made by Republicans."   Those reasons aren't rational.

So that's the $700 million dollar challenge.  I call it the $700 million challenge, because that is the amount of the underfunding that is in the Dayton budget for 2012.  The republicans are proposing to make the deficit even larger.  They're both taking money out of special education, as if it were a government cash register, without allowing local districts to cut their spending or raising revenue to cover the cuts.  So I want you to assume that you were the judge in a court case and you were asked to sustain the system because it had a "rational basis," could you come up with one.

That's the challenge.  The reward.  We'll its not $700 million.  I'll publish the best and most creative answers in future blogs.  For your information, I've included the chart that shows the total mandated special education expenditures in Minnesota as compared to the total of all state and local revenue sources for special education.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Letter Challenges Governor's Education Funding Task Force to Follow the Minnesota Constitution

R I N K E - N O O N A N

SUITE 300 US BANK PLAZA, P.O. BOX 1497
ST. CLOUD, MINNESOTA 56302-1497
TELEPHONE 320-251-6700
EMAIL: JVonKorff@RINKENOONAN.COM DID:

www.RinkeNoonan.COM
April 18, 2011

Education Finance Working Group
Minnesota Department of Education
Peggy Ingison and Tom Nelson, Co-Chairs
Minnesota Department of Education

The purpose of this letter is to urge that as you address Minnesota’s K-12 funding issues, that you adopt a recommendation that complies with the Education Clause of the Minnesota Constitution. The current funding system in the state of Minnesota is plainly and unequivocally unconstitutional under guidelines established by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Skeen v. State, 505 N.W.2d 299 (Minn. 1993). If you fail to address these issues directly, any recommendations that you make will not be meeting the fundamental requirements of the Minnesota Constitution and will be destined to be overturned.

In its Skeen decision, the Supreme Court found that education is a fundamental right under the Minnesota Constitution and that right is enforceable in the Courts. Funding systems which restrict that right, or which result in unequal ability to deliver the basic education required by law, are unconstitutional.

The Court wrote:
we hold that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution, not only because of its overall importance to the state but also because of the explicit language used to describe this constitutional mandate. While a fundamental right cannot be found "[a]bsent constitutional mandate," Rodriguez, 411 U.S. at 33, 93 S.Ct. at 1296, the Education Clause is a mandate, not simply a grant of power.
Unfortunately, both executive branch and legislative branches of Minnesota have failed to adhere to the requirements of Skeen. Perhaps this is because the Skeen decision has been widely misunderstood. The Skeen denied relief to the plaintiffs simply because they admitted that financial flaws existing in 1990 were not interfering with provision of the minimum required education as defined by the State.

The plaintiff districts in Skeen were compelled to make this admission – that they could deliver the basic education mandates of the State – because in 1990 the State of Minnesota had no minimum proficiency requirements. In 1990, a local district could lawfully graduate students who were functionally illiterate, and many did. The only State requirements in Minnesota were that a local district offer a basic curriculum, not that all students must be educated to proficiency.

Having admitted that they could comply with the minimal state education requirements, the plaintiff districts in Skeen instead claimed that their districts were required to pay a slightly higher mil rate to fund optional school programs desired by their local district. At that time, local school districts were providing these extra optional programs through a system of “excess levies.” The name excess levy signified the fact that the voters were being asked to endorse extra education beyond that required by state law. This fact is fundamental to an understanding of why Minnesota’s current funding system is constitutionally deficient. The current system underfunds mandated programs, and the underfunding is not fairly distributed. Some districts have sufficient funding to provide all students with an education which meets state proficiency standards, and others do not. Almost all districts are forced to try to raise funding, not for extras, but to keep basic necessary programs, and in some districts voters are denying children in their community the funding that clearly is required to supply a basic education. This is not a mere equal taxation issue: it runs to the very core of what the Constitution protects.

