Saturday, May 28, 2011

Education Finance Bill Scoring is a Financial Shell Game

Yesterday, I started trying to share information on the financial impact on our local district as compared to other districts and charters across the state. To catch a reminder of what I said, just click here.     In yesterday's  post, I described one way, the traditional way, to score the impact of the biennial education finance bill --called the "compare to base" approach.   When you compare to base, you are comparing the amount of funds that the district would have received under the old formula to the amount it will receive under the new.  Under the "compare -to - base" method, our district is scored as receiving a $74 per student reduction, one of the largest reductions in the State of Minnesota.  The education finance bill proposes to transfer money from school districts with large poverty populations and to move it into districts with less poverty, fewer minorities and non-English speakers.     

Now the House and Senate majorities argue that my scoring approach to the education bills is unfair.   They claim that the "compare-to-base" approach doesn't give their bill due credit for increases that they claim we are going to receive.  They claim that we had no right to count on the increases that the existing formula was going to provide us, and so, when we don't get them, its not a cut.   In the last five years, childhood poverty in St. Cloud has skyrocketed.   As that has happened, we've also had a significant upswing in children who come to the district not speaking English.   The compensatory education component of the formula was designed to pay us a bit more to educate these children, because the State expects us to make extra efforts to help these kids catch up.  We are required to find ways to get them to progress significantly more than a full year's growth in one year, and the compensatory education formula pays us more so that we can do that.   The House and Senate majority says, taking that money away is not a cut.

Our Republican representatives rely on the information that they are getting from legislative staff assigned to the majority.  So, I suppose its not fair for me to blame them for this mess, or to yell at them about the way that the majority is scoring their handiwork.  Staff scores the education bill like this:  if they change the formula to take some of our money away, its not a decrease, because we "never had that money anyway."   So, when they score the bill, they don't count cuts in the formula that would have paid us more.   Its just an increase that we never had any right to expect to receive in the first place.

They took some of that  money away --  the money that they claim we never had any right to count on in the first place-- and tranferred  it over to other school districts and charters, and gave them an increase.  And when they gave it to those districts, they counted it is an increase for those districts.     The net result is that in St. Cloud and other financial loser districts, the cuts don't count as cuts.  But in the financial winner districts, that same money is counted as an increase.   As you can see, this is a win win for the legislative majority.  When they take money away, they accept no blame, but when they give it back again, they get tons of credit. Its sort of a fiscal shell game. 

Now that explains how the legislative majority is seeking to avoid blame for money that loser districts lost.   But there is another part of their scoring system that allows them to take credit, even in St. Cloud, for supposedly giving us increases, when in fact we will never receive those increases.  I'm going to write more about that in my next post.  But to get you prepared for that, I need to remind you about the screwy way that Minnesota's special education finance system works.  Because, in St. Cloud, the legislative majority is claiming that we are going to get increased special education support, and they are calling that an increase, when in fact, the only way we can get an increase is if we increase our special education budget by significantly more than the money they say that we're going to recieve.   In short, they are inviting us to spend ourselves into bankrupcy, and if they do, they will take credit for the giving us more money to help us do that.
Here is the state of Minnesota's pre-legislative session projections on special education spending in the State of Minnesota.  
 The numbers in the first row show total spending by school districts in the State of Minnesota, and projected spending, for special education.  I want to emphasize that this spending is advocated for by both parties.   We, in St. Cloud, have urged the legislature to change the system to reduce state mandates, and incentivize efficient spending, but neither party has been willing to support legislation to solve this problem.  So what you are looking for is not a symptom of local school district irresponsibility.  It is primarily a result of a dysfunctional state policy that forces local districts to spend more than the state is willing to pay.

Total spending$1,829,000,0002,001,000,000$172,000,000
Total State-Fed Revenues$1,279,000,000$1,278,000,000$0
Deficit  $ 550,000,000$   722,000,000$172,000,000

Now the point I will discuss in my next post, is the how the legislative majority has scored the increased spending caused by this state unfunded special education mandate.  
  Its another situation where they are taking credit for something that actually causes more misery.   In that post, I'll explain that the legislative majority has been telling local districts that if the mandate causes them to have to spend $100,000 more, and if the state pays them $50,000 more to do that, why, that's an increase.  And, in my next post, I'm going to explain, that it appears that the increase that the majority scoring claims to be providing St. Cloud, isn't coming to us at all.  So, the money that we are losing, is not counted as a decrease.  And, we are getting credit for an increase that we will never receive.

Friday, May 27, 2011

No increase for District 742 in Education Finance Bill, Despite Claims to the Contrary (1)

I've been trying to share information on the financial impact on our local district as compared to other districts and charters across the state.  In my last posts, I showed that our district, one of the most financially stressed in the State, is slated for a $74 per student reduction by the house and senate education finance bill.   I complained that some other school districts and charters are receiving substantial increases, but that urban districts and districts serving students in poverty, come out substantially worse.  To catch a reminder of what I said, just click here.     Some constituents passed along my position to a local legislator, who wrote back claiming that I was wrong.  Actually, he claimed, our district was in for a great big increase.  Now we're still sorting through all of the end-of-session material. And as we sort, we're finding out more about what happened, but the more we learn, the less we like what we see.

