Public Funds for Private Fun

How to Go to Disneyland on the Public Dime

On July 24, the Los Angeles Times ran an article that detailed how home schools that operate as charter schools use taxpayer dollars to pay for trips to places like Disneyland, Medieval Times, and SeaWorld as well as private horseback riding lessons and other extracurricular activities.  Public funds have even been used to purchase family memberships at the San Diego Zoo.  Some charter schools provide home school families as much as $3,200 per year for these purposes.  You can read the article here, and Diane Ravitch also covered it here.

Some expenses, like ice skating classes, or acting classes (!) qualify as physical education, while trips to Disneyland or SeaWorld are considered field trips.  Generally, home school families can use public funds to make purchases from a list of charter school-approved materials and activities.  Vendors typically must have their products and services approved by the charter school to have them on the list.  In this sense, the public funds are like script that can only be spent at the “company store.” 

At first glance this would seem to be a clear violation of the prohibition against making gifts of public funds that is contained in Article XVI, Section 6 of the California Constitution, which prohibits “the making of any gift, of any public money or thing of value to any individual, municipal or other corporation whatever…”  This prohibition applies to all units of government in California, including school districts.

However, the courts have determined that a “thing of value” may be provided to an individual if the private benefit is incidental to a public purpose.  As far back as 1940, the court, in County of Alameda v. Janssen, cited several prior court cases in stating that, “It is well settled that, in determining whether an appropriation of public funds or property is to be considered a gift, the primary question is whether the funds are to be used for a ‘public’ or a ‘private’ purpose.  If they are for a ‘public purpose,’ they are not a gift within the meaning of section 31 of article IV [now Section 6 of Article XVI].”  Presumably, home charter schools have determined that the private benefit (in the form of personal entertainment) of a ride through Pirates of the Caribbean is incidental to the value the public receives from it.  Sure, that may sound ridiculous, but how else would it be legal?

The same court also ruled that, “The determination of what constitutes a public purpose is primarily a matter for legislative discretion.”  The term “legislative” refers to the action of the legislative body of any government entity (including school district governing boards) and not just the state legislature.  In other words, the courts have granted substantial discretion to legislative bodies (including school district governing boards) in determining whether a private benefit is incidental to a public purpose.

The California Education Code is silent on this issue.  The California Department of Education, however, specifically prohibits the use of public funds for the cost of admission for students or staff to amusement/theme parks or other similar social events, but that prohibition applies only to the California Partnership Academies.

The ruling that “the determination of what constitutes a public purpose is primarily a matter for legislative discretion” has, in every case, been made with reference to a publicly-elected legislative body.  Charter school governing boards, by contrast, are non-elected and self-appointed private bodies with jurisdiction over public funds.  The question of whether this same deference should be granted to charter school governing bodies, therefore, may be ripe for a court challenge.  

But legal action would not be necessary if the Legislature exercised its authority to prohibit—or at least reduce—the inappropriate use of public funds by home charter schools.  The courts have made it clear that the Legislature has the authority to strictly prohibit the use of public funds for specific out-of-school activities, such as admission to amusement parks, etc.  

Alternatively, if the Legislature prefers to allow for a case-by-case approach, it could require the governing body of a charter school’s authorizer to approve each such expenditure at a public meeting, as a non-consent action item.  At least this would bring a publicly-elected legislative body back into the decision-making process and provide for public scrutiny.  In any event, the longer these questionable expenditures are allowed to continue and as the number of families benefiting from this public largesse continues, the harder it will be politically to stop or curtail this practice. 

Dan Walters Gets It Wrong (Again)

Yesterday CALmatters ran an editorial by Dan Walters called, “California tax revenue is soaring.”  You can read it here.  The Santa Cruz Sentinel published it today, but it seems to be behind their paywall. 

Anyway, the thesis is that tax revenues are soaring, and shame on “Democratic politicians and their allies in public-employee labor unions” for not acknowledging that fact and instead continuing the “drumbeat of impoverishment [that] is clearly aimed at persuading Californians, particularly voters, that vital services can be rescued from imminent collapse only be raising taxes.”  To prove his point (at least with respect to “soaring” revenues) Mr. Walters notes that 2018-19 state revenues were “a whopping 71.5% more than the state was collecting a decade ago.”  

True enough, but it seems there are a few things that Mr. Walters prefers not to acknowledge himself. Like, for example, the fact that a decade ago it was 2008-09, when California and the nation were in the depths of the Great Recession and state revenues took a dramatic dive.  In fact, revenues plummeted more than $15 billion from the prior year.  So, much of the “whopping” increase that he cites was used to restore whopping cuts that the state was forced to make during those years.  