While there are many examples of the current failure to fund mandated programs, there is no more obvious example than the gross failure to fund the cost of state mandated special education. This system, which is scheduled to inflict an annual $700 million dollars of unfunded deficit on local districts, and to spread that deficit unequally, has no justification whatsoever. It must be completely eliminated by any system that you propose, or what you propose will violate the Constitution.
Part II of the Letter will Follow

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Vaunted KIPP Charters alleged to Spend $18K per Student

I've been following a raging battle over whether the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools are effectively attacking the achievement gap. There are about 91 KIPP charter schools (click here) in the United States. They tend to be middle schools serving fifth through eighth graders. They are controversial, because they tend to be non-union schools, although a number have been recently unionized. They make significant demands on teachers, requiring them to work longer hours. They expect students to sign contracts promising to meet high attendance and behavior standards. They provide longer school days for their students and have been held up as making significant inroads on the achievement gap.

A new report, called the Miron study, now asserts that KIPP charters spend $18 thousand dollars per students in efforts to close the achievement gap. (Click Here). KIPP has been held up as an example by pundits, national politicians, and critics of public schools, as an example of what school reform should look like. This has led public school interests to say: Instead of reforming public education by shrinking our budgets, give us $18,000 per student and we'll look pretty good too!

The use of KIPP as a model for what public schools should be doing has led to a series of studies and counter studies, interpretations and counter interpretations. One side adamantly claims that "the research" on these schools proves that KIPP students outperform equivalent students of similar backgrounds in public schools. The centerpiece of the KIPP advocates is the Mathematica study. (Click here) The KIPP skeptics adamantly claims that "the research" establishes that KIPP schools operate under markedly different conditions and that their success arises from selectivity, receive substantially greater funding. They claim that KIPP elevates its results artificially by ignoring the departure of students who aren't capable of fulfilling KIPP expectations. The centerpiece of this view is found in the recent Miron study. (Click Here).

The skeptics have long claimed that KIPP schools have an unfair advantage, because they are more selective than regular public schools. When schools enroll students by choice, the theory goes, they are likely to have better outcomes than schools who take all students. The Kipp supporters argue, on the contrary, the demographics of KIPP students, in terms of race and poverty, are comparable to the schools with which they are compared. That claim is hotly disputed by KIPP advocates.

The KIPP skeptics point out that KIPP schools take significantly fewer ELL (that is non-English speaking) enrollees, and that they also take significantly fewer special education students. KIPP proponents concede that this claim is true. Lower ELL and special education populations would negate statistical comparisons of student results, at least without significant adjustment. This suggests that KIPP schools have a significant cost advantage, (in addition to their receipt of greater revenues per student) because public schools must transfer scarce dollars out of regular education to fund costly special education programs that are not fully funded by the state and federal government.

This is a common flaw in criticisms of public school finance. Critics often divide the total cost of public education by the number of students for public schools and then compare that same ratio to private schools and charter. What they ignore is that the publics are mandated to spend huge sums on special education, but are not reimbursed for those extra costs. Calculating the average cost of educating all students (including non-English speaking students and special education students) for publics and comparing that cost to the cost of educating only English speaking non-disabled students for privates and charters is silly and misleading. That's like comparing the average cost of compact cars and SUV's for Ford to the average cost of compact cars for GM and claiming that Ford spends way more money to produce cars.

The critics also claim that KIPP schools experience higher rates of attrition than comparison schools. They argue that the drop out students represent potential KIPP failures, and so when we look at KIPP results, we are not counting students for whom KIPP fails.

Proponents of KIPP schools rely heavily on a research report which contends that KIPP students make greater than average progress. Critics of KIPP schools claim that this is a statistical artifact of the factors mentioned above. They argue too, as stated above that KIPP schools are beneficiaries of large foundation support, and that as a result, they function with about 50% greater funds than the comparison schools. According to the Miron study, KIPP schools spend about $18,000 per student, where as comparison schools spend only about $12,000 per student per year.
The findings in our report show that students with disabilities and students classified as English language learners are greatly underrepresented. The relative absence of students with disabilities and English language learners results in more homogeneous classrooms. Secondly, in both traditional public schools and KIPP schools, the additional costs for these students—especially students with moderate or severe disabilities—is typically not fully funded, and therefore some of the costs for regular education is devoted to students requiring additional remediation. Because traditional public schools have a higher proportion of students with disabilities, and a higher concentration of students with severe and moderate disabilities, the burden of having to subsidize their education falls more heavily on them.
I report these questions about KIPP despite the fact that I have long admired many of the good things that KIPP schools do. What does the research on KIPP prove? One thing that it seems to prove, beyond any doubt, is that the supporters of KIPP's approach are being disingenuous when they fail to recognize that KIPP schools are functioning on half again as much money per student as comparable traditional public schools. Ironically, many of the proponents use special schools like KIPP to justify reducing funding for regular public schools, when actually, the KIPP experience would seem to support the strong inference that the models which reformers tout, are actually way more expensive. If KIPP is successful, then the success justifies greater, not less, expenditures are necessary to close the achievement gap.

