Stanford’s Sean Reardon Suggests A Better Way to Measure What Schools Contribute to Learning

These days, based on schools’ aggregate standardized test scores, states brand schools as “failing.” Some school districts shut down or charterize schools that have, according to their test scores, been marked as “failing.” Some states still use their students’ test scores to constitute 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations. States publish school district report cards that award “A” grades to mostly wealthy school districts (because high test scores tend to correlate with family income) and penalize with “F” grades the poorer districts that tend to post lower overall test scores—a system that is condemning the schools in poor communities and driving segregation across metropolitan areas.

Now Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist of education who is best known for tracking the resegregation of our society by income and the implications for public schools, has published a new study showing that annual standardized test scores cannot accurately measure the quality of a public school system.

Here is Reardon describing his new study: “I use standardized test scores from roughly 45 million students to construct measures of the temporal structure of educational opportunity in over 11,000 school districts—almost every district in the U.S.  The data span the school years 2008-09 through 2014-15.  For each school district, I construct two measures: the average academic performance of students in grade 3 and the within-cohort growth in test scores from grade 3 to 8.  I argue that average test scores in a school district can be thought of as reflecting the average cumulative set of educational opportunities children in a community have had up to the time when they take a test.  Given this, the average scores in grade 3 can be thought of as measures of the average extent of ‘early educational opportunities’ (reflecting opportunities from birth to age 9) available to children in a school district.  Prior research suggest that these early opportunities are strongly related to the average socioeconomic resources available in children’s families in the district.  They may also depend on other characteristics of the community, including neighborhood conditions, the availability of high-quality child care and pre-school programs, and the quality of schools in grades K-3.”

Test scores in grades 3-8 are, according to Reardon’s hypothesis, more reflective of the quality of the public schools: “The growth in average test scores from grades 3 to 8 can likewise be thought of as a measure of the average extent of  ‘middle childhood educational opportunities’ available to children in a school district while they are roughly age 9 to 14.  Given the prominence of schooling in children’s lives at these ages, these middle childhood opportunities may depend in large part on the quality of the local elementary and middle schools. They may also depend on average family resources, of course, as well as other conditions, including neighborhood characteristics and the availability of after school programs.”

Reardon continues: “I find that the two measures are largely uncorrelated; early and middle-grades opportunities appear to be distinct and separable dimensions of local educational opportunity structures… (A)lthough both dimensions of opportunity are positively associated with district socioeconomic conditions, the correlation is much weaker for the middle grades growth dimension. There are many low-income school districts with relatively high measures of growth and many affluent districts with relatively low growth.”

Reardon cautions that because the variables are enormously complex, his study cannot provide simple answers: “It is tempting to think of growth rates in test scores as a rough measure of school district effectiveness. This is neither entirely inappropriate nor entirely accurate.  The growth rates better isolate the contribution to learning due to experiences during the school years… But that does not mean they reflect only the contribution of schooling.  Other characteristics of communities, including family resources, after school programs, and neighborhood conditions may all affect growth in test scores independent of schools’ effects… And although poverty is systematically associated with low opportunities to learn in early childhood… poverty very clearly does not strictly determine the opportunities for children to learn in the middle grade years.”

Emphasizing that achievement gaps are likely to remain, Reardon adds: “That said, it is not clear from the patterns here that an effective school system alone can make up for low opportunities in early childhood.  The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low and higher-SES (socioeconomic status) districts are so large that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

Reardon condemns the current practice in a number of states of rating and ranking schools and school districts by their students’ aggregate standardized test scores.  He hopes that the conclusions of this current research will help to diminish the rapidly growing trend his own research has identified (here and here) of nearly half a century of residential resegregation by family income: “(A)ny information system that makes average test scores publicly available to parents in the hopes that a market for high test score districts will emerge and drive school improvement may instead simply create a market for high-SES districts, increasing economic segregation without improving school systems. To the extent that pubic information about school quality affects middle-and high income families’ decisions about where to live, information on growth rates might provide very different signals, perhaps leading to lower levels of economic residential and school segregation”

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Sorting Out the Debate About Educational Accountability

The watchword for the last quarter century’s school reform has been accountability: holding schools and school teachers accountable for quickly raising students’ scores on standardized tests. Sanctioning schools and teachers who can’t quickly raise scores was supposed to be an effective strategy for overcoming educational injustice. Test-and-punish has enabled us at least to say we’ve been doing something to hold schools accountable.

