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January 8, 2015

EdWeek’s Annual State of the States Report Card: How does your state compare?

Education Week (EdWeek) released its annual special report Quality Counts 2015, which included its State of the States report card. Massachusetts earned top honors with an overall B average while the nation as a whole earned a C. Out of the three categories each state and the nation were graded on, the nation earned the highest marks in the Chance for Success Index with a grade of C-plus.  In the other two categories– School Finance and Student Achievement– the nation earned a C and C-minus respectively. Massachusetts earned the highest grade in both the Chance for Success Index as well as the student achievement categories while Wyoming took top honors in the School Finance category by earning a B-plus.

Massachusetts has consistently ranked among the top states for several years. Several other states have consistently ranked near the bottom. Such a contrast highlights the fact states differ significantly in the performance of their public schools. This is important to point out as most states that received high marks by EdWeek also compared favorably to high performing countries while states that received the lowest EdWeek grades typically scored below most industrialized countries. While these grades are not necessarily reflective of the effectiveness of each state’s public schools since they don’t take into account how much students improved their academic performance while in school, they do provide valuable information on how well their students are prepared to enter the global labor market upon graduation. EdWeek’s grades indicate that some students are more likely to be prepared than others simply due to the state they were born in. ­­

 

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

Composite Score

How well do states prepare their students for success?

  • U.S. public schools earned an overall grade of C.
    • The grade is an average of the nation’s Chance for Success, School Finance and Student Achievement grades.
  • No state earned an A but Massachusetts earned top honors by receiving a B. New Jersey, Maryland and Vermont also received B’s although they earned slightly lower average scores.
  • Wyoming earned a B-minus placing it among the top 10 for the first time in EdWeek’s rankings.
  • No states earned a failing grade but three states earned a D (Mississippi, New Mexico, and Nevada).
  • Thirty-one states earned grades between a C-minus and C-plus.

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 eighth consecutive year by receiving an A-minus. New Hampshire also earned an A-minus while Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and North Dakota earned a B-plus as they did a year ago.
    • 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 once again.
  • The nation as a whole earned a C-plus just as in 2014.

School Finance

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

  • Overall, the nation earned a C in School Finance as it has for the past couple of years.
  • Wyoming’s grade dropped from an A-minus to a B-plus but still received the highest grade of any state just as it has for seven consecutive years. However, seven states received a B-plus this year compared to just three last year.
  • On the other hand, 15 states earned a D-plus or lower with Idaho the only state to earn a failing grade.
  • States vary greatly in how much they spend on education even when taking regional cost differences into account.
    • Vermont spent the most per pupil with $18,882 and Utah once again spent the least with $6,688.
  • States differ in how much of their taxable resources they spend on education.
    • West Virginia and Vermont spent the greatest proportion of their taxable resources on education at 5.1 percent
    • Conversely. North Carolina and North Dakota spent the least of their taxable recourses on education with 2.4 and 2.3 percent respectively.
  • States also differ in how much is spent between districts.
    • Alaska had the largest difference between the funding of their highest and lowest districts where districts at the 95th percentile in per pupil funding spent nearly $14,000 more than districts at the 5th percentile.
    • On the other hand, the disparity in Florida was less than $2,000.  On average, the disparity between high and low spending districts nationally was $4,559 per pupil.

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 just as 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 compared to four states in 2012.
  • Thirty-two states earned grades between a D and C-minus.

 

About Quality Counts

The nation and each state are graded in three categories (Chance for Success; K-12 Achievement; School Finance; Standards). However, new data is only available for the Chance for Success and School Finance categories.  Grades for the Student Achievement category are the same as last year because they are primarily based on NAEP results which are released every two years. Results from all three categories are combined to provide a composite grade in each state and the nation as a whole. – Jim Hull






December 19, 2014

The ROI of five ed reforms, according to Forbes

Many have tried to quantify the value of education— in fact, even we did in our video, Is it Worth It? But calculating what we get versus what we spend on public education is far from an easy exercise, as there are so many variables and value judgments that come into play.

Enter Forbes magazine, which attempted to determine what would happen if education policymakers put their money where their mouth is in five key areas: implementing the Common Core State Standards, strengthening teacher effectiveness and principal development, and expanding early education and blended learning.

Each comes with a hefty price tag that taken together would cost a cool $6.2 trillion over a 20 year period or $310 billion annually. In return, Forbes (with assistance from respected Stanford economist Eric Hanushek) predicts the U.S. would see its gross domestic product increase by some $225 trillion over the life of that generation’s professional career.

Where the initial outlay would come from— apparently hedge funds, inheritances and venture capital— is another story. What caught my attention about this study appeared to be a credible attempt to affix real dollars and cents to top education reforms and the benefits our country would reap from it.  Even if it’s hypothetical, a nearly 37 percent return on five major education investments is not something to ignore … though, apparently we have.






December 17, 2014

Work smarter, not harder

Scrooge
Scrooge McDuck was fond of telling his nephews to work smarter, not harder. I immediately reflected back to this quote from my DuckTales watching days when I saw the latest data on how much time U.S. teenagers spend on homework compared to their peers in other countries. Some might expect the U.S. to be among the world leaders in homework while others might expect our teenagers to lag behind their peers in most other countries. Which group you fall into likely depends on your family’s income level since as The Atlantic points out students from higher-income families spend 1.6 more hours per week on homework than students from the other end of the family income scale.

