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July 18, 2014

How productive is your district?

Since the onset of the great recession, most states have been implementing higher academic standards while simultaneously cutting funding for their public schools. Basically, school districts across the country have been asked to do more with less. As I wrote in Cutting to the Bone there is simply no fat left to cut to enable school boards to balance their budgets. Many would have to make cuts in areas that would directly impact student achievement. Hence, the goal is no longer to find cuts that avoid negative impacts on students, it is to find cuts that have the least negative impact, even if they certainly benefited some students.

While school funding is unlikely to return to pre-recession levels anytime soon school boards continue to fight for the revenues they need to ensure all students are prepared for success following high school. In the mean time, boards are doing the best they can with the resources available to them. However, the Center for American Progress (CAP) argues in a recent report some districts are getting a better return on investment of their education dollars than similar districts. This means there are some districts that are spending less and are obtaining better results in terms of student outcomes than other districts within their state that serve similar students.

Accurately calculating the return on investment of school districts is notoriously complex due to such issues as differing accounting practices between districts and districts providing different services. As such the data is not always available to make a true apples to apples comparison of what districts spend on providing similar services. The report itself even points out the limitations of comparing the productivity of school districts. However, such limitations shouldn’t prevent districts from finding out for themselves how their productivity compares to other districts in their state. CAP’s new interactive web tool allows districts to do just that. Such comparisons may not be perfect but they provide a starting point to determine how effectively districts are spending the dwindling funds they have. Districts can use these comparisons to find out how more productive districts are using their dollars and determine if such practices would benefit their district.

Access to such information-as imperfect as it is– provides school boards an additional resource on how to they can best utilize their limited funds to improve student outcomes.—Jim Hull

Filed under: funding,Public education — Tags: , , — Jim Hull @ 1:22 pm





May 16, 2014

State of Preschool 2013: Enrollment drops, but quality rises

Earlier this week, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University released its annual State Preschool Yearbook for the 2012-2013 school year, which offered both some good and bad news regarding preschool enrollment, funding, and quality.

For the first time since NIEER began reporting on preschool trends in 2001-2002, there was a decline in enrollment. Over 9,200 fewer three and four-year-olds were enrolled during 2012-2013 than during 2011-2012. The state-by-state analysis shows that 20 states increased enrollment during this time period while 11 states saw their enrollment decline, however, the states with declining enrollment tended to be much more populous states, such as California.

When adjusted for inflation, state funding for pre-K increased by $30.6 million in 2012-2013. Although this does not make up for the massive cuts that took place during the previous school year, this increase combined with declining enrollment resulted in a $36 increase in state spending per student. Per pupil spending varied greatly between the 40 states (plus D.C.) that offer state pre-K. Nebraska and South Carolina each spend less than $2,000 per child, while D.C. spends over $14,000 and New Jersey over $12,000 per child.

While progress has stalled or regressed in some areas, many states improved the quality of their pre-K programs based on the NIEER’s Quality Standards Benchmarks. These benchmarks measure quality based on factors such as class size, standards, teacher’s level of education and specialization in early childhood, and student-teacher ratio. For the first time, all state-funded pre-K programs (53 total) used comprehensive early learning standards. Four states, as well as, one of the three programs in Louisiana, met all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks. Meanwhile, 16 states met eight or more of the benchmarks.

Overall, preschool saw some successes and faced some struggles this year. The decline in enrollment, although modest, is somewhat surprising given the increased attention that policymakers have been paying to early education initiatives. It will be interesting to see what enrollment numbers look like in the coming years. However, this modest enrollment decrease also represents a pause in the trend toward spreading little funding over more and more students each year, which expanded access but jeopardized quality in recent years. Quality is an area where things are looking up. Although there is still a lot of work to be done in meeting all of NIEER’s benchmarks, the progress that has been made over the last decade is promising and most programs are continuously working to improve the quality of pre-K education they offer.

For more information about the impact high quality prekindergarten can have on students check out CPE’s Pre-K research here.

-Patricia Campbell






January 9, 2014

EdWeek Ranks State Education Systems

Today, Education Week (EdWeek) released its annual special report Quality Counts 2014, which included its annual State of the States report card. Massachusetts earned top honors in the Student Achievement category by earning a B while the nation as a whole earned a C-minus, up from a D-plus in 2008—the first year EdWeek graded states on measures of student achievement. The U.S. earned higher grades in the other two categories– School Finance and EdWeek’s Change for Success Index– where the nation as a whole earned a C and C-plus respectively.