The politics of this conversation are pretty confusing—all going back to the federal education law, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and the debate about its replacement, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There was bipartisan agreement in 2001-2002 when NCLB was debated, passed, and signed into law that our society could close racial and economic achievement gaps by testing all students and then demanding that schools quickly raise the scores of underachieving students. In 2015 when Congress debated the law’s reauthorization, accountability-hawk Democrats stood by test-and-punish accountability; many Republicans, led by Senator Lamar Alexander instead pushed to expand states’ rights by lifting the heavy hand of the federal government and allowing states to design their own plans to improve so-called failing schools. Worrying that removal of universal testing would let schools off the hook, the Civil Rights Community has stood by NCLB’s testing plan. Many have continued to assume that universal testing exposes achievement gaps and that the exposure will motivate politicians and educators to address racial and economic disparities.

Test-and-punish school reform has been at the center of a conversation between Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Republican Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  An article by Caitlin Emma published over the weekend by POLITICO examines the history of No Child Left Behind vs. the Every Student Succeeds Act as a background for looking at how policy around school accountability has been evolving in the Trump administration. Emma describes the new ESSA, passed by a Republican Congress in 2015 and designed to return at least some authority for accountability back to the states. But Democrats prodded by Civil Rights leaders and some Republicans have stood by federally imposed accountability: “Critics… worry whether states will adequately track and provide equal opportunities for at-risk kids…. (Even) former Republican Rep. John Kline… an architect of the measure, has said he’s worried states are now getting away with testing plans that violate a key requirement of the law—that states administer the same test to all students annually.  The provision is critical (Kline believes) so that states are forced to report the performance of all students and the results for poor and minority students are not hidden from view, as they were for decades before federal testing requirements were enacted.”

Emma explains: “The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015, was widely viewed by Republicans as a corrective to the federal overreach that followed… No Child Left Behind.”  Emma reports that last summer, when Jason Botel, an official in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education began reviewing the states’ applications for federal funds under the ESSA, Botel demanded that before he would approve some states’ plans, they must toughen their standards and demand more.  Powerful Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who had—during the 2015 reauthorization—supported a return of control to the states, formally complained to Betsy DeVos—“furious that a top DeVos aide was circumventing a new law aimed at reducing the federal government’s role in K-12 education. He contended that the agency was out of bounds by challenging state officials, for instance, about whether they were setting sufficiently ambitions goals for their students.”

For many of us who have, for fifteen years, closely followed educational accountability as mandated under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, the entire debate seems wrong-headed and bizarre.  I am writing about those of us who care deeply about expanding opportunity for children segregated in schools where poverty is highly concentrated— schools where intense segregation by poverty is overlaid on segregation by ethnicity and race. The schools these children attend have, under federal policy, been derided by accountability hawks as “failing” schools.  Widespread blaming—of schools and school teachers—now dominates discussions of school reform even as sociologists increasingly document that family and neighborhood poverty pose overwhelming challenges for these children and their schools.

Much of the confusion and rancor arises because the public debate about school accountability conflates two very different questions:

  • Should the federal government be involved at all in telling states what to do about education?
  • Is test-and-punish accountability an effective strategy for improving public schools and closing opportunity gaps?

The original federal education law, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, addressed the first question as a response to the needs of children in primarily southern states, where schools serving black children had been underfunded and inadequate for generations. There are similar problems of inequity across cities today and forgotten rural areas. Poor children and children of color segregated in particular areas remain under served. The debate about this first question involves states’ rights vs. what has come to be accepted (by many of us) as the federal government’s responsibility to protect the rights of all children and ensure they are all well served. It is a heated question that remains underneath much of the debate about school reform.

The second question involves the strategy Congress chose for reforming schools in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Congress blamed teachers and schools and devised a law that was supposed to force schools and teachers to work harder and faster to improve test scores in schools where achievement lagged when all children in each state were tested on a single standardized test.  It is becoming clearer all the time that when Congress jumped behind test-and-punish accountability, it chose the wrong strategy.  A long and growing body of research demonstrates that test scores are far more aligned with a school’s aggregate economic level than with the work of the teachers or the curriculum being offered to students. Economists like Bruce Baker at Rutgers University also document enormous opportunity gaps as these same public schools in our nation’s poorest communities receive far less public investment than the schools in wealthy suburbs, schools serving children whose families also invest heavily in enrichments at home.

Here is just some of the prominent research from the past ten years that tries to answer the second question.

