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Laurent Rigal

Over at The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead asserted a few weeks back that ?when it comes to education, red states rule.? He bases this finding on data collected for Newsweek's recently released high school rankings.? (As it turns out, three of the top ten schools in the country are in right-to-work Texas?and two more are in Florida, also a right-to-work state.) Unfortunately, this article is just more evidence of an increasingly common education-policy trend. Far too often, statistics, scores, and school rankings are flaunted as proof of grandiose policy victories, no matter how thin the ties are or valid the original data collected is. Looking at Jay Matthews's rankings of the best-performing high schools in the nation, for example, the top five schools (which draw from wealthy communities or have rigorous admissions standards) cannot validly be compared to run-of-the-mill neighborhood schools. And to assert, as Mead does, that the existence of these top-tier schools settles the debate on whether right-to-work states provide better education is a bridge way too far. (To be clear, my gripe isn't with Texas's or Florida's education systems, which are generally solid, but with the cherry-picking of data.) Using these rankings to draw conclusion on the quality of an educational system of a state as a whole has absolutely no validity. There is no demonstrated causality between the level of achievements of the top high schools in a state and the overall quality of the public education system.

It's not just the Meads...

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Times are tight for school budgets, which is one reason Fordham and others have dedicated new attention and energy to doing more with less. Being conscious of cost-effectiveness is about more than pinching pennies, however; it also enables schools to get the very best quality for the dollars they spend on services.

Nathan Levenson, managing director of the District Management Council and a former district superintendent in Massachusetts, highlights this in an interview today with StudentsFirst, talking specifically about special education and early intervention:

I like to simplify this topic, and assert that only three things really matter in early intervention -- reading, reading, and reading. The stats are clear -- reading is the gateway to all other learning. Children who struggle in reading are over-referred to special education and often never catch up. This is especially sad, since we have "cracked the code" on how to teach reading. The National Reading Panel and the What Works Clearing House spell it out. Some districts feel they don't have enough money to implement a best practice reading program, but our studies have shown that typically it costs 1/2 to 1/5 as much as the current mish-mash of elementary support programs. The obstacles aren't dollars, but focus, turf battles, silos, and other organizational self-imposed barriers.

The mentality that schools don't have enough resources ? despite marked increases in per-pupil spending over decades ? can lead to blaming every failure in education on a lack of resources. Levenson's experience...

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South Carolina is in hot water with the Education Department over the state's failure to meet federal maintenance of effort requirements for special education spending. ED is threatening to dock South Carolina $111 million in federal aid after rejecting a waiver request. The Palmetto State has cut SPED support for three years running due to budgetary pressure.

Federal mandates are coming under attack across the board, often for good reason. Idaho has announced it will refuse to comply with NCLB ? not ask for a waiver ? while the Council of Chief State School Officers is planning to blitz Arne Duncan with waiver requests. In South Carolina's case, however, lawmakers felt they couldn't continue to privilege special education students over every other recipient of state dollars. The state could, of course, have made its case more compelling by matching spending cuts with an agenda of effectiveness in education services, possibly?following Massachusetts' example of outsourcing services to more cost-conscious providers.

The federal response ? that states should allow special education spending to balloon in a time of fiscal austerity when everyone else in the school system is pressured to be more efficient ? is senseless. Washington's mindless maintenance of effort rules simply distort local budgets in favor of certain groups of students, regardless of local needs or resource constraints. As a result, ED is inserting its own judgment into the South Carolina budget process, which it has no business doing.

? Chris Tessone...

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A few weeks ago, we at Fordham released a short analysis, Shifting Trends in Special Education. We noticed that some states, like Massachusetts and New York, identified almost twice as many students as needing special education as those in other states, like Texas and California. We tried to make sense of these findings but noted that we couldn't find any statistically significant relationship between the demographics of a state and its special ed ID rate. In particular, the poverty rate of a state didn't seem to matter; some poor states have high ID rates, other have low ones, and others are in between. Same with rich states.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder if school spending (adjusted for cost of living) was driving the differences. After all, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to notice that Massachusetts and New York spend a ton of money on their schools and California?similar to them in so many other ways?spends a fraction as much.* Perhaps a sense of scarcity in resource-starved states like California encourages school districts to avoid identifying lots of kids for pricey special education services.

So I asked our new research intern (and Koch Fellow) Josh Pierson to run a regression and here's what he found:

I then asked my friend Marty West, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to...

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The other night, during one of our marathon budget workshops, we heard from a woman who had started a ?walking school bus? pilot program in one of our schools.? It's part of an anti-obesity grant and she had a wealth of information about the benefits of walking to school. She warned, ?We are raising a generation of kids who are afraid to walk.?? As soon as she finished, several hands shot up; parents worried about ice and snow, worried about roads without sidewalks, worried about kidnappers?..? My board colleagues immediately ditched the notion of cutting back on busing.? And it occurred to me that perhaps we are already well into the second generation of kids afraid to walk.? And so the obesity epidemic continues, with its many deleterious physical, emotional, and economic effects.? As a Times' headline today has it, Heavy in School, Burdened for Life. Three social scientists write that ?obesity affects not only health but also economic outcomes: overweight people have less success in the job market and make less money over the course of their careers?.? ?The researchers find that fat women are more prone to educational and economic disadvantage than fat men, but the point is that ?obesity is occurring in children at younger and younger ages, so prevention needs to start as early as primary school.?

Get out of the school buses, folks.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow...

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Liam Julian

Louis Menand offers opposing views of college in the latest New Yorker. On the one hand, he writes, college is basically ?a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they're sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious?no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense?those negatives will get picked up in their grades.? And at the end of it all graduates are ranked, scored. The G.P.A., in this perspective, is a really just a judgment ?that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.?

Menand's second theory of college's purpose is not so purely practical. ?In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards,? he notes, ?people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success.? Literature and music and art, then, will go mostly ignored. A student ?will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being.? In such a world, college is the one place where such knowledge and skills can still be passed on, even to those pupils who would rather finish their business classes and get on with it. Through this process college ?socializes,? taking ?people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs? and instructing them in ?mainstream norms of reason and taste.? Thus does campus function...

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Our recent study on trends in the special education population was only able to get at the costs of special ed obliquely. But with some states spending two or three times as much per student as others, it seems clear that districts and states could find savings in this $110 billion-plus slice of overall school spending without negatively impacting kids. Some districts are now turning to private companies to provide services at a lower cost.

The role these businesses can play seems to be twofold. First, they are more flexible than districts at providing services where and when they're needed, reducing the amount of time kids are pulled out from their normal classrooms and getting past rigid staffing formulas. Second, because they are a level removed from the difficult politics of special ed, they may have more power to say no to services that are not effective.

Outsourcing these services is no walk in the park, of course. Shady operators will have every incentive to overcharge and underdeliver. Districts must consider which services they're outsourcing, and to whom. The need for careful oversight is a given.

However, serving a population of students with very diverse needs using a variety of outside providers with narrow specialties and an incentive to help children overcome their challenges for good (if possible) is a worthy approach to try. It could both save money and provide a path to more individualized instruction for all youngsters.

- Chris Tessone...

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