In fact, if we use 2007-08 instead of 2008-09 as the base year, then the increase in state revenue is only 37%, even though this is an 11-year instead of a 10-year time span. This is a little more than 3% per year, and far less than the 71.5% that Mr. Walters uses.  It’s worth noting that, during that same time, California personal income increased 56%, so it can hardly be said that rising state revenues (which come mostly from the personal income tax) are taking a bigger percentage bite out of our pocketbooks.

Of course, Mr. Walters lays much of the blame for this greed on K-12 schools and their “skyrocketing” pension costs.  He states (wrongly, of course) that schools have “benefited from ever-rising property-tax revenues.”  Anybody who has taken California School Finance 101 knows that only a very small number of “basic aid” schools benefit from increased property tax revenue.  For all other schools an increase in local revenue is offset by a decrease in funding from the state.  But it’s a good line to use if you want people to believe that schools are drowning in money.

Just How Many More STEM Graduates Do We Need?

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is one of the few areas in education policy that has drawn bipartisan interest and support.  In the California State Legislature 33 STEM-related bills were introduced during the 2017-18 were introduced.  So far in the 2019-20 session, only 10 STEM bills have been introduced, but there’s still another year to go.

This interest arises from concerns that there will be a shortage of STEM workers in California and the U. S. in the near future and that the U. S. is in danger of ceding STEM supremacy to countries like India and (especially) China.  These fears are typified by a recent Forbes editorial written by Arthur Herman, a Senior Fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, called “America’s High Tech STEM Crisis.”  Herman writes that, “leading trends in our higher education suggest that the U.S. is fast approaching a STEM crisis like no other—one that systematically benefits foreign countries and companies, at the expense of our own.” The main countries we are chasing in this race to the high tech topaccording to Hermanare China and India.  Hepoints to data showing that China has at least 4.7 million recent STEM grads as of 2016, India has 2.6 million as of 2017, while the U.S. had only 568,000.  He does not give a date for the U.S. numbers.

To address this problem, Herman suggests taking a page from the Sputnik-era playbook.  He writes: 

We are fast approaching another Sputnik moment, we can’t afford to ignore. Our national security, as well as economic security, depending [sic] on addressing it. We need major high-tech companies like Google and Microsoft; leading universities and colleges; the White House, the Department of Education and the Department of Defense; to come together to craft a high-tech STEM education strategy that can lead us forward to the future.

California has been responsive to this clarion call.  Countless STEM magnet and charter schools have been established, as well as STEM programs within comprehensive high schools.  Numbers are hard to come by, but I would venture to say that a substantial majority of California’s high school students have access to a STEM curriculum.  

But is that enough?  What about the dire estimates of a shortage of STEM workers?  It’s true that many STEM occupations are among the fastest growing in percentage terms. According to California’s Employment Development Department, the need for software developers, for example, is expected to grow by 40.1% between 2016 and 2026.  This is the third fastest growing occupational area and is significantly greater than the statewide average growth rate of 10.7%.  

But when we look at the projected number of new jobs instead of percentage growth, a different picture emerges. EDD projects that California will need an additional 53,800 software developers by 2026, which accounts for only 2.8% of all new job openings.  In fact, the top 11 occupations that will see the most job openings are non-STEM and they account for 94% of all new job openings.  (EDD projects 1,933,100 new openings during this 10-year period; this is net of 2,087,900 new openings less a reduction of 53,800 in shrinking occupational fields.) Computer and mathematical operation, the top STEM field in terms of the number of projected openings (116,200) represents 5.5% of all new job openings.  The top 10 STEM field openings, mostly computer-related occupations like computer systems analysts and software developers, account for 16% of all projected job openings. 

Okay, maybe the number of future job openings is not as big as popularly believed, but what about the current need to fill the existing vacancies that we hear employers complain about?  Surely filling those currently vacant positions will help prevent an oversupply of STEM graduates, right?  Well, according to the PEW Research Center, nearly half (48%) of all STEM graduates work in non-STEM fields.  This is despite the fact that, on average, STEM graduates working in STEM fields have higher earnings than STEM graduates working in non-STEM fields.  Either a significant number of STEM graduates choose to take a lower paying job in a field other than that for which they prepared or there are not enough STEM jobs to employ all STEM graduates.

A more nuanced analysis from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that the STEM labor market is more heterogeneous than we typically think, and that there are both shortages and oversupplies of STEM graduates depending on level of the degree, specific STEM field, and geographic area.  This report, which you can read here, is worth reading just for its taxicab queuing metaphor.

Labor market concerns aside, some—like Mr. Herman—argue that there is a widening “STEM-gap” between the U. S. and our major competitors, like China, who are producing engineers and other STEM graduates at a much faster rate than the U. S.  This, the argument goes, is a threat to our national security as well as our global competitiveness. 

