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March 13, 2017

Kentucky: School Choice for Whom?

The Kentucky House of Representatives has been busy with education policy recently.  In February, they passed House Bill 151, which would allow parents the choice of sending their child to the school closest to their house (as long as it is in the district in which they reside).  If approved by the Senate, H.B. 151 would have the potential to override school assignment boundaries throughout the state.  As reported by the Washington Post and The Century Foundation, H.B. 151 would also have the potential to dismantle a long-standing school integration plan in Jefferson County, which encompasses Louisville.

At face value, it seems reasonable that children be allowed to attend the school closest to their home, creating neighborhood schools.  Most traditional school assignment plans are designed around this concept, with school capacity and population density also playing a role.  The challenge, even for schools with traditional attendance zones, is that school zones could basically disappear if parents claim the right to attend the school closest to their zone.  In Lexington, for example, a student in the southern part of the Breckinridge ES zone (see below) may live closer to Liberty ES than some of the students in the Liberty ES zone, so students who previously would have attended Liberty ES may no longer have a place there (if Liberty ES reached capacity).  The bill has provisions so that students currently attending a particular school may not be displaced by other students, but incoming students, whether kindergarteners or families who just moved in, may not be afforded the same benefit as families who have been in the neighborhood longer.  This legislation has the potential to uproot many school districts’ carefully-crafted  and often-controversial assignment policies, creating uncertainty for families and challenges in assigning students to schools in a manner that accounts for multiple student and demographic factors.


Perhaps the larger reason that this bill is garnering national attention is the effect that it will have on the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) district, which encompasses Louisville.  JCPS has a school integration plan that combines parental preference with balanced diversity.  Parents of elementary school students may choose between neighborhood schools in their geographic cluster or magnet schools that serve the entire district; 90 percent receive their first choice.  Middle and high school students are assigned to schools with boundaries designed to maximize diversity.  JCPS also offers district-wide magnet programs, which would not be affected by H.B. 151.  The district’s school assignments also try to minimize transportation time for students.  The result of this school assignment plan is that many students are not attending the school closest to home.  JCPS analyzed H.B. 151­­­ and concluded that half of their students do not attend the school closest to their home, which means that there is great potential for the shifting of students across schools in the future (current students would not be affected but we can assume that the results would be similar for future cohorts).  Only 38 percent of current middle school and 34 percent of current elementary school students live close enough to their current school to be assigned to it, if school assignments were made on proximity alone.

JCPS also analyzed the effect the bill would have on school diversity.  By their projections, the number of students attending high-poverty and/or high-minority schools (greater than 80 percent of students receiving free/reduced lunch or non-white students) could increase under H.B. 151.  The number of schools that fail to meet the district’s diversity goals, which are based on parental education, income, and race, could increase from 12 to 40.  Currently, all schools serve at least some highly disadvantaged students; under the new requirements, up to 45 schools may have zero of these students.  JCPS’s current plan provides choice, especially to low-income parents who often live in low-income neighborhoods, to attend schools that are diverse instead of segregated.  The new requirements could mean that schools in more affluent neighborhoods reach capacity with just neighborhood students, pushing out lower income students who would have transferred in under the current plan.  Such choices would not be surprising, given research from North Carolina and Washington, D.C. that shows that geographic proximity is highly important to parents in selecting a school.  This would essentially allow for a dual system of haves and have-nots.

We know that schools of concentrated poverty have a negative impact on student achievement.  A Stanford researcher even found that the most powerful factor correlated with the racial achievement gap is the disproportionate exposure of black and Latino students to students in poverty in their schools.  Neighborhood-based school assignments often have the effect of widening the gap between students of color and their white peers by creating more socioeconomically segregated schools.  Additionally, all students benefit from diverse schools through improved cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.

Many school choice advocates say that choice is a way out of “failing schools” for low-income and minority students.  However, allowing parents to choose the school closest to them may exacerbate the school segregation already put in place by housing patterns.  It could also create uncertainty across the state as local districts would have to recreate school assignment policies.  Louisville has worked to create a system that provides for parental choice and diversity based on the needs and preferences of their local community; we would hate to see choice erode for the families who can’t afford to live near more affluent schools.

