Five Ridiculously Reformy “Copy & Paste” Policies & Why They’re Misguided

Posted on June 18, 2012



65 Cent Solution (now defunct?)

What is it? It was (thankfully this one is pretty much dead!) a policy proposal being pitched in the mid-2000s which would require, through state mandate/legislation or regulation, that local public school districts show on paper that they spend 65% of their total budgets on “instruction.”

The argument was that the average district nationally allocates somewhat less than 65% to instruction. Instruction is good. Private sector businesses use benchmarks, therefore education should use benchmarks. 65% is a benchmark. Therefore it should be used! Viola… freakin’ brilliant?

Backers of this proposal argued that the policy allowed state legislators to claim they were increasing classroom spending without actually allocating more money.

But, the backers were caught with their pants down in a memo leaked to the Austin Statesmen newspaper in Texas. In an article in Educational Policy (full citation below), Doug Elmer & I summarize the whole memo debacle:

In addition to these criticisms of what qualified as instructional spending, many opponents of the bill questioned the motives behind FCE (First Class Education) and the 65% solution proposal. These suspicions were in part confirmed by a memo written by Mooney to Republican legislators and obtained by the Austin American-Statesman in 2005 (Embry, 2005). In the memo, Mooney (2003) listed several political benefits of the 65% Solution, including the following:

  • Splitting of the Education Union. The 1st Class Education proposal pits administrators and teachers at odds with one another. . . .
  • Direct Fix for Public Education. While voucher and charter school proposals have great merit, large segments of the voting public—especially suburban, affluent women voters—view these ideas as an abandonment of public education . . . targeted segments of voters may be more greatly predisposed to supporting voucher and charter school proposals, as Republicans address the voting public with greater credibility on public education issues. . . .
  • Allows the Use of Unlimited Non-Personal Money for Political Position Advantages. The aforementioned benefits can be achieved with funding in any amount and from any source.
  • It Wins! As with initiatives proposing tax limits, term limits, and the definition of marriage, ballot successes for the 1st class is exceedingly likely.

Of course, one thing that never seemed to get discussed in this process was that empirical research on the issue of instructional spending shares of budgets, student outcomes and other school quality measures suggests little if any relationship – especially with respect to the 65% threshold.

Thankfully, this particular bit of copy and paste education policy foolishness seems to have come and gone!

Research

Taylor, L, Grosskopf, S. (2007) Is a Low Instructional Share an Indicator of School Inefficiency?

Exploring the 65-Percent Solution http://bush.tamu.edu/research/workingpapers/ltaylor/The_65_Percent_Solution.pdf

Baker, B.D., Elmer, D.R. (2009) The Politics of Off-the-Shelf School Finance Reform. Educational Policy 23 (1) 66-105

Parent Trigger

The Parent Trigger is perhaps even more obnoxious and deceptive than the 65 cent debacle. What is it? Well, the Parent Trigger is a policy that allows the majority of parents of students in any failing (generally meaning high poverty/minority concentration) school to vote, by simple majority to have the school taken over by a private company, charter operator, or to simply fire all of the teachers and the principal and start fresh (options may vary). The assertion is that this mechanism gives low income and minority parents “rights” that they are simply unable to assert through bloated and non-responsive urban district bureaucracies. While it may be true that some urban district bureaucracies are less than responsive, the parent trigger sure as hell isn’t the solution.

The parent trigger basically permits a simple majority of parents of children who happen to attend a given school for a period of time to stage a takeover of that school, and this could be done for a variety of motives in a variety of ways with a plethora of possible distorted, negative consequences. A group of middle school parents (during their 3 to 4 year window) might, for example, take a year to take-over their school and turn it over to a private charter management company.  The parent majority might, for example, have a gripe against LGBT students, or students of a particular race, culture or religion. Charter takeover would allow the simple majority to makeover the school into a themed school – like a school for traditional family values, or a English only academy. The simple majority could easily use this tool to oppress any minority population (and don’t give me that crap about this being better than the tyranny of the district oppressing everyone).

