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April 5, 2017

About those ‘rough’ school numbers

Speaking to a group of CEOs in the White House on Tuesday, President Trump said this:

If you look at so many elements of education, and it’s so sad to see what’s coming – what’s happening in the country. Even the numbers, as good – you say we’re doing better, but the numbers in New York the numbers in Chicago are very rough. The numbers in Los Angeles – the cities – it’s very rough situation.

It’s hard to say exactly what numbers the president was referring to. But given the occasion and the audience – plus the fact that he was responding to a statement about New York schools – we assume he is talking about achievement.

We recently called out Morning Joe for reporting false high school graduation rates in Los Angeles. We don’t know how the president scales “rough” so, unlike with the MSNBC talk show, we can’t say definitively that he’s wrong. However, we can provide some context for readers for making their own judgments about where to place these cities’ performance on the “rough spectrum.”

First, reading and math achievement. According to the 2015 NAEP, Chicago and New York City performed near or at the national average for large cities. Eighth-graders in these cities did the same in mathematics. While Los Angeles performed below the national average, it has made sizable gains since 2003. In 2015, LA 4th graders scored 13 points higher than their 2003 peers in reading, and 8th graders improved by 18 points in math. In comparison, large cities improved an average 12 points in both subjects. Chicago was near the top in gains: a whopping 20 points in reading and math.

As we reported to Morning Joe, graduation rates in Los Angeles had risen an incredible 10 percentage points in five years, from 62 to 72 percent in 2016. In fact, all three cities reported higher grad rates. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of Chicago’s class of 2016 earned diplomas. In New York City the rate was 70 percent. When including NYC summer school students in the calculation, the rate rose to 73 percent.

To be sure, on all of these indicators, the three city systems still lag behind the overall national average. The national grad rate is an historically high 82 percent. The national overall average on NAEP is 6-7 points higher than that for large cities. Perhaps this is what the president means by rough. But what cannot be denied is that performance in these systems is moving in the right direction, and in many cases, outpaces the overall national average. The accomplishment is all the more remarkable given the challenges these cities face, not least school poverty rates at or above 30 percent. If we continue on this path, we will finally see the gap between urban schools and their wealthier counterparts close. That doesn’t seem so rough to me.


Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Graduation rates,NAEP,Reading — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 2:19 pm

February 9, 2017

Alternative facts and America’s so-called failing public schools

Hello, Joe and Mika. My name is Patte and I am a compulsive Morning Joe watcher. I enjoy the background chatter, banter and congenial badgering while I’m getting ready for work. And often a segment makes me stop and pay attention.

Which happened during Wednesday’s show. The topic was the to-the-wire confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  But the substance had more to do with our so-called failing public schools. Political strategist and frequent Morning Joe table talker Steve Schmidt kicked it off by calling our public education system “fundamentally broken” and a “total profound failure.” As evidence, he pointed to Los Angeles where, he claimed, “50 percent of Black and Latino students don’t make it to a diploma.” Joe, you piled on, saying that “public education is broken” and “everyone knows that’s the case.”  The generally affable Willie Geist weighed in: “We can’t keep dumping millions into a broken system.”

Admittedly, I’m a little sensitive. After all, being for public education is embedded in our name, the Center for Public Education. But fundamental to our mission is also being data-driven. And the ubiquitous assertion that public schools are failing sets our collective teeth on edge.

Two things:

  • By many measures, public schools are performing better than they ever have.
  • Public schools still need – and want — to do better.

Since Steve Schmidt brought it up, let’s talk about high school graduation. The rate of high school students graduating is at historically high levels. In 2014, public schools posted their highest ever graduation rate — 82 percent — largely driven by gains for Black and Latino students. To be sure, gaps are still present, but they have narrowed significantly.

So what about Los Angeles? The overall grad rate for LA Unified Schools was 72 percent in 2015, up from 62 percent five years earlier. The rates for Black and Latino students were, respectively, 67 and 71 percent, lagging their peers nationally, but clearly better than the 50 percent Schmidt reported.

