School Finance

Discussion of charter schools is everywhere in the Ohio news. Everyone has an angle, including a few unexpected ones:

Boarding schools are often associated with the rich and the privileged; as such, they are seen as an out-of-reach option for low-income families searching for high-quality education. But in a world of ever-increasing school choice, must boarding schools remain out-of-reach? Do tuition-free boarding schools that serve primarily academically struggling, low-income children exist?

The answer is yes, they do—but they’re extremely rare. A 2003 study from the University of Chicago interviewed policy experts, educators, child welfare and youth development professionals, and parents of children who attend boarding schools designed for students with social and economic disadvantages. The study concludes that “urban or community boarding schools represent a promising idea that deserves serious consideration.” Yet the authors are careful to point out that many people harbor concerns “about the meaning of out-of-home settings used primarily by low-income or minority children.” They cite America’s troubling legacy of using boarding schools for shameful reasons can lead to understandable suspicions about residential education models for low-income, high-need youth.

However, there are examples of places where the residential education model is already in place and working—and where families are thrilled with the results. In 2009, New York Times Magazine looked at the...

This new study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) examines the ESEA comparability requirement, which mandates that school districts provide “comparable” educational services in both high- and low-poverty schools as a condition of receiving Title I dollars. CAP’s concern is that, although this requirement is intended to level the playing field for schools, it actually allows districts to use teacher-to-student ratios or average teacher salaries as a proxy for comparable services, instead of using actual teacher salary expenditures. And because poor schools typically have newer teachers who tend to struggle their first few years and cost less to employ, these schools are getting both less qualified teachers and less money than more advantaged ones.

The analysts examine Office of Civil Rights district spending data for the 2011–12 school year from roughly ninety-five thousand public schools. Adjusting for cost-of-living differences across districts, they compare how districts fund schools that are eligible to receive federal Title I dollars with other schools in their grade span and find “vast disparities” in the allocation of state and local dollars.

Here are the three key findings: one, due to the “loophole” in federal law, more than 4.5 million low-income students...

The privacy edition

“Failing” schools, data privacy, teacher evaluation in Virginia, and a flawed look at school funding disparities. Featuring a guest appearance by the Data Quality Campaign's Paige Kowalski.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Robert Hanna, Max Marchitello, and Catherine Brown, “Comparable but Unequal: School Funding Disparities,” Center for American Progress (March 2015).


Mike:               Hello, this is your host, Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at The Education Gadfly Show and online at Now please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Kentucky Wildcat of education policy, Paige Kowalski!

Paige:              Kentucky Wildcat?

Mike:               That's their name, right? Kentucky Wildcats?

Paige:              Sure. Who's they?

Mike:               Okay, yeah.

Paige:              To clarify, I'm from California.

Mike:               All right. See, we always do a pop culture thing, a sports thing. Kentucky is not only a number one seed ... Now I'm talking about the men's basketball team here. Not only the number one seed for the March Madness Tournament, but considered so dominant that it's basically Kentucky against the entire field in terms of the odds. They are undefeated which almost never happens. I guess not only the tallest team in men's college basketball, they're actually taller than all but one NBA team.

Paige:              Wow!

Mike:               Yeah, so a bunch of tall guys.

Paige:              I haven't seen the bracket yet.

Mike:               You are dominant, okay. You have so little competition out there in education reform-land.

Paige:              Yeah.

Mike:               You're tall.

Paige:              Oh, I am tall.

Mike:               So, see? There you go.

Paige:              I am tall, just like a Kentucky Wildcat apparently.

Mike:               Exactly. Let me introduce you properly. Paige Kowalski is the Vice President for Policy and Advocacy at the Data Quality Campaign, known to those of us inside the Beltway as DQC and doing amazing work all over the country, working at the State level especially. It seems like states all over the place are passing bills, passing laws to protect kids' privacy.

Paige:              Yes, states all over the place are passing those laws. Nothing has passed yet this year. Last year we had 21 states pass something so it remains to be seen where we end up after this session.

Mike:               A lot of activity, clearly something that is a hot issue. Hey, we got a lot to talk about. We'll get into some data issues. We have some data questions today just for you, Paige, but they are timely as well. Let's get started. Ellen, let's play Pardon the Gadfly.

Ellen:               Some education reformers and media outlets are now calling schools failing if they don't get most of their students to the new, higher Common Core Standards. Is that fair?

Mike:               So Paige, I've got a new piece in this week's Education Gadfly that criticizes the New York Daily News as well as Families for Excellent Schools up in New York, Eva Moskowitz, because they are using the results from the new Common Core tests in New York which we now know from Education Next were as of 2013, the hardest tests in the country, basically set at the same level as NAEP. They're using those test to declare schools failing because they don't get very many kids to the proficient level in reading and math.

                        This gets us back into this never-ending debate about why proficiency rates are such bad measures of school performance especially when the proficiency bar is set really high. Do you agree with me or do you agree with those other people?

Paige:              That's a loaded question, Mike. First, I'm shocked to find out you are releasing something that is critical of anything. I think first of all, what DQC would advocate is it should be growth data and not proficiency data.

Mike:               Boom!

