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  • Evasive Maneuvers

    Written on November 10, 2010

    In a previous post, I showed how the majority of funding for education and other public services comes from state and local tax revenue, and that low-income families pay a disproportionate share of these taxes (as a percentage of income). 

    One of the reasons why this is the case is that many corporations – especially the largest and most profitable – have managed to avoid paying most of the state taxes that they owe (45 states have some form of business tax).  State corporate income taxes (CIT) are levied on business profits – so, for the most part, it’s only the highest-income individuals who are liable (through the businesses they own) for corporate taxes (the top 10 percent wealthiest individuals own about 90 percent of all corporate stock).

    A 2005 joint report by Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy took a close look at state CIT payments by 252 Fortune 500 companies between 2001 and 2003. Their findings were astounding. These corporations were able to shelter roughly two-thirds of their actual profits from state taxation, while 71 of them paid not a penny in state taxes during at least one year between 2001 and 2003.  During the years they paid no taxes, these 71 companies reported $86 billion in profits to their shareholders.

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  • "No Comment" Would Have Been Better

    Written on November 9, 2010

    Bruce Baker is a professor at Rutgers University who writes an informative blog called School Finance 101.  He presented some descriptive analysis of New Jersey charter schools in a post, and ended up being asked to comment on the data by a reporter.  The same reporter dutifully asked the New Jersey Charter Schools Association (NJCSA) to comment on the analysis. 

    The NJCSA describes itself as “the leading statewide advocate for charter public schools in New Jersey and a principal source of public information about charter schools in the state.”  The organization issued the following response to Baker’s analysis:

    The New Jersey Charter Schools Association seriously questions the credibility of this biased data. Rutgers University Professor Bruce Baker is closely aligned with teachers unions, which have been vocal opponents of charter schools and have a vested financial interest in their ultimate failure.

    Baker is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, which is bankrolled by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. Great Lakes Center members include the National Education Association and the State Education Affiliate Associations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Its chairman is Lu Battaglieri, the executive director of the Michigan Education Association.

    There are now thousands of children on waiting lists for charters schools in New Jersey. This demand shows parents want the option of sending their children to these innovative schools and are satisfied with the results.

    Note the stretch that they have to make to allege that Baker is “closely aligned” with teachers unions—he occasionally reviews papers for an organization that is partly funded by unions. There is no formal connection beyond that. Note also that the NJCSA statement “questions the credibility of [sic] this biased data”—meaning they doubt the credibility of data from the State of New Jersey, which Baker merely recasts as graphs and maps. There is not a shred of substance in this statement that addresses the data or Baker’s description of them. It’s pure guilt by association (and there’s not really even an association).
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  • Michelle Rhee's Testing Legacy: An Open Question

    Written on November 1, 2010

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.

    Michelle Rhee’s resignation and departure have, predictably, provoked a flurry of conflicting reactions. Yet virtually all of them, from opponents and supporters alike, seem to assume that her tenure at the helm of the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) helped to boost student test scores dramatically. She and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty made similar claims themselves in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) just last week.

    Hardly anybody, regardless of their opinion about Michelle Rhee, thinks that test scores alone are an adequate indicator of student success. But, in no small part because of her own emphasis on them, that is how this debate has unfolded. Her aim was to raise scores and, with few exceptions (also here and here), even those who objected to her “abrasive” style and controversial policies seem to believe that she succeeded wildly in the testing area.

    This conclusion is premature. A review of the record shows that Michelle Rhee’s test score “legacy” is an open question. 

    There are three main points to consider:

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  • How Deep Is The Teacher Bench?

    Written on October 29, 2010

    On most sports teams, coaches assess players in part by considering who is available to replace them. Teams with “deep benches” have more leeway in making personnel changes, because quality replacements are available.

    The same goes for teaching. Those who aggressively wish to start firing larger numbers of teachers every year rely on an obvious but critical assumption (often unstated): that schools and districts can find better replacements.

    In other words, it is both counterproductive (and very expensive) to fire teachers if you can’t replace them with a more effective alternative. Even those few commentators who have addressed this matter sometimes ignore another important fact: The teacher labor market is about to change dramatically, with a massive wave of retirements lasting 5-10 years. Thus, most current assumptions about the stability and quality of the applicant pool over this period may be unsupportable.

    The numbers are a bit staggering.

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  • Who Pays For Education?

    Written on October 28, 2010

    In education debates, especially these days, there is endless talk about spending – how to spend money, what programs to cut, and how to increase the bang-to-buck ratio. This is not surprising: In 2007-08 (the last year for which national U.S. Census data are available), we spent almost $600 billion. That’s quite a figure, and we all have an interest in spending that money wisely.

    What is sometimes surprising is how little we hear about how we get that money. Of course, we all know that our tax dollars fund our public schools, and most of us know that state and local revenue is the primary source of this funding (about 90 percent; on average, about half state and half local). Less commonly-known, however, is who pays these bills – who bears the largest share of the tax burden, relative to their income? At the federal level, taxation is largely progressive, which means that, on the whole, higher-income families pay a larger percentage of their earned income to the federal government than lower-income families. This is, very simply, due to the fact that higher income brackets are taxed at higher rates.

    But when it comes to state and local taxes, the picture is different. The poorest families pay far more of their income than the richest (i.e., taxes are regressive). In other words, the money that funds public education is a burden disproportionately borne by poor and middle-income Americans. And the lower your income, the more of it you pay. Given this situation, combined with a fiscal crisis that threatens to linger for several years, the best solution – raising revenue through a more equitable system – may be the only one not on the table.