In 2010, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focused on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm. They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480. They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present. The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released a massive data analysis confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In The Testing Charade, a book published just last month, Daniel Koretz of Harvard University blames test-and-punish accountability for enabling our society to pretend that we have been overcoming educational inequity at the same time we avoid making the public investment necessary even to begin addressing the problem: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)  “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)

The second question involves the overall direction of education policy, and it is important because we desperately need a better strategy. Blaming and punishing the schools with the lowest scores—by closing “failing” schools or privatizing them or firing their teachers and principals—has only further undermined the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities without addressing the opportunity gaps the tests identify.

Today’s Republican tax slashing agenda will only further reduce public investment in education.  And we are likely to keep on blaming the victims.

Poverty and Its Effects on School Achievement Are Forgotten in the President’s Budget

On Friday the Trump administration released a very “skinny” budget that outlined a few priorities for each federal department without many details. Many members of Congress, as you have undoubtedly heard, are not happy with what they see, and the ideas in this budget will likely be changed and amended before a budget is passed by Congress. (See more details about the budget process and the President’s proposed education budget here.) There is enough in Friday’s proposed budget for the Department of Education, however, to demonstrate Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s priorities.

In the list of programs for the Department of Education, there are three different expansions of school school choice and privatization—Title I Portability, some kind of pilot of federal vouchers, and expansion by 50 percent of the Charter Schools Program that underwrites grants to states for the launch of new charter schools.  The K-12 education budget cuts after-school programs, two programs that help students prepare for and apply to college, and teacher preparation. There is nothing in Trump’s new education budget to expand the opportunity to learn for America’s poorest children in urban and rural public schools.

For fifteen years the United States has had a test-based accountability system in place supposedly to close achievement gaps, raise school achievement, and drive school staff to work harder. There is widespread agreement that No Child Left Behind (now to be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act) has failed to close achievement gaps and significantly raise overall achievement for the students who are farthest behind.

Among academic experts on education there is also widespread agreement about what needs to change to help students who struggle.  Expansion of school privatization and libertarian “freedom of choice” for a few students is definitely not the prescribed treatment for what is a much deeper set of problems.

Helen Ladd, a well-known professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, just published an extensive analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  No Child Left Behind relied almost exclusively, Ladd writes, “on tough test-based incentives. This approach would only have made sense if the problem of low-performing schools could be attributed primarily to teacher shirking as some people believed, or to the problem of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ as suggested by President George W. Bush. But in fact low achievement in such schools is far more likely to reflect the limited capacity of such schools to meet the challenges that children from disadvantaged backgrounds boring to the classroom. Because of these challenges, schools serving concentrations of low-income students face greater tasks than those serving middle class students. The NCLB approach of holding schools alone responsible for student test score levels while paying little if any attention to the conditions in which learning takes place is simply not fair either to the schools or the children and was bound to be unsuccessful.”

At Stanford University, sociologist Sean Reardon has demonstrated widening residential segregation of our society by family income.  Reardon, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, shows that across 117 metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009. Reardon and Bischoff believe that economic, “segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area. Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”  Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime. Reardon demonstrates here that along with growing residential segregation by income has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

David Berliner, former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, in a recent short column published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, explains how aggregate standardized test scores reflect Reardon’s findings: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained… Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste.”

In a piece published in The American Scholar, UCLA education professor Mike Rose suggests we, “Imagine… that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.  If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided…. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement.”  These are the full service, wraparound Community Schools that have been expanded in New York City, Cincinnati and some other places. Ironically some Community Schools incorporate funding for after-school and summer programs from federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, a program eliminated in Trump’s proposed budget.

Last August, members the Vermont State Board of Education wrote to then-education secretary John King about what they believed was needed in the rules the U.S. Department of Education was drafting to implement  the Every Student Succeeds Act: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.”

Even Andrew Rotherham, a corporate school reformer at Bellwether Education Partners, criticizes one of the proposals outlined in the President’s new budget: to experiment with turning Title I—the 1965 civil rights program to provide extra funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty—into a portable voucher program.  Even though Title I Portability is proposed as a public (not privatized) school voucher program, in which children could carry their extra Title I funding across school district boundaries, Rotherham like many others worries that children would carry Title I dollars away from school districts serving concentrations of poor children to wealthier school districts with a less urgent need for the money: “Right now, those dollars are targeted toward low-income students in higher poverty schools. The idea is to pancake them for more impact, given both the research on effective educational interventions and the reality of housing today for low-income Americans, which often concentrates poor students in schools. Trump’s idea, by contrast, is to spread this money around in amounts too small to make a real difference…. It’s school choice light with an added consequence of making Title I dollars less effective than they are today.”