Paige:              We want to see these longitudinal data systems that we've all invested so heavily in both financially and politically, really used for kids and to get better information out about how kids are doing. I think the failing label rubs everybody wrong. I think it gets advocates fired up but I think that was part of the confusion around No Child Left Behind and the lack of embracing from parents about that label as it never made sense to them based on a single test score.

                        I enrolled my kids in a school that never met and never had a hope of meeting AYP and since my school has switched to growth and a different model under a waiver, they're now at the top of the food chain in the accountability ratings.

                        I think at the end of the day, my two words are multiple measures. I think reading and math scores are going to be critical because if you can't read, then I don't know what the business of school is. We can learn that on Sesame Street so if schools can't get as good as Sesame Street can do then we have a problem.

Mike:               Look, let me be clear, I don't personally have a problem with calling schools failing schools. I think sometimes that is legitimate. I just want to make sure that we identify them appropriately and to me, a failing school is one that both has low proficiency rates, low passing rates and isn't making any progress over time.

                        When I've looked at the data, at least say in Ohio where we do a lot of on the ground work, I'd say about 25% of the schools that look like they're low performing schools based on proficiency are actually look like they're doing a heck of job on growth ... 25%, that still means 75% of the schools really do seem to be brain-dead, these low performing schools, most of which are high poverty and probably should be put out of their misery, in my opinion.

                        It's not the failing that bothers me. It's that they call these schools failing because they've only got a handful of kids reaching these new higher standards. Look, you're a middle school. You're a high school. Kids are coming in four grade levels behind. You could be working miracles and still have zero percent of your kids passing the test. Sometimes, Paige, I just think people in education reform are bad at math.

Paige:              I think that's fair. I don't know that you're going to make great strides out there with this case. I think it's a fair statement to make and I think, again, you're just making the case for multiple measures particularly at middle and high school. I think people need more information. I think people understand in an intuitive common sense way that these kids are coming in and they may be behind so what else can we look at to see if this school is doing these kids a service.

Mike:               I'm down at the multiple measures. Look, the thing is this, a lot of educators were afraid that we were going to have to raise the standards, make the tests harder just to make them look bad. I feel like Eva and all, they're following in that playbook. It's particularly because they're using these scores from the harder test in New York and not providing any context.

Paige:              Right.

Mike:               When the standards were minimal, I think it was fair to say, "Hey, any school, you should at least be able to get your kids to minimal levels of literacy and numeracy." If you can't do that ... Come on. It doesn't work anymore. You can't use the tests in the same way anymore because they are not measuring minimum levels. They're set at a much higher level, arguably being set at the 70th percentile in a place like New York and so by definition, at least when we start this process, lots of kids aren't going to pass those test.

Paige:              Okay, you say it's a minimal level, but it's the level we've identified that kids need to graduate at to go on to college or a job.

Mike:               Right. I'm saying it's not a minimal level. It's a very high standard.

Paige:              It is a high standard. It's higher but it's the standard that we've all agreed and set and said this is what an 18 year old needs to walk out of K-12 with. What I would argue for is DQC has long, advocated for richer data sets around kids and if we can actually link our K-12 records and our higher ed records and our workforce records and actually understand, hey, for these high schools where maybe only 40% of the kids scored what they need to score, it's not a failing school because 90% of the kids actually went on to a successful career or the military or post secondary and then went on to do this.

                        What is it about those kids who are not graduating college career ready which I may have been one and I still went to college and graduated and here I am with you today which is a measure of success in and of itself.

Mike:               That ... So absolutely.

Paige:              If we have this data, can we make better decisions about what to do and what's working in these high schools?

Mike:               I love it, okay. Question number two ...

Ellen:               The administration is advocating for new legislation around data privacy. Is it needed and does it go far enough?

Mike:               What is it? What is it about? Tell us, Paige.

Paige:              What's it about? That's a big question. First I'll start with saying that sort of in response and in a recognition of these legitimate concerns around student privacy, last week at South by Southwest, DQC and CoSN, the Consortium on School Networking, released a set of ten student data principles that sort of lay out what the education community believes in, what we believe about data use and the importance of safeguarding it.

                        Fordham is a signatory on that along with 32 other organizations to really represent what the education community believes about this. We're hearing the Federal government and States and locals talk about what should we do? How do we do this? We thought it was important to start all of these conversations with a consensus framework for those policies because there's a lot of fears that we may overreach in policy particularly at the federal level and that will stifle innovation, stifle ...

Mike:               But the federal pieces went mostly about making sure that companies that collect private information about kids, that it clarifies what they're allowed to collect and how they have to make sure that that does not get breached. Is that fair to say?

Paige:              That's part of it. That's the Student Digital Privacy act that the administration is talking about that we could see a draft coming out sometime soon but there is also talk of what should we do with FERPA and does COPPA need to be updated. COPPA only covers kids up to 13. FERPA ...

Mike:               You just lost all of us on those but that's all right.

Paige:              FERPA, that's our federal privacy law that covers how education agencies like schools and districts can and can't share personally identifiable student information.

Mike:               Yeah. Are any of these efforts, are they going to hem in the Federal government itself? The administration has been very vocal about how private companies might be abusing the data. There's many people on the right who are worried that the Federal government could be abusing this data that they, for example, are asking sensitive questions through the office of Civil Rights that there needs to be more protections from the government.

