Update 8/1: Since I published this piece, Bennett has resigned and Anne Hyslop at the New America Foundation has done the hard and invaluable work of checking the math. Original post follows:
The story that former Indiana Superintendent and current Florida education commissioner Tony Bennett may have intervened to either correct or alter the accountability grade of a school with close ties to a political donor is this week’s slow news Rorschach test – people generally see what they want. The immediate responses have been unfortunately predictable: the anti-reform crowd claims it proves their conspiracy theories on GOP donors; the reform crowd (many of whom are personal friends of Bennett) rush in to defend him primarily on character. Fighters, to your corners, and come out swinging.
But there are issues here that have nothing to do with Bennett. A long time ago I had the benefit of a brief internship with the ACLU, where I spent some time with chief legal counsel Art Spitzer. One of the lessons he impressed on me was a simple test: flip both the speaker and subject of any conversation to its opposite, and see if your opinion is the same. If it is, you have an argument on principle. If not, you don’t.
In my experience, School Board members are rarely reliable commentators on the academic quality of their districts. So an Op-Ed in yesterday’s Denver Post by a sitting Douglas County school board member caught my eye, particularly given the amount of change occurring in the district.
I believe pretty strongly that school districts (and their governing bodies) should be primarily judged on the academic outcomes of their students.
And while it was not the primary topic, the essay did touch on this topic briefly:
… and our test scores are higher than four years ago all because we have attracted great teachers, engaged parents and energized students.
The Op-Ed left me wondering how exactly DougCo is doing on basic academic measurements over the past few years. So I took a look.
My belief is that school districts are best measured by exit-level proficiency (see the introduction to this report for why) where the best single metric is the ACT test which is given to all 11th grade students across Colorado. How has DougCo progressed on their ACT scores over the past few years? Well, results are basically flat from 2008 – 2012; a slight jump in the past two years for a 0.3 increase (1.4%) in total over the last five. 2013 results will be available in August, and maybe we’ll see something substantial, but otherwise it’s hard to put much weight on what is a pretty minor shift.
The ACT is only given to 11th graders; let’s look at two other common and more broad measures that are based on the CSAP/TCAP, which is given to all 3rd to 10th graders across the district: the percentage of students who are proficient or advanced, and a measure of academic growth (median growth percentiles). Both, much like ACTs, are essentially flat over the past five years.
Imagine, for a moment, that the public school district of the city in which you live decided to start a program to charge families who wanted to send their kids to a specific school. The price was pretty expensive — $16,000 in a lump-sum payment for the best schools — but in return all children in a family can attend any single school for as many years as they are eligible. However, if you want to switch schools — say from an elementary to a middle school — you may have to pay again. And oddly, the district decides that it will not use these fees to make any of its schools better, but will instead allow a variety of private companies and individuals to pocket the money. Pretty sure that you would never support such an outlandish scheme? Well, not to worry, you already do.
For the system of traditional school enrollment does exactly that: one can guarantee attendance at any single school through buying a house nearby. $16,000 is the estimated increase in price for a house in the greater St. Louis area near a school with test scores in the top third of its district, according to this report by the Federal Reserve Bank. And, of course, the premium one pays for these properties does not go back to the public school system which caused them — they enrich various participants in the residential real estate industry. Indeed, if the additional dollars that currently flow to the housing industry because of the public school system were instead directed into the schools themselves, Colorado could probably avoid the anticipated $1 billion tax required to revamp the state’s school finance laws.
Anyone who follows education policy knows that many programs are oversold. Initiatives and bills are touted as groundbreaking, landmark, and unprecedented — often well in advance of any ground broken, land marked, or precedent undone. This is generally part of the political game: to pass a controversial bill or initiative, one has to manufacture the widespread belief that it will have a large and significant impact. But recently this tendency seems to have jumped to a whole new geographic level.
For apparently it is not enough to say anymore that an State education bill will simply transform Colorado. One has to say that what Colorado is doing is so mesmerizing that the rest of the 49 states should stop short and gaze upon us in our resplendent majesty. Witness yesterday’s passage of SB 213, which would revamp the way Colorado finances its school districts, from the perspective of both the Governor and the bill’s primary sponsor:
Is is SB 213 truly “bringing the best accountability and transparency in the nation“ and a “national model for equity and outcomes” [my emphasis]? This is not a confluence of random opinions, it is a pre-meditated talking point weaving its way through the latest debate about education reforms (see this Op-Ed, or comments here). Is it now too low a bar to want to simply improve the state of affairs for the citizens of Colorado? Is the national stage the best place to debut?
One of the arguments opponents of school choice — and particularly those who are anti charter schools — now make most frequently is that increased options and the ability for families to select schools rather than be assigned to them is somehow decreasing diversity and promoting segregation. I’ve written previously on this topic through the lens of Denver Public Schools (where it’s not the case), but wondered what a broader look might reveal. Thankfully, this analysis has now been done over a nine-year period, and by Brookings (so please hold off on claims that it is politically tarnished).
What the author found was really interesting. To start, as I’ve argued as well, the comparison of large static averages are not particularly useful, particularly when comparing dense urban populations with other demographics, which the Brookings analysis makes clear:
The debate over SB 191 — better known as the bill that revamped teacher evaluations — was a watershed moment in Colorado, and one of the most bitterly debated education issues of the decade. Proponents of the bill took out full-page advertisements in the Denver Post, opponents held rallies at the state capital. Both sides engaged in pitched PR battles, enlisting numerous other groups.
The bitterness has lingered, and considerable animosity remains — particularly from opponents (which is logical; prevailing views have far less to shout about). Groups that lobbied hard against SB 191 remain ardent critics as it moves towards implementation. Whatever one’s position on SB 191 (and I am sort of in the middle), it’s impossible to believe that the sustained volume and venom of pubic rhetoric had no impact, particularly on teachers.
Sure enough, in a just released biannual poll of Colorado teachers, one of the major findings is cited thus:
In this year’s survey, the percentage of teachers who felt evaluations are fair dropped from 84.1 percent to 79.8 percent.
That’s a decent size drop. Is it meaningful?
March brings with it two education rituals: college becomes young adults trying to get an orange ball through an iron circle, and K-12 public education transforms into students filling in small circles of multiple choice questions. The month-long NCAA tournament is viewed as a pleasant and worthy distraction, while a few days of standardized testing is seen as an evil intrusion. Both seem to inspire a certain madness well beyond the actual stakes, and a lot of passionate yelling.
The complaints about standardized testing vary, but most of them originate from either a profound or deliberate misunderstanding of what standardized tests are supposed to measure. These complaints include painfully obvious critiques: answering multiple choice questions is not the same as communicating a love for poetry, and assertions that such tests are useless because “as a parent, I see my child as an individual who deserves a personalized education.” Nobody is arguing the other side of such platitudinal truisms. For these criticisms are both perfectly valid and yet they absolutely miss the point; they are airballs hurled without direction at the periphery of the public school system.