Past Posts on Achievement Gap
Attacking the Achievement Gap Means Helping Students Rise Above their Parents Education
Making Stuff up About the Achievement Gap
Get Ready for College
School Choice will not close the achievement gap
Some students cost more to educate (1)
Some students Cost more to educate(2)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Attacking the Achievement gap means helping students rise above their parents' education.

The early American colonists left a continent where children's' future was largely determined by their parents status in life. The children of farmers became farmers. The children of landed nobility became landed nobility. The children of artisans became artisans. And so on. The first American settlers came to America not only for political freedom, but also the freedom to rise above the economic and educational status of the parent's station. It is for this very reason, that we find in state constitutions all across the country, that the authors of those constitutions, many of them immigrants, included special protections to assure that American states would assure quality education for all children. They saw education as a key to the kind of freedom that brought them to American in the first place.

The achievement gap represents a threat to this American idea that students will surpass their parents "station in life." I've been writing about the achievement gap lately for several reasons. One of our major objectives in our school district is to implement systemic improvements that will make significant inroads on the achievement gap. In addition, a number of legislators in St. Paul have been offering up proposals, from tax credits for private schools, to the elimination of various forms of funding, based on their contentions that these reforms will somehow help eliminate the achievement gap. Most of what is written, most of what is said about the achievement gap, is founded on little but speculative belief, divorced from data, divorced from research, and divorced from evidence on what really works. I don't claim to have the answers, but I do claim to be interested in research, data, and evidence.

What is the achievement gap? What causes it? What is the "cure," as it were. Its going to take a few more posts to make a dent in that question. But one thing we can say for sure. The achievement gap does not result from a decline in the performance of minority students. It does not result from the decline in the performance of white students. The achievement gap does not result because public schools are getting worse, or because student performance is declining. On the contrary, in general students performance over the last several decades has been increasing. Here is some data summarizing the NAEP testing, the gold standard for measures of reading and math performance.


(Since 1969, NAEP assessments have been conducted periodically in reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography, and other subjects. NAEP collects and reports information on student performance at the national, state, and local levels, making the assessment an integral part of our nation’s evaluation of the condition and progress of education.)

The achievement gap does not result either from a decline in in the difficulty or rigor of courses that students are taking. Actually, a recently released nationwide study, "America's High School Graduates, results of the 2009 NAEP high school transcript study," supports this point. The transcript study looked at the number of students who completed a rigorous course of study, and the number of students who completed a less rigorous "standard curriculum," and the number of students who fell below even the basic standard course of study. The study found:

  • In 2009, graduates on average earned over three credits more than their 1990 counterparts, or about 420 additional hours of instruction during their high school careers.
  • A greater percentage of 2009 graduates completed more challenging curriculum levels than 1990 or 2005 graduates.
  • Since 1990 more graduates from each racial/ethnic group completed a rigorous high school curriculum.
  • All four racial/ethnic groups on average earned more credits and higher grade point averages (GPAs) in 2009 than they did in 1990.
  • More students are taking advanced placement courses, and those students are doing significantly better as a result
  • Since 1990, the percentage of graduates completing a below standard curriculum declined from 60 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2009.
So, contrary to popular belief, we are not in the midst of a decline in student performance. Students in every ethnic/racial group are performing better today than they did in decades past. They are taking harder courses; and they are taking more courses.