This happens every two years, whether the republicans are in control, or the democrats.   After the education finance bill is passed, and the session closes, the majority party comes home and brags about how much they have done for education.   And, typically, when we look at the increases (if any) that we received, and compare that to the increases they tell the public we are going to receive, we find a substantial discrepancy.   So whose right and what's the explanation.     None of us, the legislators, nor I, want to be wrong on this. Because sooner or later, if the law passes,  we're going to find out when the money actually is distributed.  So I'm spending  chunk of time analyzing, probing and querying to make sure.   As of today, to my regret, I'm still claiming that I'm right:  and that the Education bill cuts funding for the St. Cloud school district.

Scoring Education Finance Bills--Understanding Comparison-to-Base Runs:  Education finance bills are passed once every biennium, in odd numbered years.  The traditional way to score education finance bills is to create a spreadsheet called "runs," which show what each school district would receive under the former funding formula (called the base) and compare what that school district would receive under the new funding formula for the new biennium.   The comparison-to-base method, then shows what we would have  received per student under the old bill (including any increases and decreases that result from application of the formula), versus the amount that we would receive by application of the new formula.

The formula includes a variety of measures designed to reimburse school districts for higher or lower costs.  Special education is the best example (although the actual reimbursement is way way lower than actual cost).  The formula provides the district with more money for special education because educating students with disability cost more.   Under the comparison to base method, the "runs" assume that if the base formula awards more money to the school district for special education, that's not an increase that is caused by the new legislation.  Similarly, if a school district loses money under the formula, because it has fewer students who are costly to educate, under the comparison to base method, that's not counted as a decrease caused by the new legislation. 

Under that measure (new formula versus base) -- which is the customary measure used to evaluate education finance  our school district takes a $74 per student bath.  Our annual cuts will thus reach $710,000 in the second year of the biennium.  But the comparison-to-base runs do not fully state the magnitude of the cuts.   One reason is that the legislature is forcing up our contribution to employee pension plans by $250,000 per year, without reimbursement.  These runs don't report the mandated spending increases that come with legislation..

Another problem is that the legislative counting system wrongly assumes that each school district will receive a substantial increase in special education funding, even though in our case we will not.  Our state special education support has not increased since 2005, but each biennium, the runs report that we are going to receive an increase.  We can't increase special education spending, because we cannot afford to do that.   That's because the State doesn't reimburse all of our expenditure increases in special education and provides no revenue source to fund the difference.  This gift of additional special education funds, that they offer us comes with a poison pill.    If we accept the invitation of the comparison to base run to spend more in special education,  the unreimbursed  extra costs will drive us into deeper financial difficulty.  So the comparison-to-base system pretends that you will get money that you will not get.  And if you do get the money, you are actually put deeper in debt.  This system is so flawed, so misleading, so dysfunctional, that the accounting for it is wildly difficult to explain and even more difficult to understand.  Most legislators have given up trying.

There is another method of comparing the impact of legislation, and that is to count as an increase money that you were going to receive anyway on programs that require you to spend more as an increase provided by the legislation.   Under this approach, if you were going to receive a $100  per student increase under the existing formula (because of a change in student mix) and the legislation takes all $100 of that increase away, why that would be counted as revenue neutral.   So some legislators are telling voters that their school district didn't get cut, even if they took away increases that their district was due to receive under the old formula.   I'll talk more about this method of analyzing school finance legislation in my next post.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Some Districts Get Significant Cuts, while charters get increases

The House and Senate education bills have been marketed at holding public education harmless, but the House and Senate majorities have an unusual definition of harmless.   Actually, what is happening, is that some school districts are being held harmless--receiving an increase even, and other school districts are receiving significant cuts.  The cuts are all the more difficult for districts to sustain, because Governor Pawlenty froze the funding formula for the last two years, and provided only 2 percent and 1 percent respectively for the prior two years.   So all of these districts are getting cuts, on top, already, of the four leanest years in decades.

These cuts are inflicted on school districts that have made huge cuts already.  Now if these cuts were spread across the board, it would be perhaps understandable.  But actually, at the very same time, the legislature is providing increases to other districts, and especially to charter schools.   Now constantly, we hear the drumbeat in opposition to school funding that, well, this money doesn't make all that much difference.  One asks, then if money isn't important, why then is the house and senate majorities providing much bigger increases to charter schools.