Paige:              Right, the Federal government doesn't actually have any individual student personal information.

Mike:               Right.

Paige:              They can't collect it due to several laws. Absolutely, there's a role for the Federal government to play to make sure that they're holding themselves accountable and that they're transparent for what they are and aren't collecting and what they can and can't do with it.

Mike:               All right. Very good. Question number three ...

Ellen:               Virginia is the latest State to debate whether to make teacher evaluation data public. Should that information be out there?

Mike:               So, this is such a hard question, Paige. We have been tying ourselves in pretzels over this for the last few years. What's you take on this? I guess this is what the principal does, an evaluation of the teachers. It may include some student achievement data as a part of it. The question is whether the media, the press has a right to know the ratings of individual teachers. We've gone through this in other States. In some cases usually because of lawsuits, the media have ended up getting the data and getting the records. You can then look up in the newspaper, find out if your kid's teacher is effective or not. Good idea? Bad idea?

Paige:              The specific case in Virginia really centers around a parent advocating that parents should have that information about their child's teacher. It doesn't really get into the media aspect of it.

Mike:               Okay.

Paige:              In another sense, it brings up an interesting question because in the past, it has been about the media and what should they have the right to. In this case, we think it's important. We need to have a better conversation about how to balance the rights of parents to have the information they need to insure that they can be good advocates for their children with the rights that teachers have around privacy to their personnel information.

Mike:               So the answer is ...

Paige:              The answer is we need to have that conversation because we haven't had it right now ... There is no right answer.

Mike:               Paige, now come on!

Paige:              Yeah, right now, right now we live in world where parents have no information about teachers.

Mike:               In Virginia, do you think the parent has a case that they should tell her the evaluation score of her child's teacher?

Paige:              I don't think that it will be helpful to get a value added measure which I believe is what this case is about because I don't believe they've actually evaluated teachers but they do have growth data and VAM scores. It's single data point and much in the same way that I look up when I'm buying a car, what's the safest rating out there. We don't all own Volvos.

Mike:               Yup.

Paige:              So why would you give a parent a VAM score? What are they going to do with it? What are they going to ... They can't make sense of that. It's a single data point and we should never be making any decision off a single data point.

Mike:               That seems right to me. I certainly don't think these things should be printed in the paper, certainly not the VAM scores and even the final evaluations.

Paige:              Absolutely.

Mike:               Look, in most professions, in most lines of work, this is something that is between the employee and his or her manager. I think that is the appropriate place here. I understand as a parent wanting to know and of course, as parents, we try to figure this out from our friends and colleagues and you get whatever information that you can.

                        It feels like it gets to be more inside the management of the school than is healthy. You could imagine ... You just can imagine this could be really bad for morale and also lead to some inequitable results if you get the pushy, connected parents then using this to get the best teachers and leaving the bad ones for the other kids.

Paige:              Absolutely, can absolutely exacerbate current inequities and how teachers are distributed as the public starts to find out, "Oh, look, all the best teachers are over there. Let's go get them and put pressure on those principals." Again, I think it goes back to what's actionable and what can a parent really do with that information. The system will always have teachers that are less effective.

                        I think we think one solution, both in having this balanced conversation, let's at least to the bare minimum, get aggregate data out by school on teacher effectiveness. Again, most places don't even have this data to put out yet. Also, getting parents better information about their own kids so that they can push and say, "Look, my child has been excelling four years straight and suddenly now they're dropping. What is the system going to do for my kid? Their teacher doesn't appear to be very good."

Mike:               I like the aggregate data. I think we should make it very understandable for parents like 20% of teachers in this school totally kick ass, 40% are okay, and then 20% totally suck.

Paige:              I like the kick ass and the totally suck rating.

Mike:               Yeah, I think that's important. Hey, by the way, I have an idea for April Fool's Day, guys. I'm curious, how do home-schoolers evaluate their teachers? It think this is something we should look into that.

                        Okay, that's all the time we have for Pardon the Gadfly. Now it's time for everyone's favorite and I know Paige's favorite, Amber's Research Minute.

                        Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber:            Thank you, Mike.

Mike:               Have you filled out your bracket yet?

Amber:            I have not but it's on my to-do list. I'm definitely doing it.

Mike:               Kentucky? You going to go for Kentucky?

Amber:            I didn't come in last place last year which was great.

Mike:               Hey, nice. Did I? I might have?

Amber:            I did mostly a guessing game.

Mike:               Yeah.

Amber:            Yeah.

Mike:               I go back and forth. I was like, "should I just fill out the ones I want to win?"

Amber:            Yeah. I have no rhyme or reason. If you go with what the experts say, then you feel like you're kind of cheating, right?

Mike:               You had that as cheat ...

Amber:            You've got to go out on a limb.

Mike:               Well, you can't just go out with all the top seeds.

Amber:            I know, I know.

Mike:               That's no fun.

Amber:            That's no fun.

Mike:               All right. What you got for us? Speaking of fun, this is going to be fun.

Amber:            Fun ...

Mike:               Because we are going to get to de-bunk a study put out by some friends of ours.

Amber:            We are. I know, I know. They're still our friends.

Mike:               Really?

