Real Reform versus Fake Reformy Distractions: More Implications from NJ & MA for CT!

Posted on April 15, 2012



Recently, I responded to an absurd and downright disturbing Op-Ed by a Connecticut education reform organization that claimed that Connecticut needed to move quickly to adopt teacher evaluation/tenure reforms and expand charter schooling because a) Connecticut has a larger achievement gap and lower outcomes for low income students than Massachusetts or New Jersey and b) New Jersey and Massachusetts were somehow outpacing Connecticut in adopting new reformy policies regarding teacher evaluation. Now, the latter assertion is questionable enough to begin with, but the most questionable assertion was that any recent policy changes that may have occurred in New Jersey or Massachusetts explain why low income children in those states do better, and have done better at a faster rate than low income kids in Connecticut. Put simply, bills presently on the table, or legislation and regulations adopted and not yet phased in do not explain the gains in student outcomes of the past 20 years.

Note that I stick to comparisons among these states because income related achievement gaps are most comparable among them (that is, the characteristics of the populations that fall above and below the income thresholds for free/reduced lunch are relatively comparable among these states, but not so much to states in other regions of the country).

I’m not really providing much new information in this post, but I am elaborating on my previous point about the potential relevance of funding equity – school finance – reforms – and providing additional illustrations.

First, let’s take a look at the relationship between state and local revenues per pupil and median household income over time in Mass, CT, RI and NJ. These data are drawn from an article I published in 2010 in which I estimated a model for all states of the relationship between median household income and state and local revenue per pupil over time. In that recent article, I plotted the relationship over time for several states. Here, I have re-plotted that relationship for New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

This graph shows the slope of the statistical relationship between state and local revenues per pupil and median household income, controlling for differences in regional labor costs and economies of scale of districts. All 4 states managed to reduce or eliminate what had been positive relationships between household income and district revenues. That is, in 1990, in each state higher income districts had more revenue. By the late 1990s, Mass and NJ had reversed that pattern, and in fact had redistributed revenue such that districts with lower median household income actually had more revenue. The finance systems had become “progressive,” so-to-speak.

By contrast, the relationship between income and revenue remained more random – and on average flat – in RI and CT.  How Connecticut made so little consistent progress toward fiscal equity over time is another story for another day.

By 2009, things were pretty much the same, as the next figure shows. The next figure compares current operating expenditures per pupil and district poverty rates. Current operating expenditures include expenditure of federal funds, including Title I funds. Those federal funds tend to add marginally to the progressiveness of the system. But, what’s also important is not just whether the trendline tilts upward, but whether the pattern is systematic or predictable. In New Jersey, among districts enrolling 2,000 or more students (scale efficient), census poverty rates alone explain 47% of the variation in current spending. It’s a predictable, upward slope whereby higher poverty districts actually have and spend more per pupil. In Massachusetts, poverty explains nearly 40% of the variation in spending per pupil.

But, by contrast, in Connecticut, poverty explains only about 15% of the variation in spending across districts. Notably, a handful of high poverty districts including Bridgeport, Waterbury and New Britain have been left well behind… well below  the curve.  Further, even though Hartford and New Have have more funding, much of that funding has been channeled through a magnet school aid program, so the seemingly high position of these two districts is somewhat deceptive, and not part of any systematic effort to improve equity.

I’m doing some picking on CT here in particular, because CT has hardly provided systematic targeted support to high need districts. That said, CT is hardly the worst offender among states. Several states do far worse than CT, including PA, NY and IL in particular.  But that’s a post for another day. Those states are not sufficiently comparable in other ways to include in these comparisons. Our report on School Funding Fairness provides a full breakdown across states (www.schoolfundingfairness.org).

In the best possible case, CT has selectively targeted funding to some high need districts and has left out others. Rhode Island funding is somewhat more predictable (though deceptive because of the small number of districts) than CT but clearly less systematic than NJ or Mass.

Now, here are the longitudinal trends in student outcomes in these states, cut a few different ways and focusing on disadvantaged children. First, because I’m not a fan of comparing “low income” kids to “low income” kids even across these relatively similar economies, I take a look at children of mothers who were high school dropouts, and 8th grade math performance:

From 2000 forward (where the scores are relatively comparable over time), children of maternal high school dropouts in Mass and NJ far outpace those in CT or RI.

