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Education Policy

  • Interpreting School Finance Measures

    Written on February 20, 2020

    Last week we released the second edition of our annual report, "The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems," which presents key findings from the School Finance Indicators Database (SFID). The SFID, released by the Shanker Institute and Rutgers Graduate School of Education (with my colleagues and co-authors Bruce Baker and Mark Weber), is a free collection of sophisticated finance measures that are designed to be accessible to the public. At the SFID website, you can read the summary of our findings, download the full report and datasets, or use our online data visualization tools.

    The long and short of the report is that states vary pretty extensively, but most fund their schools either non-progressively (rich and poor districts receive roughly the same amount of revenue) or regressively (rich districts actually receive more revenue), and that, in the vast majority of states, funding levels are inadequate in all but the most affluent districts (in many cases due to a lack of effort).

    One of the difficulties in producing this annual report is that the our "core" measures upon which we focus (effort, adequacy, and progressivity) are state-level, and it's not easy to get attention for your research report when you basically have 51 different sets of results. One option is assigning states grades, like a school report card. Often, this is perfectly defensible and useful. We decided against it, not only because assigning grades would entail many arbitrary decisions (e.g., where to set the thresholds), but also because assigning grades or ratings would risk obscuring some of the most useful conclusions from our data. Let's take a quick look at an example of how this works.

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  • Making The Case For Multidisciplinary Sex Ed

    Written on January 30, 2020

    Assuming you lived in a state that provided access to sex education, which of your courses would deliver this information? Most sex education is taught in biology or physical health classes with one or two lesson units between middle and high school. One compelling argument that I have found recently is a case to teach sex education in a multidisciplinary approach spanning several years of a student’s education in both social studies and physical science courses. Doing so could drive down teen pregnancy, empower youth about their own sexual health, and change the narratives and misinformation teens receive about sexuality. 

    Leaders in sex education have begun to incorporate lessons on health as early as preschool. Early childhood sexuality education standards from The Future of Sex Ed include discussions on parts of the body, touching, and relationships with family members and friends. Middle school curriculum covers gender, puberty, relationships, and sexual orientation. High school students then receive content on sexual health, contraception, consent, and gender and sexuality. Sustained, age appropriate lessons are crucial to developing healthy teens, and it’s time to rethink the traditional academic delivery of content. 

    Maryland, for instance, has implemented a sustained approach to teaching sexuality education throughout middle and high school.  A recent article in the Washington Post explains one health educator’s approach to presenting seventh graders with information about consent. Courtney Marcoux uses contemporary analogies to connect with her 7th grade students, but this is not the first time they have been exposed to the term “consent.” As of July 1, 2018, students in Montgomery County, MD are exposed to lessons on consent in 5th, 7th, and 10th grade. This is because the state passed legislation requiring these discussions in middle and high school. In response to the #MeToo movement, the bill ultimately aims to teach consent in sex education classes as a tactic to reduce sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses.

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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Disciplinary Learning

    Written on January 24, 2020

    In this column, published in the New York Times on February 5, 1995, Al Shanker argues that, although interdisciplinary units can be done well, there is value in the deep knowledge that the disciplines of history and math and science and literature can offer.

    Interdisciplinary learning is a big educational fact these days, and it's no wonder. It's a very attractive idea. The world is not divided into disciplines so why should school be? Why not integrate what kids learn -- and show them how math and biology and history fit together --­ instead of putting these things into separate boxes? A holistic approach, advocates tell us, will make learning far more engaging for students. It will also be more stimulating for teachers, who will be encouraged to make new connections and see things in new ways.

    But throwing away disciplinary learning for youngsters who have not yet mastered the disciplines creates serious problems. It constrains what teachers can teach -- and, therefore, what kids can learn -- instead of enlarging it. That's what Kathleen Roth, a science teacher and teacher educator, found when she participated in an integrated science and social studies unit (Roth 1994). The theme of the unit -- 1492 -- was a real grabber, and Roth and her colleagues planned something far more ambitious than learning the names and customs of various native American peoples and, perhaps, how to build a bark house or a canoe. They organized the year-long unit around themes of diversity, change and adaptation, and questions about how the people and land have changed since 1492 and how they might change in the next 500 years. They believed that these themes and questions would be powerful vehicles for teaching and integrating basic concepts in science and social science.

    What Roth found was something quite different. The interdisciplinary focus made it difficult for her to teach scientific concepts at all. For example, because the anchor point was 500 years in the past, the kids were pretty much limited to learning from books, and Roth was unable to give them practice in the basic scientific activities of observing things, trying to explain these things and making predictions about their behavior -- as she had done with previous classes. The interdisciplinary approach meant that her students learned less science, not more -­ some new names and facts but little if anything about how scientists raise questions and resolve them.