Amber:            Study out from the Center for American Progress called Comparable but Unequal School Funding Disparities. All right ... The exam is a comparability requirement in the ESEA which requires that school districts provide comparable education services in high and low poverty schools or non-Title 1, as a condition of receiving Title 1 dollars. Okay, just kind of get some of the definitions out of the way, right?

                        CAP's concern is though this requirement is intended to level the resource playing field between advantage and disadvantages schools, it actually allows districts to use teacher to student ratios or average teacher salaries as a proxy for comparable services instead of using actual expenditures on teachers' salaries.

                        You're going to have to unravel some of this stuff.

Mike:               Basically the idea is the Federal government wants it's funds to be extra on top of ... They don't want ... Ideally in a district that all the schools get about comparable resources and then the federal money comes in on top of it so that the poor kids end up getting something extra.

Amber:            Right.

Mike:               Right. That's what this comparability requirement is about.

Amber:            CAP's reasons that since poor schools typically have newer teachers and those teachers tend to struggle in their first few years that they're not only getting less qualified teachers but they're getting less money than more advantaged schools since the new teachers cost less money to employ in the first place.

                        They use Office of Civil Rights data for 2011-2012 for district spending on roughly 95,000 public schools. They compare how the districts fund the schools that are eligible to receive Title 1 with other schools in their grade span. The bottom line, they find vast disparities in how districts spend these dollars, okay? They adjust for school spending based on cost of living differences.

                        Three key findings ... Due to the loophole in the law, more than 4.5 million low income students attend inequitably funded Title 1 schools. 2) Said schools receive around $1,200 less per student than comparison schools in their districts. 3) If the loophole were closed, high poverty schools would receive around $8.5 billion in new funds every year.

                        Bottom line problem, I don't think the data can be trusted which is kind of a big deal. I think that the spending picture is actually more complicated than meets the eye when you really kind of dig into this.

                        In the first point, OCR are self reported by districts and they're not verified. There are actually other federal databases that are verified like the CCD data. It's called LC Now. It's actually verified. CAP, it says in a footnote that it's probable the districts may have filled out these forms using slightly different analytic approaches which I think is a vast understatement.

Mike:               Right. Like including a wild-ass guess ...

Amber:            Yes.

Mike:               Was that the methodology they might have used?

Amber:            They can't cross-reference the Civil Rights data collection with other school finance data set so in this footnote, they actually admit, "Okay, this is problematic." Districts can be all over the map in how they report these data which is a problem. We know just anecdotally and through other studies that districts tend to budget not using real dollars but by allocating people and services. You have this many people, you have this many programs ... Okay? That's a problem.

                        I ended up saying, "Okay, the better method which is one we used here at Fordham on a little D.C. study we did, is to use audited actual expenditures at the school level." Insure that they use actual, not annual salaries which you kind of got to make sure about that. You can go through FOYA. It's a big pain in the rumpus. We all know that but you can get each district school, employees title and salary. It's just harder to do.

                        On the second point and this where we get more in the weeds which is a couple more points, we can't assume the disadvantages districts have no role in how teachers are compensated and that all of them are forced to hire these cheap, new teachers just because they have hard working conditions. In other words, many personnel costs, and we kind of go into this a little bit in the weeds in our own report, are the result of choices made by district leaders so they set the salary schedules in many cases, the class sizes, the maximum class sizes.

                        Some of this is district decision and they also sometimes require that schools have certain number of support staff. In other words, all of this stuff isn't as easy as we think it is. Salaries in some cities are actually higher because you've got these strong labor unions which then can better negotiate for higher pay. Anyway, we go into all these different reasons that I think they're reasons that these things are happening, not just that, oh well, districts are powerless over some of these things happening.

                        I think the bottom line is we agree with the Center for American Progress that we need better data at the school level but I'm just not sure that that's what they got with OCR.

Mike:               This is the main concern I have is the data concern. Does the typical district out there have any idea how to figure out how much money they're actually giving to each of their schools? Our experience is that don't have any idea how much they're giving because they don't budget that way. The question is because of this OCR survey, did they diligently go through and figure this out in a smart way to get to the right answer? I'm not sure that that's what happened.

                        People look at this and probably believe it because we all say, "Well, it's believable." We all believe it to be true that poor schools are getting less money than rich schools within districts. Marguerite Rosa has found that to be the case in some places. We found in Washington, D.C. and most of the districts around here that was not the case.

Amber:            Right.

Mike:               That both the D.C. public schools in Montgomery County, Fairfax, that they were all quite progressive in trying to push extra resources into the needy schools. I just want the better data, right? I understand the demand for saying we want the comparable resources. I think the right thing to do in the next re-authorization is to require the better data collection and to spell out what that means and provide some capacity to be able to do it and it's hard, so that we have data that we can actually trust and find out. Find out which districts really are spending inequitably and which ones are not. I think that the findings would look different than what we've got her under OCR.

Amber:            The fact that it's coming out of OCR and we've said this for a long time, you know, it just feels like, you just don't know what the ulterior motive is here.

Mike:               We know exactly what it is. They put out guidance in the Fall saying they're going to go after districts for spending inequitably.

Amber:            All right.