On-average, however, U.S. teenagers spend a little more time on homework than their peers around the world — 6.1 hours per week on home compared to about 5 hours a week for the typical teenager around the globe. Yet, these averages hide the fact that the amount of homework varies significantly from country to country. What may surprise some is that the time spent on homework has almost no correlation to where countries rank on international assessments. For example, while teenagers in high performing Shanghai-China and Singapore were also at the top of the list for most homework per week (13.1), teenagers in the high performing countries of Finland and South Korea had the least amount of homework (2.8 and 2.9 hours per week respectively). Even in Japan students only spend 3.8 hours per week on homework, nearly two and half hours per week less than students in the U.S., yet Japan outperforms the U.S.

In isolation the homework data isn’t very useful at identifying any problems in our schools. But, when taken together with the fact that U.S. teachers teach more hours than teachers in other countries along with knowing that our students spend more time in school than students in most other countries the problem clearly is not a lack of hard work. As our Making Time videos points out, it is not about how much time students spend learning, it is how effectively that time is used and the data strongly indicates that time can be used more efficiently. How to do that is not exactly clear at this point, but the first step would be to examine how those countries that spend less time on learning and still outperform the U.S. to gain insights into some best practices as to how to use time more efficiently here in the U.S. The data is clear, for the U.S. to be among the world leaders in student achievement our schools need to work smarter, not harder.  – Jim Hull






November 20, 2014

Growing concerns on testing

A recent opinion piece in the Denver Post challenged the commonly claimed notion that American public students are being tested too much. Recently, high school seniors in Colorado refused to take state assessments in science and social studies, arguing these assessments do not reflect what they have been taught.

But Alicia Caldwell, an editorial writer at the Post, writes that students from third to 12th grade are only tested 1.4% of the time in school, citing data from the state of Colorado’s Department of Education. Caldwell also points out that there was local input on these testing decisions, as eight educators from these school districts were placed on the committee that enacted the social studies standards in 2009.

These standards were put into place because Colorado students were required to take way too many remedial classes in college, which they received no credit but have to pay for. In essence, the Colorado students had to pay for classes that they should have already passed in high school. Finally, the author highlights the role of local districts, as “local districts are layering their own assessments on top of those required for the state, adding to total test time.” This reminds us that the amount of testing is the result of federal, state, and local policies. If parents or students, such as those in Colorado, are complaining about too much testing, then it is the school board and local government’s responsibility to make their testing information transparent.

Colorado is not the only state where communities have voiced their concern on testing. Maryland has also engaged in the debate over the right amount of testing. Eighth-graders in Baltimore schools, for instance, spend 14 to 46 hours a year on standardized assessments. A school year amounts to approximately 1000 instruction hours, so this would mean students are spending 1.4 to 4.6% on testing. When expressed as a percentage, this level of testing does not seem as significant as some of testing critics claim it to be. In Anne Arundel County, students are tested 46 hours per year and 33 of these tests are locally mandated tests. This again demonstrates the role of local government and school board decisions in testing.

An upcoming brief from the Center for Public Education will examine these and other concerns on testing and explain what studies have found on the subject. Stay tuned!






November 18, 2014

High performing students ≠ Highly effective teacher

Sheri Lederman may, in fact, be an excellent teacher. But the fact that her fourth-grade class performed well above the New York state average on both the math and English tests is not evidence of her effectiveness. That’s because overall scores such as these have long been known to be more a measure of the quality of the students a teacher is assigned than the actual effectiveness of that teacher. As such, such scores should never be used to evaluate teachers.

Why would this be the case? Let me give you an example. Say Teacher A is assigned a remedial class where just 15 percent of students pass the state test, while Teacher B is assigned to a gifted class where 70 percent of the students pass the state test. However, 70 percent of Teacher A’s students made more than a year’s worth of growth, while just 15 percent of Teacher B’s students did so as well. Which teacher do you think is more effective?

Based on these test scores alone, Teacher A would be considered the more effective teacher since the amount of growth individual students make from one year to the next is more indicative of a teacher’s true effectiveness than scores for individual students at one point in time. So, the fact that Lederman’s students scored above the state average is basically meaningless when it comes to evaluating her effectiveness.

What needs to be known is how much growth her students made over the past year and how that compares to other teachers. But simply comparing the growth Lederman’s students made to the state average isn’t a very accurate measure of a teacher’s effectiveness either since a student’s prior achievement and background can influence how much growth they make in a given year. Such differences need to be accounted for before growth measures can be used to evaluate teachers.

In fact, New York state does account for such student differences when evaluating teachers based on student test scores—including Lederman. The statistical term for including such measures is called the Value-Added Model or VAM which simply determines if a teacher’s students made more, less, or similar academic gains had those same students been taught by an average teacher.

In 2014, the statistics show that Lederman’s students, for the most part, would have made greater academic gains if they had an average teacher. This was not the case for her previous class. So one must ask why the difference? How can a teacher’s performance change so much from year to year?

The answer is VAM’s are not perfect measures of a teacher’s effectiveness, so results may vary from year to year even if the teacher’s actual performance hadn’t changed. Keep in mind, while VAM’s get criticized for their inaccuracy, other measures including classroom observations are in many cases less accurate measures of a teacher’s effectiveness. However, research shows combining student growth measures along with other measures of teacher effectiveness– like classroom observations—provides a pretty accurate measure of a teacher’s true effectiveness.

Are teacher evaluations perfect? No, which is why decisions about individual teachers should be made based on multiple evaluations, not a single one. Even then, results should be used to inform personnel decisions not mandate specific actions. Those decisions should be left in the hands of school and district leaders who know what is best for their students. For Lederman, those who know her best consider her a good teacher despite her last evaluation. The question is: would their opinion change if she continues to receive poor evaluations? Time will only tell. – Jim Hull






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