If, as all these people who do the research and know the research literature explain, poverty and residential concentration of the poorest children in particular neighborhoods and schools is the most serious challenge for public education, then there are also many other alarming problems for children and their public schools embedded in the proposed budgets for other federal departments. The Community Development Block Grant and Home Program, both cancelled in the President’s budget, help pay for housing and also support  shelters and services for the homeless. The Trump budget erases the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps poor people pay for heating their houses in the winter. The budget eliminates the Legal Services Corporation. Even the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is reduced. And of course there is the matter of the 24 million people likely to lose healthcare in the next decade if the current version of the Affordable Care Act were to go forward.

We are hearing a lot about how the President’s proposed budget will affect the middle and working class. As is too often the case, we are not hearing about the implications for the poor. If our society is intent on improving educational achievement, it will have to happen in the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children. At the same time the federal government will have to help state and local governments address poverty and what concentrated poverty does to very poor families and their neighborhoods and public schools.

Public Schools “Flush with Cash”?

In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump declared that public schools are “flush with cash.” That phrase confirms something I’ve always suspected. President Trump has never been inside a public school.

The public schools I know generally have old fashioned waxed tile floors—work done by a custodian after the children leave at the end of the day.  The trash is emptied, and the cafeteria tables are set up for the free breakfast provided these days for hungry children who qualify. Then the tables are folded up and lined tight against the wall to allow the children to have gym class in the all-purpose room before lunch is set up. The stale aroma of fish sticks lingers through the afternoon gym classes and, if the school is in a bit wealthier community, into the band class that is also set up some days every week in the same all-purpose room.

“Flush with cash” describes the people crowding the sidewalk in front of Bergdorf’s on Fifth Avenue and the people in tailored overcoats we keep watching while they ride down the escalator in the gilded Trump Tower.  But referring to any public school as “flush with cash” is one of those falsehoods Kellyanne Conway has taken to calling “alternative facts.”

In his speech Trump trumpeted one of the classic anti-public school talking points of those who want to trash and privatize public schools—that although we are dumping tons of money into our schools, our schools haven’t moved the needle on test scores.

It’s true that overall on the one test that is trusted, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), scores have not risen astronomically. While the black-white test score gaps have narrowed, the huge gap in achievement among children whose family income is in the top ten percent and those in the bottom ten percent is now 40 percent wider than it was in 1970.  That is surely consistent with the real fact—documented in academic research—that children’s standardized test scores are affected in the aggregate by the wealth or poverty of their families and the economic conditions in their communities.

What about school spending?  Richard Rothstein studied this back in the 1990s in reports published by the Economic Policy Institute.  Here is what he explains in Where’s the Money Gone?, his report on school spending between 1967 and 1991: “(T)he share of expenditures going to regular education dropped from 80% to 59% between 1967 and 1991, while the share going to special education climbed from 4% to 17%.  Of the net new money spent on education in 1991, only 26% went to improve regular education, while about 38% went to special education for severely handicapped and learning-disabled children. Per pupil expenditures for regular education grew by only 28% during this quarter century—an average annual rate of about 1%.”

Rothstein later updated his study to cover the years from 1991-1996.  In Where’s the Money Going?, Rothstein documents that,”(R)eal per pupil spending across the nation was roughly stable over the 1991-96 period, growing by only 0.7% (or 0.14% on an average annual basis).  This was a significant slowdown from the growth in per pupil spending of 61% (0r 2.0% on an average annual basis) from 1967-1991.  In the most recent period, some districts have actually had to reduce regular per pupil education spending in response to the combined pressures of enrollment growth, inflation, and shifting priorities toward spending on special populations… The share of spending on regular education is shrinking. By the 1996 school year, regular education accounted for only 56.8% of all school spending, down from 58.5% in 1991.  Special education spending grew to 19.0% of all school spending in 1996, up from 17.8% in 1991.  School lunch and breakfast programs grew to 4.8% of total school spending in 1996, compared to 3.3% in 1991.  Bilingual education programs grew to 2.5% of total school spending in 1996, up from 1.9% in 1991. The shift of spending away from the regular education program continues a trend observed over the 1967-91 period. However, in an era of stagnant overall school spending, such as the 1990s, this shift has translated into an actual reduction in regular education spending per pupil in several school districts.”