Mike:               Try to create those new federal guarantees of equal spending that doesn't actually exist. Look, Paige, you guys have tracked this about how collecting this kind of school level financial information seems to be a growing interest in the financial side on the data front. We've come a long way on student achievement and some other student outcome indicators. Now people want to know more about school spending. It's hard, right?

Paige:              It is hard and it's not just the financials. It's resources in general. It's unclear how resources are allocated even separate than money. One of the things that QDC called for in our ESEA recommendations was better public reporting of school spending and financials in district because basically, I mean as you found, it's just hard to know because the data is just not out there. How do you draw any conclusion and what conclusions are we leaving on the table because we just don't have good data.

Mike:               When you say resources, you mean even things like professional development, right?

Paige:              Right.

Mike:               Some district superintendent spends a lot of time in a particular school or ...

Paige:              Right, even if it's an outside resource coming in or a service that's being offered, if you're sending teachers to professional development, that's time.

Mike:               Yeah.

Amber:            It's just really unclear and it's never tied to performance and so it's unclear what the impact is and how we should alter those resources and financials to get to the desired impact.

Mike:               Okay, very good. Hey, in the end, that was pretty gentle. I mean, we're basically just giving CAP mostly a hard time for using the OCR data which granted are the only data out there for this sort of thing. We just don't actually believe them.

Amber:            Yes, believe them, right.

Mike:               Yes, so besides that ...

Amber:            Better not to report at all if you can't trust the data, right? That's tough.

Paige:              I would say that you've started an important conversation because if the finding at the end of the day as it gins up this concern about we don't have the right data, you said at the end of the day, let's collect better data and I can get onboard with that.

Mike:               That's music to Paige's ears.

Paige:              Exactly.

Mike:               All right. Well, thank you Amber. Thank you Paige. That is all the time we've got for this week. Until next week ...

Paige:              I'm Paige Kowalski.

Mike:               I'm Mike Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute signing off.

It’s been a great year for the Buckeye State. LeBron is back—and the Cavs are rolling into the playoffs. The Ohio State University knocked off the Ducks in the national championship, the economy is heating up, and heck, state government actually has more than eighty-nine cents in its rainy day fund.

But if you’ve been following the education headlines, you might feel a little down. The fight over Common Core and assessments continues to be bruising. Legislators are seriously scrutinizing the state’s problematic charter school law. Various scandals continue to plague local schools, and we’re not that far removed from the meltdown in Columbus City Schools. To shake off the wintertime education blues, I offer my list of the top five most exciting things happening in Ohio education today.

1. Four for Four Schools

In 2013–14, forty Ohio schools made a clean sweep on the four value-added components of the state’s school report cards, receiving an A on each one. This is an impressive feat. These schools had to demonstrate significant contributions not only to overall student growth, but also for their special needs, gifted, and low-achieving students. (Starting two years ago, Ohio began to rate schools on an...

Across the nation, the monopoly of traditional school districts over public education is slowly eroding. Trust-busting policies like public charter schools and vouchers have given parents and students more options than ever before. But how vibrant are school marketplaces in America’s largest districts? Now in its fourth year, the Education Choice and Competition Index is one of the best examinations of educational markets, rating the hundred most populous districts along four key dimensions: (1) access to school options; (2) processes that align student preferences with schools (e.g., common applications, clear information on schools); (3) policies that favor the growth of popular schools, such as funds following students; and (4) subsidies for poor families. The top-rated district, you ask? The Recovery School District in New Orleans won top marks in 2014, as it has in the two prior years. New York City and Newark, New Jersey, are close behind the Big Easy. The study commends these cities for their ample supply of school options—and just as importantly, for policies that support quality choice. For instance, this trio of cities (along with Denver) has adopted an algorithm that optimally matches student preferences with school assignments. All impressive stuff from...

Inter-district open enrollment (OEI) is a little-discussed school choice option (and the oldest choice program in Ohio) whereby districts open their schools to students from outside their jurisdiction. Today, 81.5 percent of all school districts in the state offer some form of open enrollment, yet there has been little formal evaluation of such programs, especially in terms of student achievement. Ronald Iarussi, head of the Mahoning County Education Service Center, and Karen Larwin, a professor at Youngstown State University, looked at ten years of student-level data in Mahoning County districts that offer open enrollment and examined the achievement of students utilizing the option. This is particularly important because Mahoning County has the second-highest OEI utilization numbers in the state. Achievement was defined as standardized assessment scores on state exams (reading, math, science, social science, and writing) for grades 3–8 as well as high school. Three findings stand out: 1) Students who left their home district for open enrollment performed at similar levels as those remaining in the home district; 2) students who left their home district for open enrollment performed, on average, slightly above their peers in that new district, even if they arrived in their new district...

Cheers to State Auditor Dave Yost, for going there. Charter law reform is a cause célèbre in Ohio. An influential report, a determined governor, and two bills being heard in House committees all feature excellent reform provisions, mostly in the “sponsor-centric” realm. But last week, Yost laid out some reform provisions that only an auditor would think of—things like accounting practice changes, attendance reporting changes, and defining the public/private divide inherent in many charter schools’ operations. These are all welcome additions to the ongoing debate from an arm of state government directly concerned with auditing charter schools.