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  • The Past Is Prologue To The Future

    Written on January 10, 2020

    Our guest author today is Stanley Litow, Professor at Duke and Columbia Universities, where he teaches about the role of corporations in society, and the author of The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward. He formerly led Corporate Social Responsibility at IBM, where he was twice selected as CEO of the Year by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

    It was thirty years ago this month that Joseph Fernandez began his tenure as the New York City Public Schools’ Chancellor. Born and raised in New York, Fernandez led the public school system in Miami prior to assuming leadership of New York City’s schools, the nation’s largest school system. Even before becoming Chancellor in NYC, Fernandez had already been acknowledged a premier leader of a large city school system.  Over nearly four years under Fernandez's leadership in NYC, the schools accomplished a great deal despite significant challenges.  In fact at the end of his first six months on the job, Joseph Berger wrote a story in the New York Times that claimed that Fernandez had “enjoyed a string of triumphs as he maneuvered to gain control of [the school] system.”

    Among his many reforms, Fernandez championed the creation of dozens of new, innovative small schools across NYC, many of which ultimately spread across the nation. Decades later, the evaluation results of these innovative schools performed by MDRC as part of a set of longitudinal studies have documented significant gains in achievement.  His successors, who have disagreed sharply about many other things, have all continued to support and sustain the NYC small schools effort.  Fernandez also championed the first diversity curriculum in any US school district. That reform, Children of the Rainbow, attempted to assist early childhood and elementary educators in addressing the challenge of providing equity and excellence for students whose families might be nontraditional, including a book in its appendix titled "Heather Has Two Mommies." In the midst of the AIDS crisis, he began a structured way of providing students in New York City high schools with access to condoms, helping to provide health safety and security for students.

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  • The Structure Of School Segregation In The D.C. Metro Area

    Written on December 12, 2019

    A few weeks ago, the Shanker Institute published an analysis of segregation by race and ethnicity in D.C. metro area schools (including D.C. proper, Alexandria City, Arlington and Fairfax County in Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland). 

    The report, written with my co-author Bilan Jama, presents multiple measures to characterize segregation within each of these six districts and across the entire metro area, but it also focuses on segregation between districts. This is a very important distinction for understanding segregation, particularly in large metropolitan areas. Put simply, students may be systematically sorted into schools within each district (e.g., white students may be concentrated in some schools while African American students are concentrated into others), but they might also be sorted between districts (e.g., some districts may serve mostly black, white, Asian or Latino students, while others serve very few such students). Both of these factors affect the racial and ethnic composition of schools, and so both contribute to or attenuate segregation in the metro area as a whole.

    The D.C. metro area is an excellent context for this kind of analysis because it is so racially and ethnically diverse, with relatively strong representation of white (26.5 percent), black (34.7), Hispanic (27.2), and Asian students (11.6). This diversity is the “raw material” for truly diverse schools. Unfortunately, we found this not to be the case, and the underlying reasons why are interesting.

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  • A Problem Hiding In Plain Sight

    Written on October 10, 2019

    Our guest author today is Natalie Wexler, an educational journalist who is a senior contributor to forbes.com and whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and other publications. This article is excerpted, with permission, from THE KNOWLEDGE GAP: The Hidden Cost of America’s Broken Education System—And How To Fix It.

    In 1987, two researchers in Wisconsin, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie, constructed a miniature baseball field and installed it in an empty classroom in a junior high school. They peopled it with four-inch wooden baseball players arranged to simulate the beginning of a game. Then they brought in sixty-four seventh- and eighth-grade students who had been tested both for their general reading ability and their knowledge of baseball.

    The goal was to determine to what extent a child’s ability to understand a text depended on her prior knowledge of the topic. Recht and Leslie chose baseball because they figured lots of kids in junior high school who weren’t great readers nevertheless knew a fair amount about the subject. Each student was asked to read a text describing half an inning of a fictional baseball game and move the wooden figures around the board to reenact the action described.

    Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball towards the shortstop, the passage began. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.

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  • The False Choice Of Growth Versus Proficiency

    Written on October 1, 2019

    Tennessee is considering changing its school accountability system such that schools have the choice of having their test-based performance judged by either status (how highly students score) or growth (how much progress students make over the course of the year). In other words, if schools do poorly on one measure, they are judged by the other (apparently, Texas already has a similar system in place).

    As we’ve discussed here many times in the past, status measures, such as proficiency rates, are poor measures of school performance, since some students, particularly those living in poverty, enter their schools far behind their more affluent peers. As a result, schools serving larger proportions of poor students will exhibit lower scores and proficiency rates, even if they are very effective in compelling progress from their students. That is why growth models, which focus on individual student gains on over time, are a superior measure of school performance per se.