January 31, 2017

Get the facts on school segregation

School “resegregation” has been in the news lately, but is it real?  Are our schools becoming less diverse, even as our student body becomes increasingly so?

We tackle these questions, as well as multiple others, in our new report, “School Segregation Then & Now: How to move toward a more perfect union.”

  • Are integrated schools better for students?
  • How does race interact with socioeconomic status in school enrollments?
  • How do you measure integration?
  • How does segregation affect the distribution of resources, such as teachers and funding?
  • What can school districts do to create more diverse schools?

We hope that you will find this report informative and inspiring, as we aim to strengthen our schools and our society.


10901-4729 CPE Segregation FB

December 7, 2016

PISA scores remain stagnant for U.S. students

The results of the latest PISA or the Program for International Student Assessment are in and as usual, we have an interpretation of the highlights for you.

If you recall, PISA is designed to assess not just students’ academic knowledge but their application of that knowledge and is administered to 15-year-olds across the globe every three years by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in coordination with the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Each iteration of the PISA has a different focus and the 2015 version honed in on science, though it also tested math and reading proficiency among the roughly half-million teens who participated in this round. So, how did American students stack up?

In short, our performance was average in reading and science and below average in math, compared to the 35 other OECD member countries.  Specifically, the U.S. ranked 19th in science, 20th in reading and 31st in math. But PISA was administered in countries beyond OECD members and among that total group of 70 countries and education systems (some regions of China are assessed as separate systems), U.S. teens ranked 25th in science, 22nd in reading, and 40th in math.  Since 2012, scores were basically the same in science and reading, but dropped 11 points in math.

PISA Science

Before you get too upset over our less-than-stellar performance, though, there are a few things to take into account.  First, scores overall have fluctuated in all three subjects.  Some of the top performers such as South Korea and Finland have seen 20-30 point drops in math test scores from 2003 to 2015 at the same time that the U.S. saw a 13 point drop.  Are half of the countries really declining in performance, or could it be a change in the test, or a change in how the test corresponds with what and how material is taught in schools?

Second, the U.S. has seen a large set of reforms over the last several years, which have disrupted the education system.  Like many systems, a disruption may cause a temporary drop in performance, but eventually stabilize.  Many teachers are still adjusting to teaching the Common Core Standards and/or Next Generation Science Standards; the 2008 recession caused shocks in funding levels that we’re still recovering from; many school systems received waivers from No Child Left Behind which substantially change state- and school-level policies.  And, in case you want to blame Common Core for lower math scores, keep in mind that not all test-takers live in states that have adopted the Common Core, and even if they do, some have only learned under the new standards for a year or two.  Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the PISA test for the OECD, predicts that the Common Core Standards will eventually yield positive results for the U.S., but that we must be patient.


Student scores are correlated to some degree with student poverty and the concentration of poverty in some schools.  Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are 2.5 times more likely to perform poorly than advantaged students.  Schools with fewer than 25 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch (about half of all students nationwide are eligible) would be 2nd in science, 1st in reading, and 11th in math out of all 70 countries.  At the other end of the spectrum, schools with at least 75 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, 44th in science, 42nd in reading, and 47th in math.  Compared only to OECD countries, high-poverty schools would only beat four countries in science, four countries in reading, and five in math.

Score differences for different races in the U.S. show similar disparities.

How individual student groups would rank compared to the 70 education systems tested:

Science Reading Math
White 5th 4th 20th
Black 49th 44th 51st
Hispanic 40th 37th 44th
Asian 8th 2nd 20th
Mixed Race 19th 20th 38th



Despite the disparities in opportunity for low-income students, the number of low-income students who performed better than expected increased by 12 percentage points since 2006, to 32 percent.  The amount of variation attributable to poverty decreased from 17 percent in 2006 to 11 percent in 2015, meaning that poverty became less of a determining factor in how a student performed.