Jeers to Mansfield City Schools, for nitpicking Yost and his team as they attempt to help the district avert fiscal disaster. Mansfield has been in fiscal emergency for over a year, and their finances are under the aegis of a state oversight committee. Yost’s team identified $4.7 million in annual savings opportunities. Instead of getting to work on implementing as many of those changes as possible, district administrators last week decided to pick holes in the methodology and timing of the report. Kind of like the teenager who swears “I’m going” just as Dad finally loses his cool. And the fiscal...

According to this Education Resource Strategies report, State Education Agencies (SEAs) possess “a gold mine of untapped material”—vast amounts of school and district data collected annually. This information is currently used for accountability purposes or to inform research and policy, but the report calls for what may be an even more important data deployment to inform local decisions that could potentially help schools make the most of limited resources. For example, Maryville Middle School in Tennessee used value-added performance data on teacher effectiveness to match educator strengths with student needs. The result? Maryville has repeatedly outperformed all other schools in the state on student growth measures

A good example, yet it’s also a fact that raw data alone are not too useful. Helpfully, the report offers several ways in which SEAs can make this information more actionable for local education agencies. They can, for example, create their own analyses providing feedback on allocations of people, time, and money. Such analyses should examine the connection between resources and student achievement so schools and districts can deploy the most effective or relevant resources to the students who need them most.

Besides such sensible (if obvious) recommendations, this report serves to highlight what...

The dollars edition

ESEA and school finance, college degrees and U.S. presidents, Illinois pension reform, and what works in gifted education. Featuring a guest appearance by EdBuild's Rebecca Sibilia.
Amber's Research Minute
SOURCE: Carolyn M. Callahan, et al., "What Works in Gifted Education: Documenting the Effects of an Integrated Curricular/Instructional Model for Gifted Students," American Educational Research JournalVol. 52, No. 1 (February 2015).


Mike:            Hello, this is your host Mike Petrilli at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at The Education Gadfly Show and online at Now, please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Lady Gaga of education reform, Rebecca Sibilia.

Rebecca:            Thank you for having me here. Great to be on podcast, first time ever.

Mike:            I'm so excited to have you here. Lady Gaga, wow. She always knows how to surprise. This time it's by going totally classy.

Rebecca:            Totally classy. She was fantastic.

Mike:            That's how I think of you, Rebecca. Totally classy. Rebecca is the founder of EdBuild. Tell us a little bit about Ed Build. What are you guys up to?

Rebecca:            EdBuild is a new non-profit, non-partisan focused on school finance reform. The way that we're funding schools is actually getting in the way of innovation, and we want to help states and municipalities figure out how to do it better.

Mike:            Nice. EdBuild has nothing to do with anybody named Ed or buildings.

Rebecca:            It does not. It refers to the way that we're using the resources in the education system to actually help kids.

Mike:            Yes, excellent. Including kids name Ed.

Rebecca:            That's right.

Mike:            Okay, we're going to get going here. We're going to start by playing "Pardon the Gadfly." You will notice that we're going to have some school finance questions in here, just because you're on the show, Rebecca.

Rebecca:            You're going easy on me.

Mike:            Yeah, baby. Okay, Ellen, let's play "Pardon the Gadfly."

Ellen:            The Republican ESEA bill that is coming to the House floor for the vote this week would make some major changes to federal policy on school finance, allowing Title I dollars to be portable and scrapping maintenance of effort requirements. Are these good ideas?

Rebecca:            If the question is should students be funded based on their characteristics and should all funds, local, state, and federal, move with them to their school of choice, the answer is absolutely yes.

Mike:            So you like portability?

Rebecca:            We absolutely love portability. I think that it's important to understand the kerfluffle here. The kerfluffle relates to the fact that Title I funds as they currently exist are heavily weighted toward areas, particularly public schools, that have dense poverty enrollments. The potential of the way that the portability provision is structured, there's a potential for that amount of money to be diluted.

The way that the portability would work is that if a student is moving to a more affluent school, which you would hope we are giving students from dense poverty areas the option to do, they would not be bringing the full amount. Therefore, Detroit Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, et cetera would be actually losing money.

If it goes through based on what's been proposed, you're talking about losses potentially to Detroit, Philadelphia, $50 million to $25 million respectively. That's something that we want to try to avoid. These school districts that have high concentrations of high-poverty students have additional costs burdens, and we need to be focused on that.

Mike:            In a weighted student funding system, which I think you support, right, there should be some weights for the poverty level of the school as well?

Rebecca:            Absolutely.

Mike:            In other words, yes the money should follow the kids, but particularly if it's following them into high-poverty schools those schools do deserve more money.

Rebecca:            Absolutely, and there's nothing that would prohibit states from still keeping the weighting for concentrated poverty and considering where a student is living rather than where they're enrolled in school.

Mike:            And maintenance of effort, this is basically the rule that says, "You can't spend less this year than you did last year." Now, in ESEA you can spend a little bit less, but that just seems like that is the "please continue to be inefficient" provision.

Rebecca:            I think that's right. As the former CFO for the state education system in DC, maintenance of effort was probably one of the hardest things to track and probably the most bureaucratic element of Title I. If we could just spend some time focused on efficiency rather than tracking maintenance of effort, I think that you would actually end up seeing better results.

