Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Learning in K-12 is not improving. Announced last week are the latest NAEP reading scores for 4th grade--they remain unchanged—and for the 8th grade—up only one point in a year. For both subjects, scores are up only 4 points since 1992. The scores are bad news for the long-term growth of our economy.

Learning is not going up but spending is. Education spending in the U.S. on K-12 has gone up from $375 per pupil to $9,305 between 1960 to 2005.

It has been established for decades that more money does not mean more learning. More money is also not the solution for poor-performing schools. In the Kansas City District, judicial mandates forced Missouri state taxpayers to finance the schools well above the national average. There were Olympic-size swimming pools, Montessori schools, and performing arts schools to attract students from the suburbs.

But in ten years enrollment was down by half as 18,000 students dropped out for charter schools and the suburbs. The buildings are half empty. Less than a fourth of the students are proficient at grade level, and there is no machinery for intervention when students fail.

There has been poor governance. Two dozen superintendents have served in 30 years. The District annually runs a $50-million deficit in a budget of $300 million. Community organizers have run the dysfunctional District.

Kansas City District was an experiment in generous spending as a way to improve performance, and it failed. Last week the board of education voted to close nearly half the District schools, 28 of 61.

In Providence, the Central Valley High School, one of the five worst in Rhode Island, was closed and everyone was fired reports the Providence Journal. Every teacher, principal, even the superintendent, was fired by the State Commissioner of Education and the State Board of Education by a vote of 5-2. Also in danger of being closed down is the Vaux High School in Philadelphia, where 90% of 11th graders cannot read or do math at grade level.

In New York City, a judge has blocked the closing of 19 schools that the education officials say “have failed to advance student learning.” Since 2002, the school chancellor has closed 90 schools and replaced them with smaller schools reported to be working well. The Obama administration favors closing 5% of the bottom schools but supports reopening them—a practice that research indicates does not work.

While it is clear from decades of research that more money does not improve learning, the plaintiff in the long-running education lawsuit against the state of Connecticut, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, believes one or two million dollars more for Connecticut public schools are essential. This lawsuit started out as Sheff v. O’Neill.

The Connecticut Supreme Court on March 22 announced its 4-3 decision. It agreed that the State is required by the Connecticut Constitution to provide reasonably adequate education to prepare the children for careers or higher education and “to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting.” The Coalition quotes 13 inputs it claims are essential including “suitably run extracurricular activities.”

The Coalition points out that in the Lincoln Elementary School in New Britain, none of the computers “are high or moderate powered, in comparison to the statewide average of 63%” and “68% of the teachers have an MA in comparison to 80% statewide.” At the K-8 Roosevelt School in Bridgeport, similar comparisons exist. In addition, “the library does not subscribe to any periodicals, while the average” K-8 “subscribes to 15 periodicals.” At the Plainfield High School, students took the advance placement tests in only five courses, while the statewide average was nearly ten.

The Court recognizes that school resources vary in availability and quality across the state but observes that the State cannot remedy all social problems including those not caused by education. Has the State provided the students with a constitutionally adequate education? The Court leaves the question to the legislature or the next court to decide.

Connecticut could have more educational opportunity for all children by permitting charter schools, of which it has only 19. Its charter-school law is ranked 6th weakest of the nation’s 40 with an overall grade of D by the Center for Educational Reform.

While Connecticut and the nation are mired in unsatisfactory educational accomplishments, attention has turned to teachers as a solution. Economist Eric A. Hanushek asks, “How much progress in student achievement could be accomplished by instituting a program of removing, or deselecting, the least effective teachers?”

Hanushek, professor of economics at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, argues that a small group of teachers is able to compete with teachers anywhere in the world. Yet these effective teachers are lumped in with a small group of ineffective teachers.

In analyzing teacher quality, Hanushek finds that differences in annual achievement-growth between an average and a good teacher in math are at least 0.11 of student achievement. Actually, he concludes, that's conservative. If a student had a good teacher for four or five years in a row, "the increased learning would be sufficient to close entirely the average gap between a typical low-income student . . . and the average student."

If the ineffective teachers are allowed to remain in the classroom, the students are harmed. If the bottom end of the teacher force cannot be improved through remediation, the alternative is more active deselection, which trims off the least effective teachers. Relatively modest changes in the bottom end of the distribution have huge implications. Hanushek calculates that eliminating the least effective 9% to10% of teachers would bring student achievement up to the level of Canada, which was 6th in math in 2003.

Hanushek summarizes:

The bottom end of the teacher-force is harming students. Allowing ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom is dragging down the nation.

By Natalie Sirkin
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