Further, if the simple majority of parents do forcibly convert the school to a privately managed charter, it may turn out that all parents and children lose important statutory and constitutional rights, as I have discussed in previous posts regarding parental/student/teacher rights in privately managed charter schools.

Notably, this hostile takeover could have occurred under the majority rule of parents on one cohort of students and have lasting adverse effects on subsequent cohorts of children whose parents had little input.

Further, this mechanism removes from the process any/all other residents of the community surrounding the school (who contribute tax dollars to the school), placing all control in the hands of the simple majority of parents with children attending the school at any one point in time.

It’s a ridiculous approach granting disproportionate, ill-defined power to an ill-defined majority constituency seemingly intended to do little more than stimulate infighting among low income and minority populations as a distraction from the larger policy issues.

Blog Posts

Potential abuses of the Parent Trigger

http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/potential-abuses-of-the-parent-trigger/

Public/Private Status of Charter Schools

http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/charter-schools-are-public-private-neither-both/

Why Public/Private Status Matters: Legal Issues

http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/follow-up-on-why-publicnessprivateness-of-charter-schools-matters/

Weighted Student Funding Reformy edition

This one is an example of a totally reasonable policy concept that has been dreadfully abused and over-emphasized as a panacea for urban district budgeting and management, and conflated with many other management policies strategies.

Weighted student funding itself is simply an approach to calculating the need and cost based funding to be delivered to schools or districts. Several states used weighted student formulas to drive money to districts. Several districts use weighted student formulas to allocate budgets out to schools.

But, in the reformy world, weighted student funding has taken on the meaning of a Money Follows the Child coupled with Decentralized School Site Control model. Put simply, there really isn’t much evidence that decentralized governance across schools within districts is particularly effective policy for improving productivity and efficiency, or equity for that matter! (see Baker & Elmer article below).

But, the most frustrating part of the WSF discussion for me has been that it has encouraged many to argue that the big problem with school funding today is the disparities in budgets across schools within large city districts. Yeah… there are some significant problems there. But those are not the biggest problems. Between district disparities and state school finance systems continue to severely constrain district’s ability to target funds to their highest need schools.

Sadly, despite there being some virtues of WSF as a funding approach, the reformy takeover and complete mis-representation of the issue has led to some truly baffling think tanky reporting on WSFs. Take for example 2010 Bunkum Award Winner The Reason Foundation:

http://nepc.colorado.edu/bunkum/2010/time-machine-award

This Reason Foundation report has multiple features that make it an award winner. It engages in definitional acrobatics, pouring a kitchen sink’s worth of assorted reforms into a vessel it calls Weighted Student Formula (WSF) reforms. And, in a truly breathtaking innovation, the report enters its time machine and attributes positive reform outcomes to policy changes that had not yet been implemented. In broad terms, WSF reforms involve linking funding to each student, with that funding calculated as the student’s base allocation and any additional funds for special needs, economic deprivation or other reasons. The Reason report somehow manages to squeeze into this WSF concept three additional reforms: (a) site-based management; (b) site-based budgeting; and (c) school choice. The expert third party reviewer said this about the Reason “umbrella labeled as WSF:” “[it] deceptively suggests that all related policies are necessarily good—even going so far as to credit those policies for improvements that took place before the policies were implemented.”

“The report then irresponsibly recommends untested, cherry picked policy elements, some of which may substantially undermine equity for children in the highest-need schools within major urban districts.” For example, the plan suggests that extra funds for economically deprived students be eliminated but that added money should be given to gifted and talented students. The report also ignores a large body of relevant literature on within-district equity and school site management in its uncritical effort to find support for the foundation’s ideological policy preferences.

Look… a good weighted student formula is not a bad idea at all. Pretending that district weighted student formulas and decentralized governance will solve the most pressing equity issues in education today, however, is totally ridiculous!