Other measures may be surprising. Our younger public school students are rocking it in math. According to results of the National Assessment for Educational Progress, today’s fourth-graders score 27 points higher on the NAEP scale than their peers did in 1990. Eighth-graders have higher scores by 19 points. To put it in layman’s terms, that’s about two years more of math learning. Although reading gains aren’t quite as dramatic as math, reading scores have likewise improved over the last two decades. And here’s a shocker: in math and reading, fourth-graders perform significantly above the international average.

I could go on. College-going rates are up. High schoolers are taking higher level math and science. More of our youngest students are enrolled in high-quality pre-k programs.

This is not to say we are where we need to be. High school students aren’t improving as fast as our elementary and middle-schoolers. Despite the progress made with low-income and minority students, schools have yet to close the achievement gap. And an 82 percent grad rate is not 100 percent. Clearly, we have a lot more work to do. But the perpetuation of the notion that our public schools are failing masks the real gains public schools have made. Worse, it sends a discouraging message to the hard-working educators who are making children’s lives better every day.

Joe, Mika – I love what you do every morning. But on this topic, you are flirting with joining the culture of alternative fact. It’s not too late to pull back and we can help. We even have charts. Have Steve Rattner give us a call.

Your fan,

Patte Barth

February 7, 2017

School Improvement Grants: Why didn’t $7 billion change results for students?

Mathematica recently released a study of the federal program of Student Improvement Grants (SIG). Their findings? Schools receiving the extra funds showed no significant improvement over similar schools that did not participate. With a price tag of $7 billion (yes, with a “b”), this strikes many as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Interestingly, the study also found no evidence that the SIG schools actually had significantly higher per-pupil expenditures than similar schools that didn’t receive the grants, which may have contributed to the mediocre results.

SIG awarded up to $2 million annually to 1,400 schools, which was administered by states. The program began in the 2010-11 school year and continues through the end of the 2016-17 year. Starting in 2017-2018, the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will allow states to use up to seven percent of their Title I allotments to improve the bottom five percent of schools. States may choose to dole out funds via formula or competitive grants, but districts are the ones responsible for using evidence-based practices to improve schools.

Under the old SIG rules, the federal government required schools to choose from one of these four turnaround models:


The new report analyzed transformation, turnaround, and restart models, and found no statistically significant effects for any of them. The authors did find positive, but not statistically significant, effects on math and reading scores for schools receiving the grant, but lower high school graduation rates. Critics of the new report have noted that the mathematical model chosen was not sensitive enough to detect small effects. The authors did find mixed effects each year, which many studies would have the power to find as significant, but due to the design, these remain insignificant. To give perspective of the magnitude of these effects, the effect of decreasing elementary class sizes by seven students is about 0.2 standard deviations; the effect of urban charter schools compared to their neighborhood schools after one year is 0.01 in math and -0.01 in reading (0.15 and 0.10 after four years). According to the Mathematica study, the results of SIG in 2012-2013 were 0.01 standard deviations in math and 0.08 standard deviations in reading, with a drop of in the graduation rate (note that SIG had a positive impact on the graduation rate in 2011-2012, which suggests that these results are not statistically significant, or could be zero). Not enough to conclude a positive effect, for sure, but not nothing, either.



I’ll offer a couple of my own thoughts (based on research, of course) on why SIG didn’t have the success that was hoped for:

1. The authors found no evidence that the grant funds actually increased per-pupil spending. In government-speak, the funds may have supplanted other funding streams instead of supplementing them, even though the law states that federal funds are supposed to supplement other funds spent. They found that SIG schools spent about $245 more per student than similar non-SIG schools in 2011-2012, and only $100 more in 2012-2013 (again the results are not statistically significant, meaning that we can’t confidently say that the difference isn’t zero). Recent studies have shown that spending makes a difference in education, so this may help explain why we didn’t see a difference here.

2. Students in many priority schools (the bottom five percent of schools), which are the ones that qualified for SIG grants, may have had the option to transfer to higher-performing schools. While the report doesn’t address this, it seems that students with more involved parents and better academic achievement may have been more likely to utilize this offer, thus lowering the average scores of the schools they left behind. Students perform better when surrounded with higher-performing peers, which means that the lack of overall effect could have been influenced by the loss of higher achieving students.