Mike:            I love it! Okay, topic number two, Ellen.

Ellen:            Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner is proposing big changes to the state pension system. What's this all about and is it going to happen?

Mike:            We need to gear up over the next 10 years to see major changes to the pension system in pretty much every state, hopefully. Let me kind of set the context. Currently, Illinois' pension system is about 40% funded, which means it's 60% under-funded. Right now, about 20 cents on the taxpayer dollar is going just towards this pension debt. In about 10 years, that will be 40%.

Let me put that into perspective. That would mean that the entire K-12 system and the entire higher education system in Illinois would become defunded if pensions continue to move forward in this unfunded liability. We have to really think about the trade-offs that are associated with the pension debt that we're dealing with.

                        What the Illinois governor put forward is a proposal that takes serious cuts to the state funding and also moves most of the state employees into a 401k. 401k is actually what everyone else is in. It offers full portability for people who want to change jobs, and that's what we're seeing currently in our new workforce. It's just a modernized way of saving for retirement benefits.

We're going to see this across all states. Illinois is certainly the worse. What we're going to end up seeing is probably a grand bargain similar to what happened in Detroit, where unfortunately some of the pending retirees have to take some small cuts, states have to significantly trim their budgets, and in some cases taxpayers are going to have to pay in. There's just no other way to keep the state funding where it is.

Mike:            It's tough, because of course Illinois already has a very high tax rate, higher than many of its neighbors in the Midwest. This is what happens when politicians give sweetheart deals to the unions year after year when they also raid the pension funds. This is about politicians behaving badly on both sides of this equation.

Rebecca:            It is, absolutely. I think that it's unfortunate that it ends up being the retirees or near retirees that do end up taking some of the hit. Politicians not funding the pension fund has been the biggest issue associated with pension reform. Moving to a 401(k) plan takes that issue out of the equation, because we're forcing politicians to pay in real time what the promise is rather than allowing them to kick the can down the road.

Mike:            All right, topic number three.

Ellen:            Last week, Mike argued in the National Review Online…

Mike:            Argued effectively, I would add (laughs).

Ellen:            Mike argued effectively in the National Review Online that Scott Walker's lack of a college degree shouldn't disqualify him from becoming president. Rebecca, do you agree?

Rebecca:            Wow.

Mike:            Now, you do not have to endorse Scott Walker. Neither did I. I'm not sure he's my favorite. What I said in the piece was the fact that he left college a semester early, who cares? That was 30 years ago now. We have plenty of his record to look at in terms of how he behaves as an executive, what he knows, if he has the knowledge and skills and experience to do a good job as president. That's what matters.

My point in the article was that unfortunately a lot of employers are not treating their potential employees the same way. There's a lot of people that when they hire for jobs they require a college degree as a shortcut, because that indicates a bunch of things to them, rather than examining the actual record of applicants. There are some jobs out there that require college degrees that do not need college degrees.

Rebecca:            I completely agree. I think that Scott Walker, like any other presidential candidate, should be judged based on their most recent successes or failures.

Mike:            Yes.

Rebecca:            That's the first thing. The second thing is that I think it's important to note that your argument, you said that college isn't for everybody, it wasn't saying that everybody isn't for college. I think that that's an important distinction that we need to hold to in the education reform community.

If we start thinking that there are alternative routes into a successful life and career without taking the time to make sure that those alternative routes actually prepare students for that success, then what we end up with is a subtle bigotry. I don't want us to start moving in that direction just by kind of putting out the logical…

Mike:            Sure, I totally agree, but you're pretending that our routes into college right now are in any way effective. They're terrible! What do we do? We tell kids to shuffle through these so-called college prep high schools, these big, large, comprehensive high schools where half the kids are bored.

A lot of the kids come in way behind, they barely graduate, then we say, "We want you to go to college." They do it, and they go, and end up in remedial education and they never get out. That is today's route. That is the route that almost half of the kids are now taking, including most of the poor kids. It is a total dead end.

Rebecca:            Completely agree. I think that college prep standards, even in our dense poverty communities, are a joke. I think that one of the ways that we should start to look to address this is competency based learning and some of the other things that we've been putting forward as an education reform community that focuses on how well we're preparing students, rather than how many years they've been in school. Keeping with that same theme, I absolutely believe that it is okay in our current society to judge someone based on what they've done rather than what they've earned.

Mike:            She's good, isn't she? I'll tell you. Just like Lady Gaga. Are you all tatted up like Lady Gaga is too?

Rebecca:            No, I only have one and most people don't know that. Now the truth comes out.

Mike:            Now about 500 people out there in the education policy world now do. Thank you, Rebecca. That is all the time we've got for "Pardon the Gadfly." Now it's time for everyone's favorite, Amber's research minute. (music plays) Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber:            Thank you, Mike.

Mike:            Amber, what did you think about Lady Gaga?

Amber:            Wow, she was impressive, wasn't she? I'm no Lady Gaga fan, but come on. She knocked it out of the park. She took it seriously, I think.

Mike:            It was really cool. I really did like that.

Amber:            Yeah. You know what gave her street cred for me was when Tony Bennett start doing duets with her. He's a big name right and he really thinks…

Mike:            Clearly, she's got a voice.