Are the increases to charter schools a reward for closing the achievement gap.  No:  a study by the independent legislative auditor found actually that charter schools no better, and probably a poorer educational record in gap closing.  So what, then, is the increase to charter schools for, actually? The average charter school is slated to receive $11,210 per student, significantly more than we will receive in St. Cloud, even before makes allowances for the fact that St. Cloud and other traditional publics have special education deficits that charters do not have.   It is difficult to understand what in the world the legislature has in mind with this strategy, of significant charter school funding increases in a time of great need, and it is even more difficult to understand why the republican legislators in our district and others that are sacrificing their own local schools for this adventure.

The average change in school funding for school districts across the state is a $10 per student reduction.  The average change for charters is a $215 increase.   The average change for regional centers like St. Cloud, is a reduction of $7 per student, but our local legislators, except Hosch, voted for a $77 per student cut for St. Cloud.

The reductions per student listed on this chart does not tell the entire tale of the house and senate cuts.  Because the legislature has the regrettable habit of treating as a positive revenue, special education money that actually costs the school district more  in mandatory expenditures.  In fact, the more special education money that a district receives, in general, the worse off it is doing.   Just to use St. Cloud as an example, St. Cloud is given credit for receivingt $1500 per student in special education.   But that $1500 per student comes with a spending mandate of more than $2200.  However, when legislators look at the funding chart, they seem to think that they are doing St. Cloud a favor by giving us $1,500 that comes with a mandate that we spend $2200 per student.   That $700 deficit (which is slated to grow) makes special education money, "hot money," that seemingly causes you to go further in the hole, the more that you receive.  So most of these districts are actually experiencing even more significant cuts than this chart would indicate.

2011-203 Reductions per pupil for school districts
receiving cuts $40 per student or greater
Minneapolis -$190
St. Paul  -$152
Anoka -$66
Columbia Heights -$179
Pine Point -$75
New Ulm -$44
Montevideo -$46
Burnsville -$60
West St. Paul -$80
Inver Grove -$51
Albert Lea -$64
Hopkins -$70
Bloomington  -$61
Richfield -$119
Robbinsdale -$97
St. Louis Park -$86
Wayzayta -$43
Brooklyn Center -$41
Wilmar -$45
LeCentre -$48
Montgomery Lons. -$53
Ivanhoe -$46
Marshall -$86
Round Lake -$114
Worthington -$49
Fergus -$46
Mounds View -$64
No St. Paul -$84
Roseville -$60
White Bear -$71
St. Paul  -$152
Milroy -$47
Faribault -$54
Duluth -$84
Belle Plains -$46
St. Cloud -$74
South Wash -$40
Butterfield -$54
Madelia -$48
St. James -$50
Lake Crystal -$58
Yellow Medicine E -$76
Long Prairie -$64
Eagle Valley -$48

Saturday, May 21, 2011

St. Cloud Legislators and Community Leaders: Time to Stand up For St. Cloud Public Schools at the Legislature

A few years back, as a member of the school board,. I made a trip down to the legislature to show my support for the Mayor and city leadership's efforts to get legislative support for a civic center.   Its something you do when you are a community representative: fight for legislative recognition for your own community.   Because, if the leadership of your own community doesn't stand up for your own community at the legislature, who the heck will.

But the truth of the matter is, if the legislature funded twenty civic centers in St. Cloud, or their equivalent, it would not undo the damage that is about to be done to St. Cloud public education by the House and Senate education bills this year.   The financial damage is significant in this first budget year, but in the years following, the approach the legislature is proposing to take is catastrophic.

When the new majority came to St. Paul, it is clear they came to St. Paul with a mission to hold non-urban districts harmless from cuts by taking money away from urban districts, and they are doing that with a vengeance.  Some of these legislators come from rural or semi-rural districts with people who believe that the DFL used its urban voting strength to unfairly fund rural and semi-rural districts, and outer ring suburban districts.  There was more than a tinge of partisanship in this:  time to get even with the blue cities and move some money back into the red districts where it belongs.  But instead of holding districts harmless, the Republican majority is providing increases to some, and slashing funding for others. 

The primary target of these efforts was Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, which historically have had significant special funding that prefers them over all other cities in the state.   But in the heat of the moment, the new Republican majority in St. Paul has swept cities like Mankato, St. Cloud, and Anoka into the metro category, and is trying to blast those districts with huge cuts as well.    The Republicans came to majority in St. Paul promising to hold education harmless, but they are only holding red school districts harmless, and they are doing at the expense of the districts they count as blue.