These numbers, now 20 years old, reflect that after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, a significant percentage of school funding was used to create programs for children the schools had not previously served.  And as the number of English learners has grown, significant funding has shifted into programs to serve these students.

But what do more recent numbers tell us about trends in the funding of schools?  Last October, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updated its regular reporting on trends in state-by-state expenditures.  While federal funding for schools makes up only about 10 percent of all school finance, the states contribute over 40 percent, which means that trends in state funding significantly affect local school programming. Here is CBPP’s most recent conclusion: “Public investment in K-12 schools—crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity—has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade. Worse, most of the deepest-cutting states have also cut income tax rates, weakening their main revenue source for supporting schools. At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008… Eight states have cut general funding per student by about 10 percent or more over this period.  Five of those eight—Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding… Thirty-five states provided less overall state funding per student in the 2014 school year (the most recent year available) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In 27 states, local government funding per student fell over the same period, adding to the damage of state funding cuts.”

Finally, in a recent November 2016 report, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, Bruce Baker, the Rutgers school finance expert, warns that rapidly expanding privatization through the authorization of new charter schools is destabilizing a number of urban public school districts where the education marketplace is rapidly growing. Privatization is President Donald Trump’s proposed cure for what he believes are the financial and academic woes of our public schools.

Here is Baker’s warning: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available… Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves.  They are policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light…  Of particular concern are those cases in which revenues are declining rapidly with enrollment decline, putting the squeeze on districts to reduce expenditures more rapidly than costs (potentially leading to significant annual deficits)… Of particular interest here is whether the reduction of enrollments from students transferring from district to charter schools leads to a manageable decline in total revenues, given declining enrollments of host districts.”

Baker concludes with a warning we should take seriously: “At the very least, federal and state policies intending to stimulate further charter growth must no longer be quality or integrity blind, assuming that market forces will induce necessary corrections.  The federal government in particular, in recent years, has poured significant funding into the expansion of chartering in states that have exhibited systemic failures of financial oversight coupled with weak educational outcomes.  The federal government has also through facilities financing support for charter schools, aided in the transfer of previously publicly held capital assets to private hands, as well as aided in the accumulation of privately held debt to be covered at public expense… There may come a time when policymakers and the public at large tires of the recent wave of charter expansion, becoming (even) more wary of tradeoffs that have been made.  Any significant reversal of course, reemphasis on district schools, tighter restriction on and mass closure of charter schools, is now encumbered with major logistical and financial barriers.”

In less technical terms Moody’s Investor Services has warned that charters threaten to destabilize their public school disricts—parasites destroying their hosts—particularly in big cities that were devastated by the foreclosure crisis.  for the Washington Post describes Moody’s conclusions: “While charters are everywhere — in at least 41 states — they tend to make up a bigger share of total enrollment in urban areas. And some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines. It begins with people leaving the city or district. Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts. The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students. As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts. Rinse, repeat.”

Our society has historically been distinguished from many others by our aspiration to educate all of our children. Hiring real live, professionally credentialed teachers to educate 50 million children is likely to be pretty expensive.  Of course some tech entrepreneurs dream we can find a way to do it all online with scripted curriculum, and politicians like Donald Trump imagine we can find a way to save money by undermining teachers unions and ceasing to pay adequate salaries to the over 3 million teachers who now serve in our public schools.  Beware, because both of those ideas are really part of the agenda behind the lie that our public schools are “flush with cash.”

More Evidence that State School Ratings Don’t Reflect School Quality

In Ohio, school districts are on the ballot with local property tax levies in this turbulent November election season. Here are the conditions under which our school districts—including the Cleveland school district this fall—find themselves on the ballot:

  • Ohio has a statewide tax rollback embedded in the state constitution.  When property values appreciate, the state effectively rolls back the local millage to keep the district’s revenue collection from any levy equal to the amount generated on the date the levy first passed. Even in these times when values are not appreciating significantly, our tax freeze ensures that school districts have to be on the ballot every few years just to stay even.
  • The state has also imposed a test-based accountability system that generates school district grades—the state report cards that copy Jeb Bush’s plan in Florida and that award letter grades to school districts based on standardized test scores.
  • These grades essentially force school superintendents to promise that test scores will rise—a sort of quid pro quo for citizens’ willingness to invest in the levies. While some voters will always support school taxes as a public obligation, the school districts that cannot quickly raise scores are perceived as reneging on these promises—encouraging some voters to vote against school levies as a punishment for superintendents, principals and teachers who can’t seem to raise the test scores.
  • There are also the state tax cuts—to business taxes and estate taxes and income taxes over the past decade—that increase every school district’s reliance on local property taxes.
  • And finally, in Cleveland, the public schools—individually graded by the state with the same letter grades—compete actively with charter schools that now receive some of the local levy dollars under a so-called “portfolio school reform” plan. The stakes are high because the closure of so-called “failing” schools hangs as a looming threat.