What is the achievement gap, then? The definition of achievement gap is not uniformly recognized. Some people say that "the Achievement Gap is the difference in performance between low-income and minority students compared to that of their peers on standardized tests." The Department of Education The U.S. Department of Education describes the achievement gap as “the difference in academic performance between different ethnic groups.” Another definition is "The achievement gap, as it's commonly defined, is the discrepancy on standardized test scores between students, with white students outperforming their black peers..." One author writes: "The achievement gap, traditionally measured by test scores, also can be documented by dropout behavior. Examining dropout behavior among Black, White, and Hispanic students, with a particular focus on gaps within groups and not just between Whites and minorities, shows a clearer picture of the achievement gap."

Some folks measure the achievement gap by comparing the percentage of students who score proficient on certain basic skills tests, for example math and reading. The problem with that definition is that different states have radically different proficiency cut scores, and raising or lowering the cut score can change the gap, measured in that way. Another way of measuring the gap is to compare the number of students who score at the basic level or below. This is more of a functional literacy measure of the gap. And then, as mentioned above, another way of measuring the gap is the graduation gap, the number of students who drop out of school without receiving a diploma. Believe it or not, there has been a raging controversy for the last many years over how exactly to measure the graduation rate. In part, this controversy arises from whether to count students who receive their GED as graduating. In part, it arises from difficulties on how to count students who leave school, but possibly transfer to another public school and who exactly to count the failure to graduate against.
There are some people who argue with vehemence that, obviously, we should not count attainment of a GED as "graduation." That reminds me of the graduation of Adult Basic Education students I attended a couple of years back. At that graduation, we heard an eloquent speech from a Somali ABE graduate, who was attending college in the following year. He had arrived in St. Cloud on a flight from Kenya, a tenth grader, by age, speaking no English, a refugee without any formal schooling. He found, not surprisingly, that he could not function effectively in our high school, and so he "dropped out," but was able to obtain his GDE, a few years beyond the normal graduation age. Statisticians and public education critics would announce that the St. Cloud School District "failed" this young man, because he did not graduate on time, but in fact, the ABE program met his needs, and I regard him as a success story.
It is commonly argued that Minnesota is doing an extraordinarily poor job in addressing the achievement gap, as compared to other states, and that really depends upon your point of view. Minnesota's NAEP results in Mathematics (2007) for white students are higher than the national average for white students in both 8th and 4th grade. NAEP results for mathematics for black students are the basically the same as the national average. Because white students are performing above average, and black students at the average, it can be said that we have a larger achievement gap, under this measure, even though all of our students, black and white are equal to or better than the national average.

In reading, Minnesota 8th grade students scored 12 points higher than the national average in 8th grade. Black students performed 26 points below at just about the national average. Once again, that leads to the conclusion that we have a higher achievement gap for black students, even though black students are performing at the national average. In both these cases, the Minnesota's extraordinarily high achievement gap is entirely accounted for, it seems, by the fact that Minnesota white students are performing significantly above the national avererage while black Minnesota students are performing at the national average for black students.

The High School Transcript Study points out that there is a significant gap in the high school performance of students based upon whether their parents finished high school, and that nugget of information holds the key to the achievement gap, in my opinion:
Thirty-four percent of graduates with a parent who did not finish high school completed a below standard curriculum compared to twenty percent of graduates with a parent who graduated from college.
So the achievement gap, however you wish to define it, is a manifestation of the difference in performance of students highly correlated with the educational attainment of their parents. We attack the achievement gap, because we believe that it is the job of public education to allow students to overcome, to outperform the limitations of their family history and background.