Now the leadership of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth have fought back.  The Mayors have recognized that public education funding is critical to the survival of their communities. See Link.   In a letter to the legislative leadership, the Mayor of Minneapolis launched a campaign to protest against the legislative war on the three big cities.  He wrote:

Public education. Similarly, bills for funding K-12 public education in both the House and Senate disproportionately target Minneapolis, Saint Paul and Duluth schools for cuts — so much so that once the cuts for the three cities’ districts are subtracted from the total, the rest of Minnesota public school districts take no cuts at all, or actually receive increases in funding.
  • The Senate cuts K-12 education funding by $30 million — all of which comes from Minneapolis, Saint Paul and Duluth.
  • The House of Representatives cuts K-12 education funding by $14 million overall — but cuts $57 million from Minneapolis, Saint Paul and Duluth, leaving an increase of $43 million for schools everywhere else.
As the mayors of Minnesota’s three largest cities, we have regularly expressed our view that the young people of Minneapolis, Saint Paul and Duluth are the key to our region’s future economic competitiveness. Disproportionately targeting cuts to our core cities will hinder our ability to educate and train a workforce that will enable Minnesota’s businesses to create jobs and compete effectively in the global economy.
So far, the leadership of St. Cloud have remained strangely quiet as the legislature proposes to crush St. Cloud education financially.  One is inclined to cry out to our legislators:  hey you guys, you don't get it.  We're not a blue district we're red.  St. Cloud has a nine million special education deficit.   What the republican leadership is proposing to do is to take more money from St. Cloud, to fund districts and charters with very small, or no special education deficit at all.So, I'm writing to say to anyone who will listen:  time to prove that your vote counts at the legislature.  Stand up for St. Cloud public education. 

This is not the first time that St. Cloud has been under legislative attack with respect to funding.  In 2001, the legislature adopted a new funding formula that took away nearly 5 million dollars from St. Cloud, money that the district had raised by operating referendum, money that was needed to cover our special education deficit, and that action through the District into a downard financial spiral that wiped out its fund balance completely, and took four years to recover from.   At the time, our local legislative delegation was unwilling, or unable, to protect St. Cloud from these devastating cuts.  

This is a time for our legislative representatives, Baniaan, Gotwald, and Peterson, to think long and hard about who they represent-- the republican leadership, or the children of St. Cloud.    Some of these representatives have, I know, worked really hard to help us be heard.  And, who am I to tell these hard working legislators how to do their job?   But I will say this:  as a legislator, once the legislative leadership learns that you are willing to vote against the interests of your own community, you get put on the list of legislators who will not fight for their own district.   By voting  for the current anti-St. Cloud school funding legislation, the legislators will be sending a message to the leadership:  never mind about St. Cloud.  Their legislators will lobby for St. Cloud, but when the chips are down, they can be rolled.

St. Cloud needs an emergency effort on behalf of public education.   We are being challenged at the legislature by a republican majority that has decided they can move money out of the St. Cloud school district budget to hold other school districts without consequence.   They haven't heard from the City Council; they haven't heard from the Mayor; they haven't heard from communities of faith; they haven't even heard, in a way that counts (by their votes) from our own legislators.

I want to close by saying that I understand that state government faces a funding crisis.   So it makes sense that the education budget would be very tight this year.   The issue here is that the republican majority has decided, despite this great funding crisis, that they can provide increases to many districts, most of which are red districts, and to fund that with huge transfers out of urban districts with high rates of poverty.    All I'm asking is that St. Cloud's legislators and community leaders stand up and be counted:   St. Cloud school funding should not be the cash register that funds other school districts to provide them with funding increases at our expense.   

Sunday, May 8, 2011

School Boards Look at Digital Textbook Substitutes

Last week, two accomplished teachers delivered a presentation to our school board demonstrating the use of IPOD touch to deliver a variety of educational books, interactive educational programs, and movies.  A panoply of apps are being created for the IPAD, the IPOD, kindle, and many other delivery systems.  The purpose of that presentation was informational:  to open new vistas and broaden our thinking about the future role of electronic textbooks, educational software, interactive information systems that may radically alter learning and teaching.  Our teachers showed us that this new generation of educators have command of an array of technological skills, combined with enthusiasm for using technology to improve teaching and learning.

The earliest efforts at digital textbooks involved the scanning of existing textbooks into PDF, or other digital formats, ala the Google Book project.  A Newsweek Article,  Digital Textbooks May Revolutionize Education writes:
There are already digital textbooks available, and their numbers are expected to grow: according to Simba Information, which provides data and research on the media industry, they represent less than 2 percent of textbook sales today, but will reach 10 percent by 2012. But in 2010 the offerings were pretty meager. CourseSmart, a San Mateo, Calif., company collectively owned by five of the biggest textbook publishers, has 6,000 educational titles for sale in digital format. But its electronic books are little more than scanned versions of printed works. A CourseSmart e-book includes some neat functions, like search capability and digital note-taking, but for the most part, it has few advantages over a traditional textbook other than weight and price. (CourseSmart books usually cost less than half the price of a new printed book.)
But the advent of new platforms such as Kindle, IPAD, and even IPOD touch, has created new opportunities to create educational tools with flexibility, portability, interactivity, and connectivity. Without question, we are witnessing an explosion of options for teachers and students.  The options are so numerous, and some so exciting, that it becomes daunting for policy makers even to figure out the right questions, let alone come up with the right answers.  Should we invest in IPAD's, IPOD's, Kindles, PC's, or something that isn't yet envisioned?   Will textbooks eventually stop being delivered on paper?   Will the new trend lower the cost of textbooks and textbooks substitutes, or increase the overall cost?   Who will be responsible for vetting quality, accuracy, and grade-appropriateness of material presented?   Will the new flexibility provided by digital media lead to a scattershot approach that leaves out critical components of the curriculum.  Will the new flexibility afforded by electronic media, reduce the control over textbook content historically afforded to the large states, particularly Texas and California? What will be the duration of the license for textbooks:  for example, Coursesmart textbooks are not owned by the purchaser, but are subject to an expiring license.  The student cannot sell the book, after use, and recover some of the purchase price.)