With respect to Bachelor’s-level engineering degrees, Duke University’s Pratt School on Engineering (no relation, alas) states herethat the U.S. graduates about 70,000 engineers annually, compared to 600,000 for China and 350,000 for India.  (This refers only to Bachelor’s-level degrees.  The U.S. produces more Ph.D. engineers that China according to the National Science Board).  This would seem to substantiate Herman’s point.  However, Duke’s analysis of employment data in the U.S. indicates there is no shortage of engineers, while anecdotal evidence from companies doing business in India and China report shortages in those countries.

So, which is it?  Are we losing the numbers game or not?  Well, it turns out that China and India use different definitions of “engineer,” and comparing U. S. engineering degrees with Chinese and Indian engineering degrees is not an apple to apples comparison.  In China, each province reports the number of engineer graduates to a central agency, but definitions are not consistent across provinces and they often fall short of what we think of as engineers.  For example, “engineer” can refer to a motor mechanic or technician or someone with a 2- or 3-year degree or certificate that is equivalent to an AA degree in the U.S.  These are many of the “engineers” in Mr. Herman’s numbers.

In addition to ignoring definitional differences, Herman also fails to account for qualitative differences among the degrees offered by the three countries.  And apparently the differences are substantial.  According to Zhang Duanhong, the director of the Education Policy Research Center at Tongji University, “China’s undergraduate programs are notorious for low standards and easy classes — and once you’re in, you’re practically guaranteed a degree.”  This assessment is validated by a reportfrom the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which states:  

undergraduate students at the end of their CS [computer science] programs in the United States have much higher levels of CS skills than their counterparts in three major economic and political powers: China, India, and Russia. Seniors from the average CS program in the United States score far ahead of CS seniors from the average program and are on par with seniors from elite programs from these three countries. Furthermore, seniors from the top quintile of CS programs in the United States are far ahead of seniors from elite CS programs in the other countries. Notably, the advantage of the United States is not because its CS programs have a large number of highly skilled international students.

So maybe we can take a deep breath, sit back, and make a realistic assessment of what our STEM needs really are. I’m actually a supporter of STEM (and especially STEAM—the “A” stands for arts) programs.  And I’m especially supportive of programs that expand STEM opportunities to females and students of color.  But I’m also wary of promising every student with a STEM degree a high paying STEM job.  The price of labor is subject to the same law of supply and demand as the price of any other service or commodity.  An oversupply will push wages down.  That would be a disservice to our students.  In addition, an overemphasis on STEM could displace educational opportunities to prepare students for perfectly rewarding careers in non-STEM fields. That would be a loss.

Is this Ironic or What?

There’s a movement afoot in Tennessee to establish stronger central control over its charter schools

In 2012, Tennessee decided that the best way to improve persistently low performing schools was to turn them over to charter school operators.  To this end, the state created the Achievement School District (ASD) and assigned the low performing schools to it.  The charter schools in the ASD are under the control of 11 charter management organizations.  The ASD has a superintendent, but this is an oversite position, with very little control over the operation of the schools.  

Predictably, the ASD schools have not performed any better than the other low performing schools in the state.  Although the state has the authority to replace a CMO whose schools are not improving, that has not yet happened.

To address these issues, the current ASD superintendent, Sharon Griffin (she’s been in the job for about a year), wants more centralized control over the schools. (Griffin also serves as Assistant Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Education’s Office of School Turnaround.)  As explained by Chalkbeat  here, that is ruffling some feathers.  The charter school operators complain that they were given the autonomy to run the schools as they see fit, and they want to keep it that way.  But that’s not working, according to Griffin, who came to the ASD from Memphis, where “her no-nonsense leadership was credited with turning around other schools.”  She hinted that she may be looking at assuming the authority over “hiring practices, instructional practices, culture, and climate” if the schools are not “yielding the results we desire for our children.”   Griffin has the support of Penny Schwinn, Tennessee’s Education Commissioner (and Broad Academy Graduate) in this effort.

So, there you have it.  Due to their poor academic performance, Tennessee is on the verge of establishing centralized control over charter schools, which have championed local (meaning school site) control and decision making as the path to improvement.

The Chalkbeat story is a good read.

Reed Hastings Wades into Missouri Politics

“Those are my principles. And if you don’t like them, I have others”—Groucho Marx

California readers will be interested in this item, which Diane Ravitch posted on her blog today.  It discusses the $143,000 in political contributions that Reed Hastings gave to 74 Missouri Republicans, including 73 Republicans who voted for a controversial abortion ban bill and the Republican Governor Mike Parson, who signed the bill last month. As explained here, Hastings said that his contributions were specifically in support of a bill, HR 581, which would have expanded the jurisdictions in which a charter school could be established (charter schools in Missouri are currently limited to specific cities and districts).  The bill drew bi-partisan opposition and, after a filibuster, was dropped from the calendar without a vote.