Making Stuff up About the Achievement Gap
Get Ready for College
School Choice will not close the achievement gap
Some students cost more to educate (1)
Some students Cost more to educate(2)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

GetReady for College Inspires Elementary Students to Think College

I've been writing about the achievement gap, and today I want to continue that theme, but with a more concrete example of a systemic change that is being adopted by a number of schools in Minnesota and elsewhere. The Get Ready for College program, sponsored by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education preaches the concept that students should start thinking about college and career in the earliest of elementary grades.
The Get Ready program is an early intervention and college awareness program. The program helps prepare fourth through tenth grade students from low-income families and those from groups traditionally under-represented in college with college planning information, academic tutoring and information on career and higher education options.
The Get Ready program argues that children from all walks of life come to school with high expectations for themselves. And, by 5th grade, students have decided whether or not post-secondary education is a reality for themselves. According to Get Ready:
  • 91% of 4th -8th graders and 74% of 9th – 11th graders believe they will be able to get into college.
  • 97% of 4th – 8th graders reported that earning good grades in school is important.
  • 96% of 9th – 11th graders are looking forward to getting a college degree.
  • 87% of 4th – 8th and 83% of 9th – 11th graders have specific career aspirations.
  • 95% of all GR parents believe their students will attend some type of college.
As a result, "If we do not teach students in elementary school as if they are college bound, then our students have higher expectations for themselves than we do." The Get Ready idea is that all teachers in the school district becomes a career and college promoter. Instead of teaching students that their goal is to pass the next test (although that is important), or to get promoted to the next grade, or even to graduate high school, we teach students that their goal is to become prepared for a career choice that excites them, and we help them understand what they must do to achieve that career.

To create a go to college atmosphere, teachers in a Get Ready school talk to their students about their career aspirations in the early years. They make the college idea real, by weaving college into students own personal aspirations for career success. In one school, the teachers periodically come to school wearing their college alma mater sweatshirts and describe their own college experiences. The core idea is intentionally to make college or other post secondary school a regular theme during the school year. Teachers may have morning meeting/advisory discussions about college, careers, or goal-setting Students may get writing assignments to journal about college, careers, or goal-setting. The school may invite local colleges and student groups to visit. At parent conferences, teachers ask the parents if they know what their child wants for a career and how much education it takes to achieve that career. Teachers may display college pennants or posters in their classroom, but above all, they are making real, their students own aspirations to be somebody.

In addition to its partnership with public school, the Get Ready program partners with community organizations and business. To find out more about the Get Ready program, check out this website, or contact
Emily Paoli Johnson
Get Ready Program Manager
1450 Energy Park Drive, Suite 350
St. Paul, MN 55108
Tel: (651) 259-3919
E-mail: emily.johnson@state.mn.us

Sunday, April 10, 2011

School Choice Will Not Close the Achievement Gap

Private education performs a vital role in our society. And, it has been a pillar of central Minnesota throughout the twentieth century. Products of private education, parochial and secular, have made major contributions to our community to the nation and the world. My own masters in teaching and law degree come from two Catholic institutions in Washington, D.C. Parochial schools afford families the choice to send their children to schools which integrate religious and secular education in ways that the US Constitution would not allow in public schools. They offer the choice to found schools and fund them with private resources, organized on educational and philosophical choices determined by the founders. A group can found a Catholic, Baptist, Quaker, Hasidic, Conservative Jewish, Amish, Islamic and many have.

But school choice, and especially voucher credits, is not a solution to the achievement gap. School choice can be a solution for a small select fortunate students who escape a dysfunctional school in their neighborhood (instead of demanding that their school do its job). But school choice, as a strategy to attack the achievement gap has been an unmitigated failure and proposals to increase the amount of school choice are likely to make things worse, not better.

After an intensive review of the performance of Minnesota charter schools, the Legislative Auditor found:

As a group, charter students posted lower test scores and their schools were more likely to wind up on a watch list dictated by No Child Left Behind goals. Half of active charter schools failed to make adequate yearly progress and were subject to federal sanctions, compared with 32 percent of district-run schools.