Research on WSF

Baker, B. D., & Welner, K. G. (2010). “Premature celebrations: The persistence of interdistrict funding disparities” Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 18(9). Retrieved [date] from http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/718

Baker, B. (2009). Review of “Weighted Student Formula Yearbook 2009.” Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved [date] from http://epicpolicy.org/thinktank/review-Weighted-Student-Formula-Yearbook

Baker, B.D., Elmer, D.R. (2009) The Politics of Off-the-Shelf School Finance Reform. Educational Policy 23 (1) 66-105

Baker, B.D. (2009) Evaluating Marginal Costs with School Level Data: Implications for the Design of Weighted Student Allocation Formulas. Education Policy Analysis Archives 17 (3)

Baker, B.D. (2012) Re-arranging deck chairs in Dallas: Contextual constraints on within district resource allocation in large urban Texas school districts. Journal of Education Finance 37 (3) 287-315

Toxic Trifecta Teacher Evaluation Policies

Another type of cut-and paste policy that’s been driving me up the wall lately is what I refer to as the Toxic Trifecta Teacher Evaluation Framework. I have explained in previous posts the issues associated with Value Added Models for determining teacher effects on student outcomes. I have also explained how Student Growth Percentiles are not appropriate for the task at all. But, I have also explained how this information might be responsibly used, for example, for exploring patters across teacher within a school or district, while retaining the option to decide that the data were simply wrong.

Toxic trifecta policies, in very simple terms, MANDATE THE MISUSE OF STATISTICAL INFORMATION FOR MAKING TENURE AND DISMISSAL DECISIONS.

They negate responsible human judgment altogether and replace it with rigid, ill-conceived frameworks reflecting a baffling degree of statistical ignorance (and educational and management ignorance).  

Here are the elements to look out for in Toxic Trifecta Teacher Evaluation Policies:

  1. Mandating potentially invalid VAM or necessarily invalid SGP scores to be used as a fixed share in determining personnel decisions.  Necessarily becomes an overriding factor!
  2. Forcing precise cut-point determinations through data with absurdly wide error ranges (creating categories of performance with defined cut points for VAM or SGP estimates).
  3. Forcing that personnel decisions be made on the basis of this information, on strict timelines, without consideration of any other contextual factors (or the possibility that the estimates are simply WRONG)

Really, any one of these elements alone is bad enough. But in combination, they are a complete disaster (except for the legal profession)!

As I’ve explained on many occasions, simply saying that the VAM or SGP measure of teacher effect on student test score change is “only 20%” or “only 40%” of the evaluation is unhelpful. It is still assumed to be valid and important and it may be neither.

Further, that element which varies most in the overall scheme is likely to tip the scales on most decisions. And the variance in VAM or SGP estimates is a mix of a) real effect, b) noise and c) bias (likely heavy bias in SGPs). Further, noise and bias are quite likely to dominate any “real effect” (and the real effect may not be an important effect). And we simply can’t know what share is real, bias or nose.

On the second element, it is utterly foolish to try to set up cut-scores for defined performance categories (with a point or two difference changing the category) given the extent of noise and bias in the measures. How can say that a 25 is unacceptable and a 26 is okay, when both have error ranges of 50 points on each end?  It then stands to reason that it is even more foolish to tie high stakes decisions to falling just above or below these cut scores from year to year.

Now,  I don’t know what the current TEACHNJ (Ruiz) bill includes from the toxic trifecta, but on my last read, it included all three components, the worst of which was the absolute requirement that teachers lose tenure after 2 bad evaluations, stated rigidly as follows:

Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, the principal, in consultation with the panel, shall revoke the tenure granted to an employee in the position of teacher, assistant principal, or vice-principal if the employee is evaluated as ineffective in two consecutive annual evaluations. (p. 10)

Further, in an effort to rub salt in the wound following this mandated misuse of statistical information, the versions of the bill which I had reviewed indicated that teachers could only appeal these decisions on procedural grounds. Several other states have already adopted trifecta elements in part or entirely.