But I have to wonder—why would Reed Hastings, a self-described progressive Democrat, be so interested in charter school expansion in another state that he maxes out on political contributions to anti-choice Republicans?  Especially on behalf of a bill that had bi-partisan opposition and was unlikely to pass.  The mystery deepens when we consider that the best thing that can be said about charter schools in Missouri is that they have been less than stellar.  According to thiseditorialin The Missourian, the expansion of charter schools “should be rejected unless legislators agree to improve accountability and oversight of charter schools — and unless lawmakers allocate additional funds for public schools.”  So how is it that support for an unpopular bill to allow the expansion of mediocre charter schools in another state can trump one’s core progressive principles?

Well, as CEO of Netflix, Hastings has other principles.  While he has made personal contributions to Missouri Republicans, it turns out that his company, Netflix, has also recently hired a lobbying firm to work in Missouri, as reported here.  Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, legislation in that state to extend video service provider fees to non-cable companies like Netflix died without a hearing.  

Lessons on Management from W. Edwards Deming

They should be teaching this in administrative credential programs (and policy makers should take heed)

W. Edwards Deming went to Japan in 1950 where he taught quality management to top management engineers. He is regarded as one of the primary forces in the revitalization of the Japanese economy after WWII.  The Union of Japanese Science and Engineering named an annual prize for achievements in quality and dependability of product after him. In 1960, the Emperor of Japan awarded him the Second Order Medal of the Sacred Treasure.  In this country, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Reagan.  He also received the Distinguished Career in Science award from the National Academy of Sciences in 1988.  He has received many other honors and recognitions as well.

In 1981 the Ford Motor Company, which had accumulated a three-year loss of $3 billion, brought Dr. Deming in to help improve product quality.  Deming’s focus, however, was not on product quality, but on management, saying that management was responsible for 85% of all problems in developing better cars.  By 1986, Ford had become the most profitable American auto company.  Dr. Deming, it seems, knows a thing or two about how to manage people to get the best results.  And many of his lessons apply to the management of schools and school districts.

In 1994, Dr. Deming published The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education.  Here are a few of his keys to successful management (with apologies for the misogynistic “he”):

  • Abolish ranking and merit systems.  “Ranking is a farce.  Apparent performance is actually attributable mostly to the system that the individual works in, not the individual himself.”
  • “The merit system destroys cooperation.”
  • Abolish incentive pay and pay based on performance.  
  • Manage the company as a system.
  • “Instead of setting numerical quotas, management should work on improvement of the process.” 
  • “A numerical goal leads to distortion and faking, especially when the system is not capable to meet the goal.”  (Think of what this implies for output-based accountability.)
  • “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—a costly myth.”
  • “A goal that lies beyond the means of its accomplishment will lead to discouragement, frustration, demoralization….When a company holds an individual accountable for a goal, it must provide to him the resources for accomplishment.”
  • “The performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, [which is] the responsibility of management.”
  • “The greater the interdependence between components, the greater will be the need for communication and cooperation between them.” 

There is much more to this book than this.  It should be required reading of all school administrators.

Do Charter Schools Have a Negative Financial Impact on Their Host Districts?

If you ask this of almost any district that hosts a charter school, the answer would be “yes.”  A report by MGT of America, which was commissioned by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, found that charter schools cost LAUSD almost $600 million annually.  To be fair, that report is disputed by the California Charter Schools Association here.

But if you ask Paul Bruno, who authored a recent PACE report, “Charter Competition and District Finances: Evidence from California,” the answer is “no.”  He writes that the fiscal stresses resulting from the presence of charter schools in California is less than that found in other states, because “California’s policy context shields districts to a large degree from fiscal strain.”  Many districts in California would be surprised to hear this.

This conclusion is based on an analysis of the impact of charter schools on per student spending (measured by spending per unit of average daily attendance, or ADA) in what is presumably, but not specifically stated, the host district.  That impact is measured by using a regression equation, in which per student expenditures is the dependent variable and one of the independent variables is charter school enrollment as a percentage of district enrollment.  The data are collected “at least once between the 2003-2004 and 2014-2015 fiscal years.”  

The author deserves credit for a technically sound analysis.  But that technical virtuosity is misapplied.  Production functions and other forms of mathematical modeling of relationships are only as good as their underlying assumptions.  In this case, the assumption is that the financial impact of charter schools on their host districts would be manifested in changes in per student spending.  In fact, that is the hypothesis of this paper.  But that hypothesis doesn’t make sense in the context of California’s school finance system.