It is in this context that in Sunday’s Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell reported extensively on Sean Reardon’s recent research that correlates standardized test scores with the aggregate family income of the students in a school district. (See Reardon’s papers here and here.)  O’Donnell summarizes Reardon’s findings: “Students in the affluent Aurora and Bay Village schools are typically two years ahead of students from across the country. Meanwhile, students in the Cleveland and East Cleveland schools are about two years behind.  Just don’t pat yourself on the back for high scores or hurl insults at the struggling urban districts. You’re all just fitting, almost exactly, a national pattern.” O’Donnell continues: “Just within Cuyahoga County, there is a 5.1-grade learning gap in between the lowest-scoring district for the years studied, Warrensville Heights (-2.4), and the highest, Solon (+2.7)… Across all of Ohio, the largest gap is more than six years of learning between the top-scoring Wyoming schools north of Cincinnati and the lowest-scoring Buckeye United schools 25 miles south of Columbus.” O’Donnell includes a searchable graphic by which you can find out how your own and other school districts score among the more than 11,000 school districts that are part of Reardon’s enormous data base.

Reardon is the Stanford University sociologist who has set out to study the impact of growing economic inequality among families on children’s school achievement, and O’Donnell quotes Reardon extensively: “Students in many of the most advantaged school districts have test scores that are more than four grade levels above those of students in the most disadvantaged districts… The socioeconomic context of a school district is a very powerful predictor of students’ academic performance.”  That is, of course, in the aggregate. We all know wealthy students who have fallen far behind in school and the press regularly shares the warm stories of homeless students who have triumphed and made their way to Harvard.

O’Donnell continues, quoting Reardon: “We have little evidence that we know how to provide adequate educational opportunities for children growing up in low-income communities… Average test scores in a district should not be interpreted as a measure of school quality… Test scores and academic performance more generally are shaped by many factors other than schools.  They are shaped by children’s families, their home environments, their neighborhood contexts, their child care and pre-school experiences, after school experiences, and by their schools… Average test scores are more appropriately interpreted as a measure of the educational opportunities available to children living within a district.”  In one of his academic papers, Reardon warns that the conclusions raise many further questions: “Our findings should not be taken as causal estimates; as we argue here, the forces producing racial/ethnic inequality in educational outcomes are complex, interactive, and self-reinforcing, meaning that correlational analyses may not be predictive of the effects of changing social or educational conditions.”

Reardon and colleagues authored a third paper this year that explores some of the ways rising economic inequality may be driving an increase in income segregation across school districts—a trend that school accountability plans with their ranking and rating of school districts may be exacerbating: “Income segregation between schools and school districts increased from 1990 to 2010… The increase between 1990 and 2010 was driven not by increasing segregation of the poorest families from all others but by the lower-middle class becoming more segregated from the upper-middle class and the affluent.  That said, between-district segregation of FLE (Free Lunch Eligible) and non-FLE students did increase from 1990-2010… One driver of the growth in income segregation between districts and schools is rising income inequality… Parents have become increasingly concerned about ensuring their children’s success in a more competitive labor market, and as district and school information has become more readily available, parents can more easily make fine-grained distinctions to identify their preferred schools.  Rising income inequality provides high-income families with the resources to realize this preference, resulting in increased sorting by income across school districts, schools, and neighborhoods.”