EdWeek’s annual report card shows once again that states vary considerably not only in achievement but how they fund their schools and the opportunity children born in their state are likely to succeed later on in life. States such as Massachusetts and Maryland not only received high marks from EdWeek but have also been compared favorably to high performing countries in previous studies while those states receiving the lowest grades from EdWeek typically scored below most industrialized countries as well. In these lower performing states, the typical student will less likely to be able to compete in the global labor market upon graduating high school.

How states can boost student achievement in this post-recession era of fewer funds and more rigorous requirements is certainly not clear. EdWeek attempted to provide more clarity to this question by surveying school district administrators across the country about how to best improve our public schools. Respondents were generally supportive of charter schools, virtual learning, and homeschooling but didn’t see these alternatives as having a major impact. These district officials also didn’t feel state and federal policymakers had much influence on school policies. In their opinion, it was school district officials and local school board members who have the most impact on school policies, not state and federal officials who seem to drive more of today’s reforms. So for states to increase their grades and become more competitive internationally, real reforms need to come from the local level and for states and federal officials to support those efforts.

Here are some of the key findings from this year’s report card:

K-12 Achievement Index

How do states compare on the academic achievement of their students in elementary through high school?

  • Public schools improved slightly since 2012- the last time the index was reported—but still earned a C-minus just as in 2012.
    • The grade is based on the academic status and growth over time in math and reading scores, narrowing of poverty-based achievement gaps, as well as high school graduation rates and the performance on the advanced placement test.
  • Massachusetts was once again top of its class in 2014 just has it has since 2008 by earning a B. Maryland and New Jersey scored slightly lower, but still earned a B and B-minus respectively.
  • Just two states–Mississippi, and the District of Columbia– received failing marks in 2014 compared to four states in 2012.
  • Thirty-two states earned grades between a D and C-minus.

Chance for Success Index

What are the odds that the average child who grows up in a particular state will do as well as the average child in the top-ranked state, at each stage of his or her educational life? (these stages are: the early childhood years, participation and performance in formal education, and educational attainment and workforce outcomes during adulthood)

  • Massachusetts ranked first for the sixth consecutive year by being the only state to receive an A-minus, while Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and North Dakota earned a B-plus.
    • This means that children in Massachusetts have the best chance of achieving positive life outcomes, according to EdWeek.
  • On the other hand, children in Nevada, New Mexico, and Mississippi have the least chance of achieving positive life outcomes by earning a D and D-pluses, respectively.
  • The nation as a whole earned a C-plus just as in 2013.

School Finance

How much do states spend on their schools? Is the spending distributed equitably?

  • Overall, the nation earned a C in School Finance similar to last year.
  • Wyoming’s grade dropped from an A to an A-minus but still received the highest grade of any state just as in 2013. However, West Virginia, New York, and Connecticut were close behind, all earning a B-plus.
  • On the other hand, four states — Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah — received a D while Idaho received a D-minus. No state received a failing grade.
  • Out of the 12 states that improved their school finance scores North Dakota, North Carolina and New Hampshire made the greatest improvements by boosting their grades a half a letter.
    • However, 35 states actually saw declines in their school finance score.
  • States vary greatly in how much they spend on education even when taking regional cost differences into account.
    • Wyoming spent the most per pupil with $19,534 and Utah spent the least with $6,905—a $12,629 difference in per pupil spending.
  • There are also major differences in per pupil spending within states as well.
    • On average states spend $4,566 more per pupil in districts at the 95th percentile in school spending than in districts at the 5th percentile.
    • Alaska has the greatest difference at $13,023, while Utah had the smallest difference at $1,997 per pupil.
    • Only seven states-Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming spent more in low-income districts than in the states’ wealthier districts.

School District Administrator Survey

  • Nearly 9 of 10 respondents believed that accountability pressures have been a major driver of change in their districts.
    •  A slightly higher percentage of respondents believed economic and fiscal challenges were major drivers of change.
  • About half believed private schools, virtual schools and homeschooling had some influence on their districts.
    • A smaller percentage indicating that charter schools had some influence (probably because charters are present in far fewer districts nationwide).
    • Keep in mind, just 1 in 10 respondents thought these other options had a significant influence on their district.
  • Fifty-four percent of respondents believed that there needs to be a change in the current governance structure to meet today’s challenges.
    • The most common change happening in districts surveyed were:
      • Changing superintendents (66 percent).
      • Expanding school choice (48 percent).
      • Central office reorganization (30 percent).
    • Mayoral takeover had happened in 3 percent of surveyed districts.
  • Most respondents supported non-traditional options such as virtual learning (74 percent), charter schools (59 percent), and homeschooling (58 percent).
    • Few supported vouchers (14 percent).