In California, school districts and charter schools are funded on the basis of a base grant for all students (which is the same amount for all students within a grade span), and the base grant is increased by a supplemental grant and concentration factor, which are awarded on the basis of a district’s or charter school’s enrollment of students who are English learners, low income, or in foster care. In short, California’s districts and charter schools receive a specific amount of revenue per student, and they must live within that amount.  

The funding that each district receives per student is totally unrelated to the number of charter schools in its boundaries or the size of the enrollment in those schools.  Since spending per student is directly related to funding per student, and because the presence of charter schools has no impact on funding per student, there is no reason to believe that the presence of charter schools has any effect on per student spending.  The report uses sophisticated analytical tools to confirm what we already know—per student spending is driven by per student funding.  Period.

So where should we look for a fiscal impact?  Here’s a thought experiment:  consider a district with 100 students, which is funded at the rate of $10,000 per student. That school receives a total of $1 million in revenue and, after setting aside 3% for a reserve, spends a total of $970,000 (or $9,700 per student).  Now let’s say one of those students transfers to a charter school.  The district loses $10,000 in revenue, but its costs are reduced by only a fraction of that revenue loss.  Let’s be generous and say its costs go down $3,000.   Now the district is spending a total of $967,000, or $9,768 per student.  That looks like a $68 per student windfall, right?  But wait, don’t forget that the district also has lost $10,000 in revenue, which is $101 per the remaining students.  When a district loses students, the marginal savings are smaller than the reduction in funding. In this case, the district is $33 per student in the hole.

A district must adjust to this by deficit spending, reducing spending, or some of both.  It is in these areas that the financial consequences of the presence of charter schools will be felt.  We should be asking:  What are the consequences of deficit spending?  How long is it sustainable?  Where is sending reduced?  Which programs or services are affected?  What is the impact on students?  This report does not raise these questions.

Through deficit spending and/or budget cuts, the district will eventually restore its per student spending to what it otherwise would have been in order to live within its per student revenue.  The presence or absence of a charter school has no effect on this dynamic.

The report acknowledges that “per-pupil aggregate fund balances at the end of the fiscal year are significantly negatively associated with local charter school enrollment shares. This suggests that even when California districts are able to reduce their expenditures in the face of charter school competition this may be insufficient to completely offset contemporaneous declines in revenue.”  

My point exactly!  But it gets tossed aside in the next paragraph, in which the author states, “I do not find evidence that districts facing charter competition are financing their expenditures with debt….This suggests that any strain indicated by districts’ declining fund balances is not so severe as to force districts to take on additional debt.”  In truth, this suggests nothing more than that districts are obeying the legal prohibition against borrowing to pay for current expenses of education.  (Districts engage in short-term borrowing in order to manage cash flow, but such loans are repayable within the fiscal year and do not constitute deficit financing of current expenses.)

The author also argues that the 3% fee that districts may charge charter schools “may reduce, or even reverse, the fiscal strain districts might otherwise experience from charter school expansion.”  Far from being a money-maker, most districts report that the costs of oversight (especially the level of oversight that the public deserves) exceeds the revenue from the 3% fee.  This possibility is implicitly dismissed without comment.

Finally, the author refers to charter schools that are “affiliated” with a school district.  This term is not defined.  It could mean either the district in which the charter school is located (let’s call it the host district) or the authorizing district, but the explanation is less that clear:  “I treat any charter school not formally affiliated with a TPS district as though it is affiliated with the nearest TPS district.”  Maybe this refers to charter school that is “affiliated” with (authorized by?) a non-district entity, such as a county office of education, and the “nearest” district is the one in which the charter school is located, but this is not clear.

The distinction between a host district and an authorizing district is considered unimportant by the author, because “this reflects technicalities of oversight and administration, not differences of enrollment policy.”  This is not true, because, for the time period during which data for this report were collected, the host district and authorizing district were not necessarily the same.  Many districts authorized charter schools that were located outside of their own boundaries.  This allowed them to collect the oversight fee (and perform little actual oversight) while the host district experienced the effects of declining enrollment.  

It’s Time to Bring Back BTSA

The Learning Policy Institute reports that 88% of California’s demand for new teachers is driven by teacher attrition, and that teachers without mentoring leave at twice the rate as teachers who receive regular mentoring.  So what are we, as a state, doing about it?  Nothing. Meanwhile, we’re spending tens of millions of dollars each year to entice more college students into the teaching profession.  LPI’s data show that focusing only on the supply side of the teacher shortage is a solution to less than half of the problem.