As I’ve mentioned in a few recent blog posts, there might (though I’m increasingly pessimistic) exist some reasonable uses of VAM estimates or SGPs for informing management decision making in schools.  Those reasonable uses invariable acknowledge that these measures are not only noisy but may also simply be wrong, and permit human judgment to make that call. Toxic trifecta policies prohibit those reasonable uses, and will ultimately mandate that bad decisions be made based on inadequate information.

Related Articles

Green, P.C., Baker, B.D., Oluwole, J. (2012) Legal implications of dismissing teachers on the basis of value-added measures based on student test scores. BYU Education and Law Journal 2012 (1)

Blog Posts

Toxic Trifecta: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/the-toxic-trifecta-bad-measurement-evolving-teacher-evaluation-policies/

If it’s not Valid, Reliability Doesn’t Matter: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/if-its-not-valid-reliability-doesnt-matter-so-much-more-on-vam-ing-sgp-ing-teacher-dismissal/

Video Post: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/video-thoughts-on-test-scores-vam-sgp-teacher-evaluation/

Mutual Consent Hiring/Assignment/Dismissal

This is one of those policies that had seemed relatively pointless and innocuous. Originally it was mostly about district human resource management policies, not about state requirements. But, as a state mandate and in conjunction with other teacher evaluation policies (the toxic trifecta), mutual consent policies take on new meaning.

Mutual consent policies – when adopted as state legislation or regulation – require that principals have the “last  word” on which teachers are assigned to or hired to work within their buildings. These policies have been driven by two ideas/purposes. On the one hand, there were the outrage-invoking news stories of principals being forced to draw from pools of excess teachers (implied [without validation] to be awful teachers and completely unqualified) in large city districts, when they supposedly knew they could get someone better from the outside. Second… and originally… these policies were intended to improve the distribution of teacher qualifications across more and less advantaged schools within districts.  Both are virtuous to the extent that a) the problem is real and b) the solution works.

But, there are many problems of both basic logic and of operational reality when it comes to mutual consent policies. Here’s a short list:

  1. Mutual consent assumes only good decisions are made at building level and bad ones at district level;
  2. Mutual consent ignores that district officials hire/fire and assign principals;
  3. Mutual consent sets up scenario where central office may wish to assign ‘good teachers’ to weak school but principal could reject (district might even be trying to groom new leaders for the school);
  4. Research suggests that it doesn’t actually accomplish much if anything!

In really simple terms, mutual consent causes administrative chaos, by mandating that the subordinate has final word, when the subordinate never really has the final word. What kind of silly crap is that? At least as a state policy mechanism?

It’s one thing if a district decides to have a collaborative process, or even a policy of collaboration regarding personnel decision between building leaders and central office. But having the state mandate that building leaders have authority over central office, when central office ultimate has authority over building leaders is ludicrous. Suggesting that this is based on how big business in the private sector works is even more ludicrous!

Further… what’s particularly warped is when a mutual consent policy is proposed in the same legislation as the toxic trifecta elements above. The toxic trifecta mandates who the principal must fire or at least de-tenure and under what specific circumstances and based on measures over which the principal has no control and may have limited statistical understanding????  And then the mutual consent policy “empowers” the principal? Are you kidding me?

Look, districts should design personnel policies such that school leaders can build good teams. I’m all for that, and have conducted and published research on that very topic. I favor building level involvement in personnel policy toward the goal of building effective teams. State mandated “mutual consent” does little or nothing to advance this goal.

As for the research on mutual consent, the one study done on a large district that used the policy found that it did not achieve its goal of improving the distribution of teacher quality:

We conduct an interrupted time-series analysis of data from 1998-2005 and find that the shift from a seniority-based hiring system to a “mutual consent” hiring system leads to an initial increase in both teacher turnover and share of inexperienced teachers, especially in the district’s most disadvantaged schools. For the most part, however, these initial shocks are corrected within four years leaving little change in the distribution of inexperienced teachers or levels of turnover across schools of different advantage. http://www.nctq.org/docs/Mutual_Concent_8049.pdf

Blog Posts

Regarding research on mutual consent: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/10/08/nctq-were-sure-it-will-work-even-if-research-says-it-doesnt/

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