Who’s next? And who is really to blame?

Posted on March 2, 2010



Apparently, we now have a national initiative underway to replicate the Central Falls, Rhode Island drama across poor urban and inner urban fringe schools and districts. This national initiative places blame for school failure directly on school principals (who, by necessity must be replaced if reform is to happen) and on at least 50% of each failing school’s teachers. Once again, there is no attention paid to whether or not the STATE has, in fact, fulfilled its obligation to provide (or ensure) equitable and adequate financial resources for the district or schools under fire. None – no mention of it whatsoever. Clearly, it must be the principal’s and teachers’ fault if a school fails, regardless of the resources available to that school or host district???

Few locations nationwide provide more stark examples than Duncan’s home state of Illinois for why this “blame the school,” “blame the teachers,” “blame the central district office” perspective is so deeply problematic.

To date (assuming Pennsylvania continues to follow through on its finance reforms), Illinois maintains the most regressive state school finance system in the nation. What I mean by this is that Illinois maintains a system whereby higher poverty school districts – and higher minority concentration school districts – receive systematically less state and local revenue per pupil than lower poverty ones. And the disparities in Illinois are far greater than almost anywhere else in the country.

Here, for example, is the relationship between the relative level of state and local revenue per pupil (2007-08) and district shares of low-income children for school districts in the immediate Chicago region. 1.0 on the vertical axis represents the average state and local revenue. A value of less than 1.0 indicates less than average state and local revenue in the region. As poverty increases, relative state and local revenue decreases. There are no fancy cost adjustments applied here. This is just straight up, state and local revenue – the bulk of school funding.

So – why does this matter? The reality is that these much higher need districts require more, not fewer resources if we expect them to approach comparable outcomes. On the one hand, they need more resources in order to provide greater staffing intensity (staffing quantities) to provide the level of services needed to overcome background differences of the children they serve. In addition, it is increasingly well understood that to recruit and retain comparably qualified teachers into higher poverty, higher minority concentration settings requires a higher wage than in surrounding districts which happen to have more desirable working conditions. In short, higher need districts require a greater number of comparable teachers, who come at a higher price per teacher. That gets expensive.  So, even if these higher poverty districts had comparable state and local revenue, they’d be in a bind.

Here’s a map of district composite test scores expressed as standard deviations from the mean of districts serving comparable grade levels (because proficient rates tend to shift by grade level). Deeper brown colors are the “low performers” and darker blue colors are the “high performers.” We can quickly identify a few good candidates for whipping out the Central Falls playbook! There they are – in Deep Brown… the failures… who must be reformed… replaced…!!! And of course, it’s their own darn fault! Mismanagement. An abomination. Our kids deserve better!!!!! How dare these adults treat them so poorly!!!! (in this map, purple dots indicate majority Hispanic schools and red dots, majority black schools).

Okay, enough of that. Note above that most of these low performing districts are also districts with majority black or Hispanic schools. Here’s the same map but with school poverty represented as circle size. Notably, these low performing districts also have very high poverty schools.

Now let’s go back to the scatterplot of relative state and local revenues, but focus on the highest poverty school districts:

Our very low performing, high poverty districts are also very low in state and local revenue per pupil relative to their surrounding districts! Again, this graph includes no fancy attempt to adjust the value of state and local revenues for the different costs and needs faced by these districts.

But, this map does!!! Here, I have estimated a statistical model to determine the relative costs in each district of achieving state average composite scores, and from that model I have calculated just how much more (or less) each district would need to spend per pupil in order to be able to achieve state average outcomes (if it did so at average efficiency).Districts in the deepest red color would need over $5,000 more in per pupil current operating spending in order to have a shot at achieving average outcomes. Districts in blue have well more than what they need in order to achieve averageness.

Each of our Central Falls candidates is in deep red here. Each has well less than it would need in order to achieve average outcomes. And that deficit is a function of inequitable and selectively inadequate state funding for local public school districts.

Should we really be blaming, exclusively, the teachers and principals in these schools and districts for their failures? Does adequate and equitable state and local funding of these schools and districts have absolutely no place in the current policy discourse? How can two guys from Illinois take such a stand and do so with a straight face?

Isn’t the state at least partly to blame for which schools and districts are failing under the STATE’s accountability system and under the STATE’s approach to financing schools? Do we really think that we can fix these schools and districts by dumping half the teachers, firing the principal and giving them a one time infusion of federal funding without ever addressing the systemic failures of the state’s education policies?

I’m not trying to argue that these schools and districts actually do have great teachers who should be considered untouchable. They may not. They may have among the least qualified teachers available on the local labor market. It might even actually be a good idea to replace some or many of them. But, replacing these teachers with “better” teachers will require appropriate sustained resource levels – not a one shot infusion of federal bailout, or a constant churning of cadres of eager, well-educated and well-meaning volunteers.

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