America is one of the largest spenders on education, as we should be, given our high per capita income.  Many have bemoaned that we should be outscoring other nations based on our higher spending levels, but the reality is that high levels of childhood poverty and inequitable spending often counteract the amount of money put into the system.  For more info on this, see our previous blogpost.

October 19, 2016

2015 Graduation Rates: All-time high

The National Center for Education Statistics released the 2014-2015 on-time high school graduation rates, and they look good: 83.2%. The all-time high rate continues the upward trends we have seeing for the last decade.

But, not all states look as good as others:

GradRates by State

While every student group is improving, you can see below that gaps between them are still present.

Grad Rates by Group

When you combine student poverty with state graduation rates, you see a picture that is a bit more clear.

Grad Rates

While the graph above is simply a best-fit line, it does show that states with higher poverty also tend to have lower graduation rates.  What we should be looking at are states with the same poverty rates as others, but much higher graduation rates, to identify possible lessons.  Is it a more homogeneous population?  Are more resources invested in schools?  Do teachers have better training?  Are graduation requirements easier?  There is a lot that goes into graduation rates.  So, even though we can be excited that they’re increasing for all groups, increasing opportunities for thousands of students, we still have a lot of gaps to fill.


Filed under: Achievement Gaps,CPE,Graduation rates,High school — Tags: , , — Chandi Wagner @ 10:37 am

October 12, 2016

Lessons for California’s Prop. 58 on Bilingual Ed

Bilingual Education requires patience and flexible thinking.  Hopefully Californians will have both of those things as they go to the polls in November.  Prop. 58 is a ballot initiative that would undo 1998’s Prop. 227, which drastically reduced bilingual education for the state’s 1.4 million English Learners (ELs).  To put this in context, 42% of Californian students speak a language other than English at home and 22% of Californian students are learning English at school.  In 1998, the state overwhelmingly supported a shift to English-only education, though school districts and parents did have some options to continue using students’ native languages.

Political rhetoric abounds when addressing the language of education, so for today we’ll put opinions aside and look at the argument that both sides are making about how students learn.  Do English-immersion or bilingual/dual-language programs provide better outcomes for students?  Even as a former bilingual teacher, I sometimes struggled against the intuition that said that my students would learn English best by teaching only in English, even though I knew that research said otherwise.  So, it’s understandable that others would have the same wonderings.

As is the case in most questions of research, the results are somewhat mixed and nuanced.  But, in this case, they lean toward the side of bilingual education.

Luckily, California was smart and planned for the evaluation of Prop 227.  This evaluation found that English language acquisition programs were similar in results, and may vary by school capacity, teacher supports, and program details.  The achievement gap between ELs and native English speakers narrowed slightly during the same time frame, but cannot be attributed solely to Prop. 227.

However, other research from the same time period has found that even though ELs acquire English faster in English-immersion programs than various forms of bilingual programs, students are actually more likely to be deemed proficient in English if they spend more time in their native language through dual-language and bilingual programs.  Schools that only spend 1-3 years in a student’s native language, known as “transitional bilingual,” have very similar results as English immersion.  The most promising bilingual model is called “two-way dual-language,” in which native English speakers and ELs are in classes together, both learning English and the second language (typically Spanish).

Bilingual Ed

We also have to consider the benefits of fostering bilingualism and biliteracy.  Research shows that bilingual people may experience later onsets of dementia and have improved cognitive abilities.   The economy may flourish with greater opportunities for cross-national trade and understanding.  “Soft” student outcomes such as attendance and engagement are often shown to increase when they participate in bilingual programs.  Students and families may see more value in education and themselves as their language and culture are positively addressed.

The downside to some bilingual education programs is that they may segregate ELs from other students in special classes.  Also, they typically cost more, as schools often have to pay stipends or other incentives to attract bilingual teachers.

As is true for most educational programs, results depend on the inputs invested: teacher capacity and training, parental support, administrative supports, and equitable policies.  All of our students deserve to learn in an environment that values them and their cultures.

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,CPE,English Language Learners — Tags: , , — Chandi Wagner @ 3:46 pm

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