As Ohio grades its schools and school districts with “As” and “Bs” and “Cs” and “Ds” and “Fs,” it is pretty clear that the ratings create the distinctions—whether fine-grained or not—used by parents to find the highest rated place they can afford. Real estate websites like Zillow brand whole neighborhoods and communities with the state’s school district grades.  The school district rating systems are redlining the school districts that serve the poorest students and driving out-migration and exurban growth.  Reardon further describes the likely political implications—especially in a state like Ohio, that brags about “no unvoted taxes” and where all school districts must be on the ballot every few years—of such school district rating systems to undermine the very school districts that accountability-driven school “reform” promised to improve: “(H)igh levels of income segregation may affect political support for public education. High-income families generally have more political influence than low-income families, and high-income families in highly segregated metropolitan areas have little incentive to advocate for increases in metropolitan-or state-wide school funding if their own high-income district has substantial resources. Future research should directly test whether the growth in income segregation documented here accounts for the growing income achievement gap.”

Ohio’s 2015 School District Report Cards Encourage Economic Segregation

What does it mean when somebody gives you a bad grade for who you are?  That is exactly what the new school district report cards in Ohio do.  School achievement tends to correlate with aggregate family income, and metropolitan areas across the nation are quickly resegregating by income.  Research shows there are fewer and fewer mixed income communities and more very poor and very rich ones.  Ohio gives the schools in very rich communities “A” grades; and Ohio gives schools in very poor and in mixed income communities “Ds”and “Fs.”

In his fascinating book, Our Kids, that tracks the impact of growing income inequality on children, Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam poses this question: “Do schools in America today tend to widen the growing gaps between have and have-not kids, do they reduce those gaps, or do they have little effect either way?” (p. 160) Putnam answers his own question by reporting ground breaking research studies released five years ago by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon: “In a landmark study, the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon demonstrated a widening class gap in both math and reading test scores among American kids in recent decades… He summarizes his key finding succinctly: ‘The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30-40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five year earlier.’ … Strikingly, Reardon’s analysis also suggests that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap: the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten and, he reports, does not grow appreciably as children progress through school.” (pp. 160-162)

The Ohio Department of Education released school district report cards and school district summative letter grades—“A-F”—last Thursday based on standardized test scores from 2015. The Plain Dealer reports that among the 20 “A” graded school districts, 8 are white, affluent suburbs of Cleveland; 4 are white, affluent suburbs of Cincinnati; 2 are white, affluent suburbs of Akron; one is a white, affluent suburb of Toledo; and one is a white, affluent suburb of Dayton. Another of these A-rated school districts is Granville, a small town that houses Denison University and that boasted a median family income of $102,885 according to the census in 2000. At that time, according to the census, there were in Granville no children under the age of 18 living below the federal poverty line.

It is not a positive thing that poverty, and institutional and structural racism, and growing residential segregation by income overlaid on segregation by race pose serious challenges for children. But poverty is not a disability. Examples abound of low-income children who excel at school. Aggregate test scores, however, show what sociological research has been documenting for a long time: In the aggregate, school districts that serve concentrations of children in poverty are likely to post lower overall test scores.

The logical question to ask is how better to help such school districts support their students and the teachers who serve them. Since 2001, however, the United States has instead adopted a policy that seeks to motivate staff in those districts to try harder by shaming and punishing them.  Federal policy even provided recommended sanctions—close the school, reconstitute the school, restart the school by turning it into a charter school, rate and rank teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. In the same punitive style, Ohio and other states that have copied the Jeb Bush plan from Florida, now award letter grades on school district report cards based on aggregate test scores. There is wide agreement that these sanctions have not improved student achievement.

Last April, Stanford News summarized new, preliminary research by sociologist Sean Reardon—newer data than what caught Robert Putnam’s attention last year when he published Our Kids.  In the new research, Reardon evaluated a massive new data set —of 200 million test scores—“reading and math test results of some 40 million 3rd to 8th grade students during 2009-13 in every public school district in the country…”

Here are some of the findings, which Reardon explains, document the widespread persistence of both economic and racial achievement gaps: “The socioeconomic profile of a district is a powerful predictor of the average test score performance of students in that district.”  “The most and least socioeconomically advantaged districts have average performance levels more than four grade levels apart.  Average test scores of black students are, on average, roughly two grade levels lower than those of white students in the same district; the Hispanic-white difference is roughly one-and-a-half grade levels.  Achievement gaps are larger in districts where black and Hispanic students attend higher poverty schools than their white peers, where parents on average have high levels of educational attainment; and where large racial/ethnic gaps exist in parents’ educational attainment.  The size of the gaps has little or no association with average class size, a district’s per capita student spending or charter school enrollment.”

Stanford News emphasizes that Reardon’s new research remains preliminary: “The researchers stress that their findings do not prove cause and effect, though they do point to promising areas for further study.”