Amber:            Yeah, and she's got talent. She went up a few notches in my book.

Mike:            Nice. Okay, what you got for us this week?

Amber:            This week we've got a new study out in the American Education Research Journal that asks what works in gifted ed? We all want to know that, right? Five gifted ed researchers out of Virginia, my alma mater by the way, assessed the impact of differentiated ELA units on gifted 3rd graders. Two units, one in poetry and one in research.

They randomly assigned, that's the important part, gifted classrooms to treatment and comparison conditions, w hereby a total of roughly 1200 students from 85 gifted classrooms in 11 states participated in year one of the study, then it went down to about 1,000 kids in year two and 700 in year three, but the number of classrooms in states kind of changed every year. Still, you've got three years of data, three cohorts of kids.

                        All classes were pre-assessed using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, so they could control for prior achievement, because schools use different ways to identify gifted kids. We can't all think they're going to be on the same sort of level. Authors also measured fidelity of implementation, so that was kind of important. They found moderate to high fidelity to the units. Teachers also had access to webinars to explain how to teach the units.

                        Bottom line, results showed significant increases favoring the treatment group for every cohort and year, across years, explaining from roughly 11 to 23% of the variance in student achievement scores, which is something. Yet, this is the part that worried me. The outcome assessment was designed by the researchers, since the data showed the students had topped out in the standardized ELA test prior to the study. They spent like four pages saying, "We took great care not to refer specifically to the content in the units, we based the items on third grade standards across different states," but it's still likely that the treatment group benefited from that customized assessment, because you're presuming they're going to take that assessment and make it more aligned to the differentiated units that they implemented.

                        I'm like, "Kudos to these researchers," because I really think they're trying hard to design a differential unit. Which is important, because we still don't know how to do that well, figure out how we can get teachers to teach it with fidelity, and then measure that it makes a difference for talented kids. I think that when you have these tests that we just don't have to measure this stuff, it makes the whole thing really hard to do. 

Mike:            I'm still confused, though. What is the treatment?

Amber:            The treatment is implementing these two differentiated units.

Mike:            Meaning what?

Amber:            Meaning they base these units on poetry, and one on research, and they did all these different ways that you can make the content more aggressive for gifted kids. There's like three pages on exactly what the units did, but they're differentiated ELA units in poetry and research.

Mike:            Were all the kids … All the courses were gifted kids? They were all pullout gifted programs of some sort?

Amber:            Right. Both pullout and self-contained.

Mike:            Some got something sort of special…

Amber:            Different, and everybody else got business as usual.

Mike:            For whatever the business as usual gifted is?

Amber:            Right. That's right. It's not like a dosage study where you get different elements of whatever it is, but I think we've been ... First of all, it's so many different things. First, we're worried that differentiation is not done well. We worry that teachers don't know how to develop differentiating units. Then we worried that if we do that, which is what they did, that we can't really measure it well because we don't have the tests, so they had to create the tests.

Mike:            Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Amber:            It was such a morass.

Mike:            What's interesting to me is the way that word differentiation is used in so many different ways now. A lot of people use it as saying, "We're not going to have  ability groups. We're going to have heterogeneous groupings of kids, so the gifted kids are going to be in with everybody else, but within that mixed classroom we will create differentiated instruction and somehow teach the gifted kids differently than the other kids." Here you're saying they actually did pull the gifted kids out, but did they do something significantly different?

Amber:            They differentiate, because you're supposed to differentiate even among gifted kids, right? If you listen to some of the research of Carolyn Callahan and Tomlinson, they say all kids need differentiation no matter what their level.

Mike:            Is differentiation just total BS, Rebecca? What do you think?

Rebecca:            This is way out of my league. Way out of my league. Here's what I will say, I think that it's important to ensure that we are consistently innovating around gifted students. I think that what we've seen in a lot of high-poverty areas is that just as many students dropping out because they're gifted and not engaged in their learning as those that are significantly deficient. I think that whether we pull students out or keep them in a classroom, clearly you will need differentiation either way. But it's important to figure out what's working.

Mike:            Rebecca, you do a lot of focus on school finance. I feel sometimes that some of our friends on the left who are focused on school finance feel like we shouldn't be spending very much money on gifted kids. That they're going to do fine anyways, that equity demands us to spend money on the low performing kids. How do you think about that when you think about equity and gifted?

Rebecca:            I absolutely believe that we should be funding for gifted students if we find that gifted students are in areas that traditionally are under-funded either by local or state funds. We are completely supportive of a 100% weighted student formula that follows a student based on their characteristics. If the state thinks that a weighted student formula for gifted students is important and should earn more money, then we absolutely support it. We do believe that there are additional costs associated with keeping gifted students engaged in the classroom, and the state should be considering that.

Mike:            Boom. Love it. Music to our ears. (laughs) That was a good answer. Well, good stuff. It is great to see people out there trying to do good research on gifted education.

Rebecca:            It is.

Mike:            We love it.

Rebecca:            We love it.

Mike:            That is all the time we've got for this week. I appreciate you joining us on the show, Rebecca. Thank you, Amber. Until next week...

Rebecca:            I'm Rebecca Sibilia.

Mike:            And I'm Mike Petrilli. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.