September 11, 2013

Education reform and the march on Washington

UnknownThe March on Washington played a pivotal role in transforming hearts, minds and laws during the civil rights movement. Protesting racial inequalities, 250,000 Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and helped create the necessary political pressure to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. While it is certainly true that people from all economic and ethnic groups joined the march, education leaders must not forget that it was heavily comprised of the movement’s key disadvantaged population: African Americans. Other movements, including women’s rights, rigid smoking regulations and strict drunk driving laws, also had substantial input from people that the issue harmed most. This is a critical trend because it captures the notion that social movements need intense participation from those within marginalized populations and those outside of it. If there is a movement to close the achievement gap and improve public education systems then past events should encourage education leaders to include academically disadvantaged families.

Organizations like the Harlem Children Zone and Promise Neighborhoods embrace the inclusion and empowerment of underperforming communities. In addition to providing a variety of social services, these initiatives teach parents from low achieving communities how to prepare their newborns for pre-school and continue to guide parents throughout their children’s k-12 careers. Both programs were also designed, in part, by Geoffrey Canada, a prominent education reformer who hails from struggling public schools in the Bronx, NY.

Although these organizations help incorporate disadvantaged families, other education sectors must continually improve their efforts. In particular, research suggests that school boards and districts are in a prime position to expand parental outreach. A 2011 report by the Center for Public Education shows that programs in Minnesota and West Virginia significantly improved parental involvement and student gains by merging innovative home activities with school practices. Inclusive and inventive initiatives like these cannot grow unless education leaders step to the plate and offer their support.

The bottom line is that the quantity and influence of education leaders from afflicted neighborhoods is far too low. Reformers are surely doomed to fight an uphill battle if they aren’t joined, even lead, by the communities they’re trying to help.

~Jordan Belton






August 7, 2013

New York and Others Gain 300 Instructional Hours through TIME Initiative

Time-to-SucceedWhat would you do with 300 additional hours in a year? Would you take up a cross-stitching? Learn to speak Italian? Or, would you recommit to your ill-fated New Year’s resolution to exercise more?

New York’s Rochester Central School District, along with several other districts in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Tennessee are facing this very opportunity for the 2013-2014 academic year. They are each part of a three-year pilot initiative—to affect over 11,000 students—whose objective is to “boost student achievement and make U.S. schools more competitive on a global level”. The San Francisco Chronicle article highlights how an additional 300 hours in school equates to about 50 additional days of instruction. Just imagine what teachers and students can accomplish with all of that extra instructional time!

As demonstrated in the Center for Public Education’s article “Making Time: At a Glance,” research surrounding time in school supports the following three key ideas:

  • More school time can produce more school learning when time is geared towards academic activities (as opposed to extracurricular or non-academic areas).
  • Professional development can ease this transition by focusing on maximizing class time and student engagement.
  • Full-day kindergarten participants make more gains than their half-day program peers.

How are the five chosen elementary schools of the Rochester Central School District going to change in light of the Time for Innovation Matters in Education (TIME) initiative?

Students will spend an additional 90 minutes per day in school, with staff following flexible scheduling and staggered start times to ensure adequate staff-to-student ratios while keeping costs at a reasonable level.

Schools are encouraged to “reimagine” their schedules to offer academic enrichment, fine arts, and increased access for counseling opportunities and community projects. Some schools are developing thematic approaches to the increased time, proposing STEM learning; a focus on arts, health, and wellness; and college-and-career-geared visits to local cultural institutions.

According to in-school surveys, students are excited about the prospects of extended hours and their potential exposure to new and exciting ways of learning. Who wouldn’t be excited about building robots to roam the hallways, learning about the latest healthcare breakthroughs, and visiting museums?! The bottom line is that each community has collectively agreed to “step up” its game to improve student achievement in ways that are relevant and meaningful to budding learners.

Besides increased scores on state assessments, other outcomes measures expected to show improvement are attendance rates, participation/student engagement, and reductions in office referrals. Fortunately for this New York school district, administration, teachers, parents, and students are on board with the TIME initiative to boost test scores and improve the district’s dismal 43% graduation rate.

Programs expanding the amount of time children spend in school can be incredibly expensive and difficult to sustain over time. With an initial investment of over $3 million/year (guaranteed for the next three years) from the Ford Foundation, plus start-up funding from a variety of state and federal grants, the New York school district anticipates additional costs ranging from $1,200-$1,300/student (with 2,300 students served).

The average employee in the labor force might not be too enthused about spending the equivalence of an additional 50 days at work every year (understatement of the year!), but the community of Rochester Central School District is ready to invest in the time and resources needed to turnaround their underperforming public schools. I, for one, am rooting for each participating district in the hopes that each one can serve as a microcosm of scalable success.-Christine Duchouquette

Filed under: CPE,funding,instruction — Tags: , , — Christine @ 2:47 pm





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