The Auditor's report squares with a number of other studies across the country that strongly suggest that the school choice movement is not proving to be a large scale solution to closing the achievement gap. Notwithstanding this evidence, spurred by the advocates for private and parochial schools, school choice has attracted a huge fan-club at the legislature. Many of these legislators believe, based on ideology, that school choice certainly must be a solution to the achievement gap, because certainly open competition always produces positive results. But actual results prove otherwise. School choice is destined to fail as a gap-closing experiment for several reasons:
  • Students cost vastly different amounts to educate. The students who we want to target when closing the achievement gap are typically among the highest cost students to educate. Don't take my word for this. This is the conclusion of the Thomas Fordham Institute -- a leading voucher advocate. The Fordham Institute, with Catholic roots, has authored an important study "Fund the Child" which makes this clear. Voucher and school choice initiatives typically allow private schools to cherry-pick transferees, accepting only the children who need help the least, leaving the rest behind. Often the transfer students are already doing quite well in their public schools, and the result of the transfer is simply to leave the public school with a larger percentage of students who are costly to educate.
  • In Minnesota, special education, on the average, costs over one-half billion dollars statewide more than the legislature pays for these students. School choice does not share this deficit: it merely increases the proportion of students in the public school who produce the deficit, and increases the deficit load carried by the remaining students. Our funding system does not reimburse public schools based on the number of special education students they serve, but rather on the number of students, disabled and non-disabled, that they serve. That means that the more students who transfer out, the higher the percentage of high cost students with disabilities left behind, and the greater the deficit in public school operations. If a costly special education student transfers to a private school, the public school still pays for that education, and pays for the deficit in reimbursement out of regular education funds. As a result, the more students who transfer out of a public school, the greater the deficit. In Minnesota, school choice is a cherry picking operation, in which the transferee school gets full funding for the student transferred, but the public school is left with an increasingly large number of students who must be educated at a cost greater than state reimbursement. School choice is not based on fair competition or fair funding.
  • School choice has simply not proven effective in closing the achievement gap. While there are many good charter and private schools, the overwhelming evidence across the country is that state funded school choice has simply not proven effective.
  • School choice affords policy makers an excuse for not doing their job -- to demand that ineffective public schools follow best practices. If a school is not measuring up, we have a public responsibility to make the changes that need to be made. But the last several decades under Minnesota's school choice system has shown that charter choice has served as a safety valve for parents and community leaders who otherwise would have demanded reform in their own public schools. The result has been that instead of forcing public school change, they have delivered school choice, and the result has not benefited students at large. Measures of performance in the metro area have instead shown that charter schools are doing no better, and often vastly worse, than their public school competitors. When the charter school fails, the public is left with a mess, and the former charter operator retains the profits. At the same time, the transfer out through a cherry picking process has impoverished the remaining public schools, vastly increased their average costs of operation, and made school reform significantly more difficult to accomplish.
The choice movement in Minnesota has been a major factor in the destruction of public schools in the twin-cities. The two major metro school districts share much of the blame for their problems, of course, but the choice movement has significantly limited their ability to recover and overcome their challenges. That might be worth the price, were it not for the fact that the choice movement has made no discernible impact on the achievement gap, and has probably made it worse.

One understands the reason why folks who operate private schools support a voucher system. It allows them to increase their enrollment at public expense. They can accept public money without accepting the public responsibilities and costs that go along with it. It's a great business deal for them. They can hire teachers at non-union rates; deny admission to students who they judge more costly than the state funded tuition justifies, and expel them if they discover that their cost margin expectations do not prove correct. If the advocates for vouchers were truly interested in closing the achievement gap, they would advocating that private schools must accept all students eligible at the same cost, but amendments at the legislature to do just that were defeated by voucher advocates.

In this connection, I want to distinguish the choice movement as a device to help a few lucky students as compared to a device systemically to close the achievement gap. I taught in the District of Columbia school system. That system has a long history of dysfunctionality; it has been so dysfunctional for so long, that it is difficult I think for Minnesotans even to envision the depth of the systemic failures in that system. The parochial system in Washington DC provided a safety value for those students who were fortunate to escape deeply dysfunctional schools. No one can deny the benefits to those individual students.

But we are talking here of closing the achievement gap, which means creating a system that works for all students. If we are not going to make the reforms and provide the funding necessary to assure quality educations for all students, then I suppose providing an escape for some students -- the lucky ones, the cherry picked students -- is better than nothing. But actually, the result of the voucher system is exactly the opposite. It removes pressure for reform, inflicts growing financial penalties on the publics, and allows legislators to rationalize their failure to provide funding and demand reform. They can throw up their hands and claim that they fixed the problem with choice.