California used to have a highly effective new teacher induction program in the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program, which is arguably the most robustly researched (both before and after its enactment) K-12 categorical program in California history. It had a positive effect in two critical areas:  teacher retention and teacher quality.

Unfortunately, BTSA was eliminated with the enactment of the local control funding formula, although beginning teachers are still required to undergo induction.  Even before that, it fell victim to categorical program funding flexibility, which gave local school districts the ability to shift funding into or away from specified categorical programs.  According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, 55% of districts shifted money away from BTSA and 10% eliminated the program altogether.

This, despite the fact that research, such as this study by the Educational Research Service, found positive returns from investments in the program.  The biggest monetary benefit to districts is through the improved retention of beginning teachers.  This reduces the costs of new teacher recruitment and orientation.  The biggest nonmonetary benefit is improved classroom instruction.  This is no small matter in an era of heightened accountability.

But the benefits of BTSA also accrue to the state by helping to alleviate the seemingly intractable teacher shortage.  Over the last several years the Legislature has attempted to address this problem by getting more teachers in the pipeline.  Efforts include providing financial assistance to would-be teachers. Governor Newsom is now proposing to spend $89.8 million (one-time) to provide incentives for newly credentialed teachers to work in high-need schools for at least four years.  However, this does nothing to increase the number of credentialed teachers, and it just shifts the shortage from one set of districts to another.

Meanwhile, it’s worth repeating that the Learning Policy Institute reports that 88% of the demand for new teachers is driven by teacher attrition, and that teachers without mentoring leave at twice the rate as teachers who receive regular mentoring. We’ve also known for some time that attrition is highest among teachers in their first five years, and we’ve learned from our own experience that BTSA significantly reduces attrition among beginning teachers.  

So, this should be a no-brainer, right?  By investing in BTSA we can address a root cause of the teacher shortage and get the added benefit of improved classroom instruction.  The only argument against restoring BTSA as a state-funded categorical program is that it violates the principle of subsidiarity that is enshrined in the local control funding formula.  

That’s a weak argument. We all accept that local control has its limits.  We do not leave it up to local districts to make decisions about most things where there is a state or compelling interest at stake.  I argue that the teacher shortage is a state problem that demands a state solution.  We cannot leave it up to local decision making.  We already know from the experience with categorial program flexibility that, when given the chance, most districts will disinvest in BTSA.  That’s because they’re doing what they’re supposed to do with local decision making: address their highest local—and not state—priorities.  Because addressing the teacher shortage is a critical state need, it should be addressed with a state-funded solution. It’s time to restore BTSA as a state-funded categorical program.

What’s the Standard for the Standards?

How should we interpret the Common Core State Standards cut scores?

In 2015, prior to the release of test scores from the new Smarter Balanced (SBAC) assessments, then-California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson tried to prepare the public by warning that scores were likely to be lower than scores on the former assessments, because the new standards were higher.  He was right on both counts—the standards are higher, and the scores were lower.  In a baffling case of standing logic on its head, somebody, somewhere, decided that if too few students were meeting the former standards, then the best solution, by golly, was to raise the standards even higher. 

Despite the Superintendent’s warning, the media dutifully reported the scores without seriously questioning if—just maybe—the standards had been raised too much.  The coverage by EdSource was typical, with a headline reading, “Most California students below standards on Common Core-aligned tests.” Six paragraphs into the story EdSource acknowledged Superintendent Torlakson’s statement that the standards are more rigorous than previous tests, but then cast doubt on that claim by stating, “Test results from 2003, the baseline year for students taking the STAR tests under the 1997 California academic standards, don’t appear to support Torlakson’s argument that the current tests are harder, however.  More students met or exceeded the English language arts test this year than were proficient or advanced in 2003:  44 percent vs. 35 percent (emphasis added).”  The potentially good news that students actually got smarter was, instead, presented as evidence that the tests got easier!  

Similarly, the Sacramento Beeeditorialized, “Only 33 percent of California students met or exceeded the new math standards, and only 44 percent met or exceeded the standards in English. Yikes.”  To be sure, the Bee acknowledged that “These numbers are a baseline, and a lot of those ‘below standard’ scores are probably closer than they seem to the goal.”  But still, even while admitting that the Common Core is a “major upgrade” from previous standards, the purpose, validity, or meaning of that upgrade were not questioned.

That lack of curiosity about what the standards actually are, who sets them, and how, continues to this day. I’ve never understood why the standards themselves receive such little—if any—scrutiny from the public, the media, and policy makers.  It’s as if the standards have been handed down as some sort of received wisdom and accepted as an article of faith, beyond the reach of reasonable inquiry.  