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  • Teacher Value-Added Scores: Publish And Perish

    Written on October 22, 2010

    On the heels of the Los Angeles Times’ August decision to publish a database of teachers’ value-added scores, New York City newspapers are poised to do the same, with the hearing scheduled for late November.

    Here’s a proposition: Those who support the use of value-added models (VAM) for any purpose should be lobbying against the release of teachers’ names and value-added scores.

    The reason? Publishing the names directly compromises the accuracy of an already-compromised measure. Those who blindly advocate for publication – often saying things like “what’s the harm?" – betray their lack of knowledge about the importance of the models’ core assumptions, and the implications they carry for the accuracy of results. Indeed, the widespread publication of these databases may even threaten VAM’s future utility in public education.

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  • More On What "Superman" Left Out

    Written on October 20, 2010

    Our guest author today is Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University and an historian of education. In addition, she is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C..  Her latest book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

    In my recent article for the New York Review of Books about “Waiting for Superman," I praised the SEED Charter School in Washington, D.C. (one of the schools featured in the movie) for their high graduation and college acceptance rates.  I also pointed out, however, that they spend about $35,000 per student, three times as much as normal schools spend.  This fact was not mentioned in the movie.

    Nor was the school’s incredibly high attrition rate.  Take a quick look at the graph below (hat tip to Leigh Dingerson).  They start out with about 150 students in seventh grade, but their enrollment slowly declines to around 30 in grade twelve.  This level of attrition is alarming, and it makes any simple evaluation of SEED’s results impossible. 

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  • Waiting For Methodology Man

    Written on October 18, 2010

    I finally saw the entire “Waiting for Superman” movie last weekend, in a mostly-empty Georgetown theatre. I went with my mother, not just because she’s a great public school teacher, but also because I needed someone to comfort me while I watched.

    We both had strong reactions to dozens of things about the film, and you almost have to admire the chutzpah. It is about education – with a primary focus on teachers – and includes sit-down interviews with superintendents, parents, students, businessmen, economists, and journalists, but not one teacher.

    Given all the attention that has already been lavished on it, I’ll discuss just one other thing that struck me, one which I keep hearing elsewhere.  There is exactly one sentence in the whole film in which director Davis Guggenheim addresses the research on charter school effects beyond the anecdotal evidence that dominates his narrative.  He notes, “Only one in five charters is excellent," with the implication that these charters show that it can be done.

    He is presumably referring to the CREDO study released last year, which is the largest (15 states plus D.C.) and arguably the most overplayed charter analysis in history (for other multi-state studies showing no charter effects, see here, here, here, and here).  The CREDO authors understandably framed their results in a “media-friendly” manner – by reporting the percentage of charters that did better than comparable regular public schools (17 percent), along with the proportion that did worse (37 percent).

    My first point is that 17 percent is equivalent to one in six, not one in five. But beyond that, some charter advocates have taken the remarkable step of turning the finding that twice as many charters do worse than regular publics into “evidence” that the former should be expanded.  The rationale is, as Guggenheim puts it, that these “one in five” charters are “excellent," and if we can increase that proportion, we can fix our public education system. There is only one problem: That’s not what the study says. Guggenheim is either deliberately misleading his viewers or, more likely, just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

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  • Teacher Contracts: The Phantom Menace

    Written on October 13, 2010

    In a previous post, I presented a simple tabulation of NAEP scores by whether or not states had binding teacher contracts.  The averages indicate that states without such contracts (which are therefore free of many of the “ill effects” of teachers’ unions) are among the lowest performers in the nation on all four NAEP exams. 

    The post was largely a response to the constant comparisons of U.S. test scores with those of other nations (usually in the form of rankings), which make absolutely no reference to critical cross-national differences, most notably in terms of poverty/inequality (nor to the methodological issues surrounding test score comparisons). Using the same standard by which these comparisons show poor U.S. performance versus other nations, I “proved” that teacher contracts have a positive effect on states’ NAEP scores.

    As I indicated at the end of that post, however, the picture is of course far more complicated. Dozens of factors – many of them unmeasurable – influence test scores, and simple averages mask them all. Still, given the fact that NAEP is arguably the best exam in the U.S. – and is the only one administered to a representative sample of all students across all states (without the selection bias of the SAT/ACT/AP) – it is worth revisiting this issue briefly, using tools that are a bit more sophisticated. If teachers’ contracts are to blame for low performance in the U.S., then when we control for core student characteristics, we should find that the contracts’ presence is associated with lower performance.  Let’s take a quick look.

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  • It's A Bird! It's A Plane! No, It's The Superman Movement!

    Written on October 8, 2010

    Yes, it’s the Superman Movement. Most filmmakers must secretly dream of a sequel that is bigger, better, and more important than the original. The makers of Waiting for Superman are apparently no different. "For us, the theatrical release is just the start of social action," says Jim Berk, CEO of the aptly named Participant Media, the studio behind the movie (see here). "When I started the company, it was to motivate the grass roots and really get people to embrace an issue, and the idea was that the politics would follow," confirms Jeff Skoll, Participant’s founder and chairman.

    In 2009, these leaders decided Participant needed its own organizing arm, so they invented TakePart.com, a website tied to an extensive network of social action websites. TakePart, which constructs a special operation for every film, also offers advice to potential activists on their chosen issues – what to do and how to do it.

    Charter school funders gloated and applauded when an early preview clip of Superman was shown at a Grantmakers for Education (GFE) conference in Baltimore last fall. GFE is made up of a wide array of education funders, ranging from powerhouses like Gates, Broad, and Walton, to community and family foundations of every stripe. (Full disclosure: The Albert Shanker Institute is an active member.) Participant was already drawing the foundation world into Superman’s policy and action orbit, hoping its dollars would follow the movie’s message.

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