The claim that privates and parochials are trying to help us close the achievement gap is a well-intentioned rationalization. Their proposal will make gap closing more difficult; will cripple our ability to do that by transferring out the lowest cost students and leaving us with the most expensive. God bless parochial education. I owe my professional career to a great Catholic institution of learning. But the voucher proposal would destroy public school efforts to make progress on the achievement gap and should be defeated.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Making stuff up" about the achievement gap.....

The achievement gap has become a recurrent justification -- or should I say rationalization -- for radical alteration in public school funding. Several legislative leaders with responsibility for school funding at the legislature have repeatedly contended that public education in general has failed, and they have contended that this failure is proven by the persistence of the achievement gap. Indeed, several have suggested that we could attack the achievement gap more effectively, if only we would pull funding away from public schools and transfer that money to a voucher program. Throughout these discussions at the legislature, the claim that the public education system is causing the achievement gap runs largely accepted and unchallenged. Hand wringing editorials; documentaries; speeches from the Secretary of Education (who ought to know better), all accept this claim uncritically.

What really is the achievement gap, what causes it, and who has the solutions? Unless we understand the meaning of the achievement gap, it is impossible to craft sound policy:

We say that there is an achievement gap, because average white reading and math proficiency scores and non-white reading and math proficiency scores both have risen substantially, but that the gap between these scores remains.
Let me say this a different way. The achievement gap is not a measure of whether American students are doing better than they did a generation ago. Actually, the achievement gap is a manifestation of the fact that all students are doing better on the average, and that non-white students (on the average) are not gaining enough ground to close the gap. Highly respected education policy researcher Richard Rothstein provides persuasive statistics to support this important point in a recent article in the Washington Post, "How Bill Gates Misinterprets Education Facts." In his article, Rothstein points out that the most reliable longitudinal measure of student achievement is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP provides trends for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and poverty, since about 1980 in basic skills in math and reading (called the “Long Term Trend NAEP”) and since about 1990 for 4th and 8th graders in slightly more sophisticated math and reading skills (called the “Main NAEP”).

He continues:
On these exams, American students have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged. The improvements have been greatest for both black and white 4th and 8th graders in math. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black 4th and 8th graders in reading and for black 12th graders in both math and reading. Improvements have been modest for whites in 12th grade math and at all three grade levels in reading.

Here are two charts he offers to prove his point. Take some time. Read them carefully, because they are probably the most important statistics in education as it pertains to the achievement gap. The challenge the repeated claim that minorities (on the average) are failing to make educational progress.



In the last four decades, Rothstein continues the percentage of colleges graduates in the United States has nearly doubled. In 1970, 16% of young adults (ages 25 to 29) were college graduates. Today, it is 31%. The improvement has been across the board: the share of African-American young adults who are college graduates has gone from 10% to 19%; for whites it has gone from 17% to 37%.

We face a great education challenge in America. We need more children to read proficiently. We need more students to read and write beyond proficiency standards. We need more students to master math and science. There are schools, and in some case entire school systems that can be rated as abject failures by any standard. We need to fix those schools and those school systems. But the people who claim that the story of American public education is one of abject failure, are "making stuff up." Some of them are making stuff up because they want to make things better, and by making things look uniformly bad, they think they will spur us to change. Some of them are making stuff up because they want to dismantle what they call "government schools," and shift money to privates. Some of them are making stuff up because, well everyone else is making stuff up too.

We have a crisis in American education. There are too many young people who are not realizing their potential. Too many of them are poor, are minorities, are first generation families, or are immigrants from third world countries. All of this requires fundamental change in American Education. But let us not develop those changes on bogus information.

Because folks at the legislature are using the achievement gap as an excuse for their favorite solutions, I'm going to spend the next few posts taking a look at the causes of the achievement gap and potential solutions. There are some very promising reforms underway across the country. Some of them require major fundamental change in how we deliver instruction, how we use the labor force, and how we train teachers and administrators. None of those solutions involve pulling funds out of K-12 education, or dismantling our system of public education.