    This so-called “growth versus proficiency” debate has resurfaced several times over the years, and it was particularly prevalent during the time when states were submitting proposals for their accountability systems during reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The policy that came out of these discussions was generally promising, as many states moved at least somewhat toward weighting growth model estimates more heavily. 

    At the same time, however, it is important to mention that the “growth versus proficiency” debate sometimes implies that states must choose between these two types of indicators. This is misleading. And the Tennessee proposal is a very interesting context for discussing this, since they are essentially using these two types of measures interchangeably. The reality, of course, is that both types of measures transmit valuable but different information, and both have a potentially useful role to play in accountability systems.

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  • The Challenge For Business: Improve Education

    Written on September 12, 2019

    Our guest author today is Stanley Litow, Professor at Duke and Columbia Universities, where he teaches about the role of corporations in society, and the author of The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward. He formerly led Corporate Social Responsibility at IBM, where he was twice selected as CEO of the Year by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

    America's political climate is, in a word, toxic. The left and the right, which usually agree on nothing, seem to agree on one thing: animosity toward the sins of the private sector.

    It's remarkable how American businesses are now portrayed as a major cause of many of our society’s ills: income inequality,the looming skills gap, education’s failure to prepare workers for the jobs of the future, and a shredded social safety net. That's the main reason that many prominent American business leaders of the Business Roundtable spoke out last week about businesses’ need to make a commitment to all stakeholders, not just their shareholders. It’s a necessary step, in my view. The new awakening, which many companies have already been embarking upon, demonstrates a willingness not to just placate their shareholders but recognize a corporation's responsibility to the broader community, a stable environment, improved schools and their employees. This is an imperative for communities but also for the business bottom line.

    What, exactly, is a responsible company?

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  • The Progressive School Funding Option

    Written on September 4, 2019

    One of the more striking findings in our recent report presenting data from the School Finance Indicators Database concerns funding progressivity, or fairness. A state’s finance system is considered progressive (or fair) to the degree districts serving higher-needs students (e.g., lower-income students) receive more funding than districts serving lower-needs students.

    The graph below is taken directly from our report (my co-authors are Bruce Baker and Mark Weber), and it provides a rough illustration of progressivity in the U.S. as a whole. The numbers in the graph are state and local per pupil revenue by district poverty quintile. They are not dollar amounts because they are centered around the average for each district’s labor market to make them more comparable. If funding were progressive, the bars in the graph would slope upward left-to-right, since it would indicate that higher poverty districts receive more revenue than lower poverty districts. Regressive funding, in contrast, would be characterized by a downward right-to-left slope. Instead, what we find is that the bars are virtually flat – that is, higher-poverty districts receive no more or less state and local revenue than lower-poverty districts. Moreover, this has been the case for 20 years.

    I would reiterate that this is just an approximation of the national average. But it is consistent with what you see if you examine the situation state-by-state – there are a handful of truly progressive states and a few that are truly regressive, but most states are basically flat. It is also consistent with other analyses that use alternative methods (e.g., Chingos and Blagg 2017).

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  • It Was Never About The Buses: Personal And Political Reflections On “Forced Busing”

    Written on July 11, 2019

    White protestor attacks African-American passerby with American flag at a 1976 ‘anti-busing’ rally in Boston. (Photo credit: NPR)

    I have only a few distinct childhood memories of hearing someone utter the racial slur “N*****.” To be honest, I do not doubt that there were more incidents than those I now remember, but some instances were so stark and hateful, so soul wrenching, that I could not forget them, even as the passage of time has come to be counted in decades.

    One of my earliest recollections dates back to the fall of 1964, in my 6th grade class at St. Matthias Elementary School. The nun who taught the class had us research that year’s presidential election, and each of us had to decide which of the major party candidates – Johnson or Goldwater – we would support. During the ensuing class discussion, a fellow student announced that she supported Goldwater, as he would keep “the Niggers from being bused into our neighborhood schools.” Even as an eleven year old, I was stunned that this racial slur was used openly in a school dedicated to educating students in the values of the Catholic faith, and that the reaction of the nun teaching our class was to mollify, rather than admonish.

    St. Matthias was located in Ridgewood, a neighborhood on New York City’s Brooklyn-Queens border. In those days, Ridgewood was far to the right, a home to many who had been Nazi sympathizers and American Firsters during the 1930s and to others who had fled Eastern Europe at the end of World War II.[i] It was the anchor of the only assembly district in all of New York City to vote for Goldwater in 1964, and I was one of just two students in my large 6th grade class to support Johnson.

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