These thoughts came to my mind as I leafed through Cal Facts 2018, recently released by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), and found a graph with the heading, “fewer than half of California’s K-12 students meet state standards.”  It shows that, in Grades 4, 6, 8, and 11, fewer than half (in some cases far fewer than half) of students met state standards in reading and math in the Spring 2018 SBAC assessment.  The lone exception was Grade 11 reading, in which slightly more than half met the standards.

Now, among the first questions that should come to mind (but rarely, if ever, do) are:  what are the standards, who sets them, and how?  After all, on the face of it, there are two equally plausible ways to interpret this graph.  Either California’s students (and by extension our schools) are failing miserably or the standards themselves are unreasonably high.   The second interpretation should be given at least as much consideration as the first.  Instead, first interpretation gets all of the headlines.

California uses four performance levels to describe student performance on the SBAC assessments:

  • Level 1:  Standard Not Met
  • Level 2:  Standard Nearly Met
  • Level 3:  Standard Met
  • Level 4:  Standard Exceeded

Individual student scales scores are used to determine which performance level each student falls within. For example, in third grade math, a student whose scaled score is between 2436 and 2500 would be in Level 3.  A score that divides one level from the next is a cut score.  California uses the numbered levels to get away from the use of the terms below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced that were associated with the former assessments, but the idea is the same.  In fact, in some other states that use the SBAC assessments, Level 3 is still referred to as “proficient.”  

State standards are commonly thought of as grade level expectations—what students are expected to know and do at each grade level. Originally, grade level expectations were based on average student performance (based on norm-referenced tests), which subsequently became the expected level of performance for all students, so that all students were expected to achieve at or above average. While it’s good practice to have high expectations for each individual student, it makes no sense to expect all students within a school, district, or state to achieve above average.   

Most states, including California, have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which were developed by a consortium of states through the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  Among other criteria, the standards at each grade level were developed to be “rigorous,” which means, according to the SBAC consortium, they include “high-level cognitive demands by asking students to demonstrate deep conceptual understanding through the application of content knowledge and skills to new situations.”

The Smarter Balanced (SBAC) assessments and performance expectations are tied to those standards.  So, to say that 48% of 4thgraders meet state standards in reading and language arts, is to say that 48% of students have mastered a rigorous course of study and demonstrate a deep conceptual understanding of content knowledge and skills.  We used to refer to them as “A” students.  Now they’re just Level 3:  Standard Met, or, in the prior parlance, “proficient.”

The setting of standards and the setting of cut scores to distinguish between achievement levels is an art, more than a science, and it is done away from the public eye.  The California Alliance of Researchers for Equity in Education (CARE-ED), a collaboration of more than 100 California education researchers) argues that the SBAC (along with PARCC, the other CCSS-aligned assessment) lack “basic principles of sound science, such as construct validity, research-based cut scores, computer adaptability, inter-rater reliability, and most basic of all, independent verification of validity (http://care-ed.org).”  CARE-ED also reports that, “when asked for documentation of the validity of the CA tests, the CA Department of Education failed to make such documentation public.”   (By the way, the SBAC consortium invited non-educators like members of the general public and the business community, who had no pedagogical background at all, to participate in standard setting!)

What the standards lack in scientific rigor, they make up for in subjectivity.  Standards assessed on the SBAC are expressed in the form of “claims,” which are summary statements about the knowledge and skills students are expected to demonstrate on the assessment related to a particular aspect of the standards.”  Here, for example, are the claims for English/language arts for grades 3 through 8:

  • Overall claim:“Students can demonstrate progress toward college and career readiness in English language arts and literacy.” 
  • Reading:“Students can read closely and analytically to comprehend “Students can read closely and analytically to comprehend a range of increasingly complex literary and informational texts.”
  • Writing:“Students can produce effective and well-grounded writing for a range of purposes and audiences.” 
  • Speaking and Listening:“Students can employ effective speaking and listening skills for a range of purposes and audiences.” 
  • Research/inquiry:“Students can engage in research and inquiry to investigate topics, and to analyze, integrate, and present information.” 

All of these things are important, to be sure, but the question of how these objectives get translated into measurable student outcomes at each grade level is not easy (or perhaps even possible) to answer. Let’s look at just one claim at the 3rdgrade level: Students can read closely and analytically to comprehend a range of increasingly complex literary and informational texts.  What does it mean to read “closely” and “analytically?”  How close is close enough?  How is that measured?  What degree of close and analytical reading distinguishes between Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4? What level of complexity should a 3rdgrader comprehend in order to be on a college- and career-ready track?   Where is the evidence to support any specified level?  And is it even possible to define in measurable terms “a range of increasingly complex literary and informational texts?”  Who can even say what a “range” is or how broad or extensive should be the abilities it encompasses? 