Ohio’s policy of awarding school district grades based on students’ aggregate test scores amounts to educational redlining—castigating mixed-income and poorer communities and urging  parents who can find the means to abandon districts with lower grades and find a way to move to “A” rated schools. Ohio’s school district grades clearly promote economic and racial segregation in the state’s metropolitan areas.

School districts are responsible for educating and improving the lives of the children who live in their communities.  In Ohio, the state’s confusing rating system—this year based on a new and harder test which forced scores down across the state—does a poor job of evaluating what particular schools are doing to ensure their students learn. The grades elevate some school districts and castigate others without identifying or showcasing promising educational practices.

If one views Ohio’s “A-F” school grades through the lens of  sociological research, it’s perfectly clear that the state is  encouraging the public to believe that homogeneous, wealthy communities are the best place to live and raise children. There are lots of reasons to challenge such an assumption, but we rarely question it.

New Research Shows Preschool Achievement Gap Has Begun to Narrow

In his fascinating book, Our Kids, that tracks the impact of growing income inequality on children, Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam poses this question: “Do schools in America today tend to widen the growing gaps between have and have-not kids, do they reduce those gaps, or do they have little effect either way?” (p. 160)

Putnam answers his own question by reporting ground breaking research studies released five years ago by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon: “In a landmark study, the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon demonstrated a widening class gap in both math and reading test scores among American kids in recent decades… He summarizes his key finding succinctly: ‘The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30-40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five year earlier.’ … Strikingly, Reardon’s analysis also suggests that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap: the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten and, he reports, does not grow appreciably as children progress through school.” (pp. 160-162)  (This blog has reported Reardon’s research on the income inequality achievement gap here.)

At the end of August, Sean Reardon released new, very preliminary research that is encouraging: the early-childhood (pre-school) achievement gap has begun to narrow. In a NY Times column, Reardon explains: “(H)ere is some good news about educational inequality…. Children entering kindergarten today are more equally prepared than they were in the late 1990s. We know this from information collected over the last two decades by the National Center for Education Statistics. In the fall of 1998 and again in 2010, the N.C.E.S. sent early childhood assessors to roughly 1000 public and private kindergartens across the United States. They sat down one-on-one with 15-25 children in each school to measure their reading and math skills. They asked children to identify shapes and colors, to count, to identify letters and to sound out words. They also surveyed parents to learn about the children’s experiences before entering kindergarten… It’s worth noting that the gap in school readiness narrowed because of relatively rapid improvements in the skills of low-income children, not because the skills of children from high-income families declined.”

Reardon and colleagues used the N.C.E.S. data to study what he calls the ‘school readiness gap.’  Reardon concludes: “From 1998 to 2010, the school readiness gap narrowed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading. The gaps that remain are still vast.” In an interview with Eric Westervelt for National Public Radio, Reardon clarifies that there is still much work to do.  The gaps in school readiness remain large: “The low-income kids are coming in about six to nine months in readiness behind the high-income kids still… It’s narrowing at a measurable rate.  But it’s not narrowing fast enough…”

What is causing the school-readiness gap to narrow? In his NY Times column, Reardon speculates that increased enrollment in high quality preschools is surely part of the answer: “One possibility is that school readiness gaps have narrowed because it is easier now for poor families to find high-quality, publicly funded preschool programs for their children. Today 29 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschools, up from 14 percent in 2002.”

Reardon believes growing enrollment in pre-kindergarten programs is not the only explanation, however: “Tracking the experiences of young children over time, we found that both rich and poor children today have more books and read with their parents more often than they did in the ’90s. They are far more likely to have computers, internet access and computer games focused on reading and math skills. Their parents are more likely to spend time with them, taking them to the library or doing activities at home.”

He adds that our growing understanding of the importance for child development of the very early years is reflected in the data: “We suspect that in part this happened because of the widespread diffusion of a single powerful idea: that the first few years of a child’s life are the most consequential for cognitive development. This idea is commonplace today….”

In his interview with NPR, Reardon explains that the new findings are very preliminary: “I think you could think of this study as a starting point. I mean, it certainly shows that it’s possible for us to make progress on these achievement gaps even in a time of rising income inequality, but it raises as many questions as it answers in this regard. That is, what is it about some places that showed more narrowing than other places? What can we provide in communities? What can we do to support families? What kind of preschool environments are going to be most successful for kids? We have a lot to learn yet about how to… optimize opportunity for low-income students.”