Education is tremendously vulnerable to the excitement of the latest fad.   One website source writes:  "Teaching is, by its very nature, experimental. We teachers are just as susceptible to snake-oil sales pitches, fads, and cultural pressures as any professionals".  In education, we have this undying desire to introduce new ideas, new philosophical approaches, new theories and new techniques.   How do we make sure that we are not ensnared into a particular technology, particular strategy, that is destined to fail, or that is not ultimately an improvement in learning?   Where can Superintendents, curriculum directors, board members, teachers and parents go to try to understand the exciting challenges that are underway?

We know that the manufactures of hardware devices -- Apple and Kindle, for example, will be putting tremendous pressure on school districts, colleges and universities to adopt their particular delivery system as a national standard.   We saw this happen with the dawn of the personal computer, as Apple provided discounted Apples to school districts across the country, hoping to make Apple the delivery system of choice.
Vendors of operating systems (Apple, Microsoft, and others) will hope to dominate by creating industry standards again to dominate the educational market.  Its going to take a lot of resilience and care for the education industry to make wise choices.

Incidentally,  Korea has decided to control the pace and introduction of digital school media centrally  with a national strategy. The Korean Digital Textbook program was announced by the Education Ministry of South Korea on March 8, 2007. The digital textbook is currently being tested in several primary schools and will be distributed free to every school nation-wide by 2013.  See Background Article.

In the United States, this process is being dominated by foundations, new startup companies, and industry giants.  A conferences on the future of digital textbooks sponsored by O'Reilly provides some useful background information. Click Here    At that conference, the keynote speaker argued that a variety of forces are converging to increase the use of digital textbooks and online learning.
  • Growing movement by students, parents, and professors against high price and weight of traditional textbooks.   (It is not yet obvious that ultimately electronic textbooks substitutes of the future will actually be less costly, all things considered, than traditional texbooks
  • Retirement of baby-boom teachers and full emergence of digital natives—younger teachers who have always grown up among computers and integrate them seamlessly into their lives—fueling use of digital textbooks and other digital content 
  • Policy papers like "A Kindle in Every Backpack” policy paper recommend public funding for student e-book devices  
  • California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched an initiative in May 2009 to provide schools with free, open-source digital textbooks for high school students 
  • President Obama announced an initiative to invest in creating online community college courses for job training programs, improvements in basic skills education, and free online education
Where then can we go to begin to get a deeper understanding of the trends and choices now underway?  The Horizon Report 2010  provides a detailed discussion of the issues that we confront.   Here are some other places you can learn more:

Flat World Knowledge, click here.     A visit to their website suggests that you can read open source texts on line for free, but the viewing is available  in a window that is somewhat inconvenient, although far superior to the experience on the tiny IPOD touch.  If you like the text, you can upload it into your kindle, nook, etc for $25.   Or, print it out yourself for a $25 fee, plus your own printing costs.  You can order it shipped to your door for about  $35 to $70.

C-12 Foundation  is creating "Flexbooks" for  IPad, Kindle and others.  The website explains: "Today, textbooks in use in the K-12 system are limiting, expensive, and difficult to update. Because of this, K-12 teachers find it hard to cater to different needs as well as to introduce new concepts. We need a more flexible and less expensive system to create and distribute books and online content. The K-12 system needs to be provided with access to high quality online content, and simple solutions to create, customize, update, and print. This new concept provides a system that will follow an open educational resource philosophy to place content online that can be "mixed, modified, and printed" to suit a teacher's need while adhering to curriculum standards. Our solutions will enable all students to access and obtain an education around the globe.

CourseSmart is run by a consortium of the major textbook publishers.  See also CourseSmart Blog,   You can acquire digital versions, many merely scanned into PDF, for use on your platform of choice.