Before we really know how to interpret a finding like “fewer than half of California’s K-12 students meet state standards,” we need to know what level of knowledge and performance these standards denote, and we don’t.  And we need to be public and explicit about whether a standard represents a minimum level of achievement reasonably expected of all students or an aspirational level. By its own admission, SBAC has chosen to set the bar at a “rigorous” level.  That’s fine, but SBAC and the CDE and SBE should be open with the public about the level of rigor that the cut scores represent.

This is not an argument for watering down standards or dumbing down expectations, but it is an argument for being open and explicit about what level of knowledge and understanding we want standards to denote. Currently, the public sees them as minimum, while they are really designed to be aspirational.  This disconnect leads to a misinterpretation of test results.  

That the standards are nebulous is beyond doubt. And because they are nebulous, achievement of them cannot be measured with any precision.  Yet, results are presented as if the difference between a scaled score of 2435 and 2436 in grade 3 math determines whether a student is performing at Level 2 (Basic), or Level 3 (Proficient).  

But the problems of measurement, as serious as they are, should take a back seat to the fundamental question of whether the cut scores (however they are measured) have been reasonably set. As James Harvey, Executive Director of the National Superintendents Roundtable has said, “No matter how well-meaning advocates are, when they push for school improvement on the grounds of highly questionable assessment benchmarks, they aren’t strengthening schools and building a better America. By painting a false picture of student achievement, they compromise public confidence in the nation’s schools, in the process undermining education and weakening the United States” (Educational Leadership, February 2018).  This sentiment is echoed by Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA: “Setting absurd standards and then announcing massive failures has undermined public support for public schools….We are dismantling public school systems whose problems are basically the problems of racial and economic polarization, segregation and economic disinvestment.”

Maybe the standards are absurd or maybe they aren’t. My argument is that we don’t know. And until we know, we cannot make informed judgements about the performance of our schools and students. We have no basis for meaningfully interpreting a finding that fewer than half of California’s students meet “standards” without knowing how demanding those standards are.

I understand that the purpose of Cal Facts 2018is to provide quick, easily digestible facts about a broad range of issues confronting California.  But rather than being digestible, this one gave me heartburn. Sometimes presenting a fact without the necessary context can be more harmful than helpful.

The U.S. News “Best High Schools” ranking for charter schools continues to fall into the survivorship bias trap

This is a quick update to my post of April 25.  Just yesterday the U. S. News released its newest list of the best high schools in the United States.  The list includes a separate ranking for charter schools, which are ranked on the basis of several indicators.

The indicator with the highest weight (30%), is “College Readiness,” which is the proportion of 12thgraders who took and passed at least one AP or IB exam.  This indicator applies only to those students who enrolled in 9th grade or later AND were retained through 12thgrade.  These are the “survivors.”  All students who left the school prior to the administration of these exams in 12thgrade–and there were many–are excluded from the calculation.  You won’t find a purer example of survivorship bias.

Charter schools are also ranked on “Math and Reading Proficiency” and “Math and Reading Performance,” which are both weighted at 20%.  Proficiency is the aggregated scores on state math and reading assessments that students may be required to pass for graduation.  This does not apply to California, because state graduation exams are not required.  It is not known how the 20% weight that would have been applied to this criterion is redistributed among the others.

Math and Reading Performance is how scores on state assessments compare to U.S. News’ expectations, given the student demographics of the school.  (They apparently use some kind of “value added” calculation, but I don’t have the space to get into that here.) In California, these assessments are administered late in 11thgrade, so would measure only those students who did not transfer out before the time of administration.  More survivorship bias.

The graduation rate is weighted at 10% and is defined as the proportion of entering 9thgraders who graduated four years later in 2018.  This is a curious way of putting it, because it implies that U. S. News tracks ALL 9thgraders who enroll in a charter school, including those who leave the school prior to 12thgrade.  They don’t.  That would require them to track outcomes for every student who transfers out of a charter school.  Actually, their numbers reflect the graduation rate for only the survivors.

The four-year cohort graduation rate for all California public schools in 2018 was 83%, and all of the graduation rates of the charter schools ranked reported by U. S. News exceed that rate.  At the same time, the statewide retention rate for the same cohort was 99%, and NONE of the ranked charter schools exceeded that rate.  The school with the highest graduation rate, at 100%, is Stockton Unified Early College Academy, which also has the third lowest retention rate:  77%.  Over all, the retention rates ranged from 58% (Stockton Collegiate International Academy) to 98% (Leadership Public Schools in Hayward), but only four exceeded 90% while six were below 80%. The charter school that was ranked #1 in California and #12 nationally—Preuss School USD—had a retention rate of only 82% and a graduation rate of 95%.