Next, here are the trends for children who qualify for free lunch, also on 8th grade math:

Finally, here are the trends for 4th grade reading:

In each case, low income kids in the two states that have more aggressively pursued funding equity reforms outperform and have improved their performance faster than low income kids in states that have not.

While these trends are hardly conclusive evidence [more extensive analysis is underway] of a link between the funding shifts and outcome gains, these trends are consistent with a significant body of research on the effects of school finance reforms, which I summarize in these articles/papers:

  1. http://www.tcrecord.org/library/abstract.asp?ContentId=16106
  2. http://www.shankerinstitute.org/images/doesmoneymatter_final.pdf

These illustrations coupled with the larger body of related research present a more compelling case for improving funding equity and adequacy than the case that has been presented thus far for other reforms – reforms which lack both any significant research base OR other compelling evidence.

Simply arguing that teacher quality varies – good teachers matter – and that we have to “fix” teacher quality says nothing of how to actually improve teacher quality or the resources required to get the job done. “Teacher quality” is not a policy.

Notably, the CT Education reform group that posted the original absurd claims later softened their arguments regarding the causes of Connecticut’s failures and Mass and NJ’s successes. But somehow, they still found it in them to pitch the same policy solutions. Yes, solutions that had nothing to do with why Mass and NJ were outperforming CT. If the original argument doesn’t hold, then neither do the proposed solutions! That’s how dumb this debate has gotten!

Let’s be absolutely clear here – During the years over which Mass and NJ saw these substantial improvements in outcomes, both states had teacher tenure systems – in both successful and less successful schools! Both states had rather traditional teacher evaluation policies in place. Both states had relatively small overall shares of children attending charter schools. Massachusetts has received some accolades for its accountability system adopted concurrent with funding reforms.

Even if the path to improved productivity and efficiency did involve reforms with any resemblance to the teacher evaluation or charter school reforms on the table, equitable and adequate financing would be a prerequisite condition for doing any of it well. Real innovation requires real investment.

Notably, the types of innovations adopted by those few charter chains which show relatively consistent records of success are rather mundane strategies which involve providing more time and intensive supplemental tutoring, typically at a substantially greater per pupil cost – much of it reflected in higher teacher salaries to support the additional time and responsibilities.   Yes, even in Connecticut those higher flying charters, while serving far less needy student populations than other schools in their host districts, are also outspending them! (and pay teachers more!)

We also have pretty good evidence from research that salaries matter (see page 7-)- that the average level of teacher salaries affects the quality of entrants to the profession – and that the relative salary paid in one district versus another may affect teacher job choice – leading to sorting of teacher credentials across districts.

By contrast we have little evidence that mass deselection of teachers on the basis of noisy and potentially biased measures of student achievement growth - without counterbalancing the risk with substantial additional reward would have any benefit whatsoever [outside of self-fulfilling simulated correlations] – and it might, in fact, do significant harm! We also have a pretty solid track record of studies suggesting few or no benefits of attaching compensation to similar performance metrics (e.g. merit pay).[1] Yet the reformy rhetoric advancing these policies through copy-and-paste template legislation persists! Is anyone taking even a brief time out to think and evaluate these proposals?

Even if we didn’t have all of this evidence for how and why money matters, wouldn’t it make sense on its face to provide schools and districts a level playing field? What possible argument is there for deciding to completely overlook substantial financial inequities in favor of policy options which, to implement properly (if that’s even possible), require equitable financial resources. Yes, real reform costs money.  Good schools cost money!

If reformy advocates really don’t believe that money has anything to do with improving schooling quality, then why do charter advocates in Connecticut (and elsewhere) push so hard for substantial increases in funding ($2,600 per pupil in CT)? Yet the underfunded high need districts stand to gain far, far less under current proposals (only about $250 per pupil). Funding those districts appropriately comes with a higher price tag than increasing charter funding because they serve a lot more students and far more needy students than CT charters. The persistent inequities faced by these districts are glaring… right down to the delivery of basic curricular options, especially in the neediest, least well resourced districts. Larger class sizesAdvanced and enriched curricular optionsTeacher SalariesConcentration of novice teachers.