Inkling   is a company dedicated to publishing digital textbooks for the IPAD.  They write:
Publishing in this new era will cast aside the constraints of the printed book and embrace the opportunity of multitouch devices and their impressive computing power. It will generate content that responds to the user, and it will engage people in new ways that television, newspapers, magazines and websites never could. Inkling is the realization of that potential. It’s a flexible, interactive publishing platform where the human is at the center of the creative process, not the book. Where the iPad is the canvas, not paper. And as people start to grasp the power of the platform, you’re going to see ever more exciting content inside. What we’ve done so far is just the beginning, but it’s already exciting.
Inkling continues:
 Interactivity, though, is only part of the story. Bringing texts onto a digital platform provides an opportunity to make the book as social as the classroom. With Inkling’s technology, for instance, a student can choose to follow another’s “note stream,” or view a heat map of the class’s most-highlighted passages. Professors get real-time information on how much of the reading assignment the class actually did, or whether a particular review problem is tripping up large numbers of students. All that comes on top of the cost savings: even these advanced digital textbooks will cost less than their print equivalents (with most of them in the $99 range) and some will even come “unbundled,” allowing students to buy the individual chapters they need most for a small fraction of the cost of a full textbook.
But others are less sanguine about the future of e-textbooks on the IPAD.  An article in Wired Campus writes: "Matt MacInnis, Inkling’s chief executive, said that students have resisted e-textbooks because they have been difficult to use, but that the success of the iPad offers a chance to start over. Inkling’s focus on painstakingly rebuilding textbooks from scratch in an iPad-friendly format, along with their lower price, will make the difference, he said. (Wired Campus)  Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, said he was skeptical that e-textbooks would see a major turnaround on the timeline that Mr. MacInnis suggested. It is not clear that students actually want digital textbooks, he said, and early indications are that few students believe e-textbooks are a better experience.  It’s also not clear that electronic textbooks will cost much less than their printed cousins, he said. Publishers and others “have to thread the needle between the great aspirations and expectations that these products are going to cost less, and bring dramatic added value,” Mr. Green said. “It just hasn’t happened yet.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

NWEA Scores Provide one window on student achievement

I"ve begun a series of posts on how the Board of Education and our educational leadership is using data to monitor our educational progress. One of the ways that we measure student progress is to use the NWEA's nationally normed progress indicators in math and reading.  Information about the NWEA testing system is widely available.  I've posted about the NWEA testing system in the past.  You can find those posts here: (Board gets Accountability Results) and (More About NWEA Accountability). See also:  St. Cloud Board of Education Uses Achievement Data to drive Continuous Improvement

The table below is a cutting from the testing results for this year.  The scores are reported as "RIT Scores."  A RIT score RIT stands for Rasch Unit, which is a unit of measure that uses individual item difficulty values to estimate student achievement.  RIT scores create an equal interval scale.  Equal interval means that the difference between scores is the same regardless of whether a student is at the top, bottom or middle of the RIT scale, and it has the same meaning regardless of grade level.

On this table, you see, for example, that the the national math median score for Kindergarten entering in the fall is 148 (Fall target).  The national median for first graders at the beginning of the year is 164, and the median for the second grade at the beginning of fall is 179.    Another way of looking at this is that from kindergarten to first grade, the median score rises nationally by 16 points, and by 15 points from the beginning of first grade to second grade.  You can find all of the RIT scale norms for NWEA math and reading tests by clicking here.  

 Let's take a look at what we can learn from this data.

The first line tells us that 734 students took the test in kindergarten this year.   The median RIT score for these students, coming into the district for the first time, was 144, or about 4 points lower than the national median.  We've marked the median for our school district in red for KG fall entrants, because the median entry score is lower than the national median.  What does that mean?  

We need to start by recognizing that the median is a measure of the middle score.   It doesn't tell us about the top 25 percent of students, and it doesn't tell us about the bottom 25%.  It merely tells us the cutoff score that divides the top 50% of students from the bottom 50%.   Recognize also that District 742 has a higher rate of students who come to the school district not speaking English, and a higher rate of students with learning disabilities.  So we would expect to find the median entry score somewhat lower than the national average. One of the dangers of looking at the median is that it doesn't tell you very much about how most students are doing.   A school district can have a large number of highly proficient students and still have a lower median. Moreover, the goal in education is not to raise the median score of a group of students.  The goal in education is to assure that all students reach their potential.    We are dealing with children here, not statistics.

What can we say about the magnitude of the difference in median score from the national average? Its about a quarter year behind.   The median score of kindergartners is about 1/4 of a year behind.   Now some students are going to be much farther behind, and other students are going to be quite a bit behind.  

Notice that the standard deviation for entering kindergartners is 11.7.   The Standard Deviation is a measure of how spread out numbers are.  A low standard deviation indicates that the data points tend to be very close to the mean, whereas high standard deviation indicates that the data are spread out over a large range of values.  Roughly, we might expect that about 34% of the students score between 144 and 155 when they enter kindergarten and about the same percentage score between 133 and 144.   The children who score below the median may score below for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps their parents haven't read to them.  Perhaps English is not their native language.  Perhaps they are just running a bit behind, as children at this age often do.  Perhaps they have a developmental delay or disability.  Our challenge, as educators, is to help these children grow. Whether they are behind or ahead, they are not statistics, they are god's children.

