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.