3. Schools receiving SIG grants were high-poverty and high-minority. The average rate of students eligible for free-and-reduced price (FRL) lunches in the study group was 83 percent, with non-white students making up 91 percent of the school populations (as compared with the overall school population being about 50 percent FRL-eligible and 50 percent non-white). While the resources allocated through SIG to these schools should have made spending more equitable, schools may have still struggled with recruiting and retaining experienced, qualified teachers, which is often a challenge for high-poverty, high-minority schools. Research is clear that integrated schools have better outcomes for students than segregated schools. Yet, the reform strategies used under SIG (replacing school staff and/or converting to a charter school) did little to improve school integration.

Hopefully, states and districts will learn from these lessons and use school reforms that fundamentally change the practices of the school, not just a few personnel: increased funding, school integration, changes in instructional practices, meaningful teacher/principal mentoring and development, and/or wrap-around services for students in poverty or who have experienced trauma.

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

January 21, 2016

Not a half truth: High school graduation rates never higher

We’ve “lifted high school graduation rates to new highs.”

— President Obama in his 2016 State of the Union speech

Last week President Obama boasted about the on-time high school graduation rate reaching an all-time high during his last State of the Union address. As with most claims the President made that night fact-checkers were ready to determine if data indeed backed up such a claim.  According to Politifact,President Obama only spoke a ‘Half-Truth’ when it came to high school graduation rates.

While Politifact provides valid and fairly solid reasoning for only giving the President a ‘Half-Truth’ rating, they themselves do not provide all the facts either. They did a great job pointing out why the current 82 percent on-time graduation rate cannot simply be compared to on-time graduation estimates prior to 2010. As they rightfully point out states have only been using a common graduation rate calculation in just the past 5 years. Politifact contends that for the President to have been completely truthful he should have stated the current graduation rate is at its highest level in 5 years– when states started using a common calculation for graduation rates. As they point out, prior to that each state had their own way of calculating graduations rates –where some were more accurate than others.

However, there were a number of researchers who developed calculations to estimate on-time graduation rates as well as a number of studies that followed a national sample of students throughout the their high school career. In fact, these rates went as far back as the 1950’s. Yet, none were as accurate as the common calculation currently being used by all 50 states.

But that doesn’t mean estimated graduation rates from years past should just be dismissed. Politifact even points out one such estimate called the Average Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) developed by the U.S. Department of Education reached a high of 79 percent in 1970. Which, of course, is lower than the current 82 percent on-time graduation rate. However, Politifact stated “Yet because the current method for calculating rates is only 5 years old, it’s not clear that the 1970 rate, or even the subsequent ones, are comparable to current rates.”

Politifact is absolutely correct to point out this fact. There is a real question as to whether the AFGR or any other estimate is comparable to today’s graduation rate calculations. Yet, they likely didn’t know about Nobel Laureate James Heckman’s  and Paul A. LaFountaine’s  The American High Graduation Rate study that standardized high school graduation rates from 1960 through 2005. The study utilized a number of data points and statistical adjustments to provide a standardized and more accurate measure of the high school graduation rate. Over that time period, only in one year- 1972—did the graduation rate break the 80 percent mark.

It should be noted the AFGR rates closely matched the rates calculated by Heckman and LaFountaine which indicates the AFGR  is an accurate measure of graduation rates. Furthermore, the AFGR rates were also similar to current graduation rate calculations in 2010 through 2012. Taken together, this provides a consistent and accurate measure of on-time high school graduation rates from 1960 through 2014– the most recent year graduation rate data is available.

Since 2014’s 82 percent on-time graduation rate is comparable to years prior to 2010, it is fair to say graduation rates have never been higher. Can we say this with absolute certainly? No, but the same can be said for almost any national indicator whether it is the unemployment rate or the divorce rate, just to name a couple. However, based on the best available evidence the U.S. on-time high school graduation rate has never been higher. As such, the President was completely truthful in stating our high school graduation rates have hit new highs. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Graduation rates,High school — Tags: , , — Jim Hull @ 9:25 am

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