In winter, this year, the same group of kg students were tested and their median score was one point below the median (for winter).  Because the median score is below the national median, by one point, we've marked the score in red.   That's kind of ridiculous, really, because the one point diifference is almost meaningless.   Its a just a smidgen below.   We could say, also, that the cohort of Kindergartners made up a couple of points on the national average.  Whether that is significant, I leave to you.  Keep in mind, again, that some of the kids may have advanced significantly more, and others significantly less than the median growth.   These statistics are merely one window on what is going on in Kindergarten this year.    Let's not make the mistake of overstating their value.

Let's look at the first grade scores a bit, now.  When politicians and pundits, and sometimes school people, look at statistics like this, they make the mistake of saying that the first grade scores were 17 points higher than the Kindergarten scores.  That's a mistake, because these are two entirely different classes of students.  We can't compare the first grade scores to the kindergarten scores as if the first grade "progressed" or didn't progress beyond the kindergarten, because we aren't measuring the same students.   We see that the median score for first graders this year was three points behind the national median, and that by winter test-taking time, that same class had a median score equal to the national median (for winter).  Similarly, we see that the median score for entering second graders was three points below the median, and then by the winter test, the second grader St. Cloud median was at the national median.

Now we are looking at the aggregated scores, here.   But classroom teachers are looking at individual student scores and they are trying to assist students, all of them, to grow.   They can see whether a student enters behind, and they can see whether the student is catching up, or falling further behind. They can look at NWEA growth scores for demographic subgroups of particular students.   If they try a new teaching technique, or find a mentor for a student, they can see whether that approach seems to be engendering growth  The NWEA growth patterns help us at the Board level to monitor progress in the aggregate.  But the NWEA individual scores help parents and their teachers to focus in on whether the individual student is behind, or ahead the median, and whether they are making progress.

In the next post, I'll look at some further ways that we can use NWEA scores to focus our attention on student growth and student achievement.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Commissioner’s Education Funding Working Group strikes out on special education funding.

From time to time, a task force is convened to fix Minnesota's broken school finance system.   Every time that happens, the task force or commission runs up against a major problem:  the growing special education deficit.   Every time, the task force must decide whether to solve that problem, or to continue the current system, which shifts most of the burden onto a selected subset of school districts, primarily urban center districts, the Twin Cities, Duluth, and regional hubs like St. Cloud.   The basic problem has always been that whatever formula used, it works out that districts with high special education populations lose out and carry huge deficits. 

St. Cloud's current deficit is approaching $9 million.  Anoka's is rising beyond $28 million.  Minnesota's projected special education deficit is projected to be 700 million per year by 2013.  (See chart at the bottom of this blog post) The Education Finance Working Group has not adopted a final solution, but the news is not looking very promising for an honest,  courageous, and fair solution in special education.  It appears, based on postings at the MDE that the Commissioner's Education Funding Working Group has decided to put a few bandaids on the problem, and call it even.  

This blog may be unjust, and its author unfair.  I certainly hope so.  But it appears that the price tag is  too big to advance a straightforward solution.   And so, we are beginning to see, regrettably, once again, a bandaid solution that ignores the most significant and financially stifling problem facing education finance in Minnesota.   

There is one and only one possible solution to this problem, and that is to provide $700 million in additional revenues to local school districts, or to provide them with discretionary revenues to fund the part of the deficit which the State refuses to cover out of state sources.   True, the magnitude of this special education deficit problem could be cushioned by reducing state mandated spending.   For example, the State could eliminate spending mandates in excess of the Federal IDEA requirements.  But neither Republicans nor Democrats, nor the MDE Commissioner, nor anyone on the task force, apparently, is willing to advance this idea.   That means, evidently, that the Funding Working Group is apparently beginning with the assumption that special education costs will continue to rise unabated in Minnesota and that certain districts will continue to eat those costs.

As long as the task force insists in holding the cost side of special education harmless, there is only one honest, constitutional solution to this underfunding problem, and that is to close the funding gap with additional revenues.  Why will the task force not advance this simple straightforward solution?  The answer is that the education community in Minnesota has continued to enable the MDE, the legislature and the governor, in sweeping the special education funding problem under the rug, as if it was someone else's problem.  

Time after time, this issue has been addressed with half measures and evasions.  Time after time, the solution in Minnesota has to been to blame the federal government, and pass the deficit on to a subclass of local districts.    It is as if the representatives of the education in Minnesota has agreed to the proposition that the Emperor has new clothes.  They say, "we have a 700 million dollar annual special education deficit in Minnesota:.  If we solved that problem in a straightforward way, it would cost too much money, so lets not bother trying."  