These are the real differences between well resourced, high performing and poorly resourced, low performing districts in Connecticut.  Both groups of districts pay teachers based on degrees and experience. Both sets of districts have tenure systems. I suspect that both sets of districts do little systematically different regarding teacher evaluation (which might be improved, but not by some ill-conceived state legislation).  So clearly none of that stuff has much of anything to do with which districts are succeeding and which are not ! The districts are substantively  different in terms of who they serve, and in terms of the resources (by the measures noted above) they have to serve them!

I’ve long argued that it seems rather hypocritical to hear staunch charter advocates argue that more money wouldn’t help traditional public schools, and then those same charter advocates set out to help their favored charters substantially outspend the nearby public schools (meanwhile, invariably serving less needy, less costly children to educate).

If money has nothing to do with improving schooling quality – or providing high quality schooling – then why is the average tuition of private independent day schools in Connecticut typically well above (around $25k elem, up to $35k HS) current spending levels of nearby public districts (where tuition covers only a portion of current spending).[2] Money – and what it buys – clearly means something to the consumers of what I might call luxury schooling.  Nationally, private independent schools spend on average 1.96 times average spending of public districts in their same labor market. [3] Meanwhile, these schools DO NOT generally fire teachers at will. They do typically pay based largely on seniority and degree level. What do they do? Well, for one thing, they provide small class sizes [whether that’s the most efficient allocation or not is a separate question, but that is what they choose to do… and what they often advertise]!

It is about the money. Even/especially those disingenuous arguments that it’s NOT about money? Those arguments perhaps, are the ones that most clearly indicate that it IS about money – and a complete unwillingness to acknowledge the importance of money to anyone else but one’s self. Strangely, we’ve reached a point in the discourse where it’s all about finding any rationale we can to NOT give money to the schools and districts that need it most while continuing to blame them, their teachers and the children they serve for the persistent cycle of poor performance – and where we define their performance as poor by comparison to their more advantaged and better resourced peers! Isn’t anyone else seeing the absurdity?[4] [starve them… shift money away from them… then blame them for doing even worse?]

Clearly the media isn’t catching it. I’m less frustrated by the absurdity of these arguments (I rather expect it in the political sphere) than the fact that the media is either complicit in advancing the silliness, or intellectually incapable of seeing through it.

Those who continue to ignore outright the role of money in schooling in favor of reformy window dressing – meanwhile leveraging every opportunity to access a greater share of the federal, state and local tax dollar, present a laughable case for their preferred reforms.  But for some reason, I’m finding it really hard to laugh.

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[1]Glazerman, S., Seifullah, A. (2010) An Evaluation of the Teacher Advancement Program in Chicago: Year Two Impact Report. Mathematica Policy Research Institute. 6319-520
Springer, M.G., Ballou, D., Hamilton, L., Le, V., Lockwood, J.R., McCaffrey, D., Pepper, M., and Stecher, B. (2010). Teacher Pay for Performance: Experimental Evidence from the Project on Incentives in Teaching. Nashville, TN: National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University.
Marsh, J. A., Springer, M. G., McCaffrey, D. F., Yuan, K., Epstein, S., Koppich, J., Kalra, N., DiMartino, C., & Peng, A. (2011). A Big Apple for Educators: New York City’s Experiment with Schoolwide Performance Bonuses. Final Evaluation Report. RAND Corporation & Vanderbilt University.  http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/04/pdf/class_size.pdf

[2] http://www.brunswickschool.org/admissions/fees-financial-aid/, http://www.chasecollegiate.org/page.cfm?p=208, http://www.fairfieldprep.org/page.cfm?p=24, http://www.greenwichacademy.org/podium/default.aspx?t=32259, http://www.klht.org/podium/default.aspx?t=2170, http://www.stanwichschool.org/admissions/tuition.asp, http://woosterschool.org/admissions/tuition-fees

[3] Baker, B. (2009). Private schooling in the U.S.: Expenditures, supply, and policy implications.
Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research
Unit. Retrieved [date] from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/private-schooling-US

[4] An argument taken to its extremes in a recent NJDOE report: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/how-not-to-fix-the-new-jersey-achievement-gap/

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