And so, the Working Group appears headed once again to place bandaids on special education funding..   Various funding formula devices seem to be under discussion, none of which even remotely equalize the burden.   Some form of minor cost shifting in favor of "receiving" districts is under consideration, it appears.  The result would be modest adjustments still leaving great gaping holes in special education funding to be carried by the unfortunate districts who are designated to carry the load for the entire state.   

Again, I would be happy to be proven wrong.  If my interpretation proves unjust, I'll be the first to extend my apologies.  But it appears that the Working Group is going to continue the Minnesota practice of balancing the education budget on the backs of a few districts once again while calling the result a "Miracle."  

At the same time, it appears, the funding working group is toying with the idea of actually limiting the role of local taxation in solving the shortfall for the disfavored districts.   Most school districts that are carrying humongous state mandated special education deficits survive by passing operating referendums. Yet, it appears that the Working Group is operating under the mistaken belief that constitutional equality means denying revenue to districts with higher state mandated special education deficits.   The Working Group seems still to be operating under the philosophy that was actually rejected in the Skeen decision, to wit, that the constitution requires equality of funding sources.  In fact, the Constitution requires exactly the opposite.  The Constitution demands that when the state shifts greater costs onto a local district, that the State must provide a revenue source, state or local, to cover that deficit. 

Having denied local school districts state revenues to close their state mandated special education funding, logic would suggest that then the Working Group would provide local districts with local revenues to equalize the burden.  But instead, the working group appears to be going in the opposite direction.   The motto of the Working Group appears to be the same as other task forces in the past:   Equalize everything except for special education.   Make everything fair, except for special education, which is, well just too hard to solve to make things fair.  

Listen.   Any solution that fails to equalize the special education burden in Minnesota is doomed to failure.  It is not constitutional.  It is not just.  It is nothing more than a way for the districts with lower special education responsibilities to gang up on the subgroup of school districts who have high and costly responsibilities.   And, such a solution fails cannot withstand constitutional strict scrutiny and is destined to be struck down.  

Other posts on Special education finance:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

St. Cloud Board of Education Uses Achievement Data to drive Continuous Improvement

This year, our board of education has been working to implement an important step in our Key Work of School Boards" initiative to improve our governance.  The Key  Work  model urges school boards to  focus on data that describes student achievement.    Understanding the budget is important, sure.   But our primary responsibility  is to create the conditions for maintaining and improving student achievement.   The Key Work paradigm says that school boards must study and discuss data on student achievement:

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.  (Quoted from “eight characteristics of effective school boards”)

In the 1950's and 1960's, school boards often focused most heavily on financial performance of their districts.  In the decades that followed, boards in many school districts followed a national trend of focusing instead on personnel decisions, especially the selection of their superintendent.  Carried to extremes, these boards bought into the idea that student performance was the job of the superintendent, and that board's job was merely to select a superintendent who would then take full responsibility for the professional task of managing achievement.  By the year 2000,  a national trend began to lead us towards the concept that effective school boards must focus most of their work on student achievement.

This trend towards examining the data mirrors a national trend in the use of data by teachers, principals and curriculum and instructional leadership to improve results.  See for example:   Improving Teaching and Learning with Data-Based Decisions: Asking the Right Questions and Acting on the Answers  Click Here

This use of data in teaching and learning, and the use of data by school boards, is still in its infancy.   Mastering student achievement data, is easier said than done.    For example, a statistic seemingly as simple as "graduation rate" is subject to wide differences of approach. (Click Here)  (See also  Education Week's Graduation Rates ...Misleading)   Any attempt to master student achievement data requires significant study, tremendous patience, and an inquiring mind.

In our district, we've begun to implement this focus on student achievement by adoption of a framework measurable goals that are embodied in so-called "vision cards."  The vision cards use a broad array of measurement tools, including proficiency measures, progress measures, and consumer satisfaction measures. One of the central measures that we use is derived from  the highly respected NWEA MAP test, which allows us to measure growth at the individual student level, at the classroom level, at the school level and across the district.  You can find out more about how this nationally normed testing system works by clicking HERE.    NWEA testing norms are based on a population of over one million students who take the tests.  Parents who want to understand more about the NWEA testing system can download the "parent toolkit" at the main NWEA testing website.

I've posted about one important part of our data-based accountability system in the past.   You can find those posts here: (Board gets Accountability Results) and (More About NWEA Accountability).
What kind of data are we receiving from our testing system.   Here are some examples:
  • Median test scores for each grade level in our school district in reading and math before the school year begins and at the end of the school year.  
  • The standard deviation from these median test scores (a measure of the dispersion of scores above and below the median
  • A comparison of the median scores at each of these grade levels to the national median scores for each grade level.
  • Median scores for students by demographic group so that we can compare those scores to district and national averages 
As we study the our district's data, and compare it to national norms, we are finding that understanding data is demanding and requires careful and thoughtful study, as I've said.  In future posts, I'm going to write more about the challenges we face in using student achievement data at the school board level.