Drowning in Dollars but Starving for Gains: DCPS Spending and Scores in Context

February 10, 2016

 

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In our next exciting episode of reviewing the DC education scene from the new study I wrote with Heritage we take a look at where the District remains despite a stunning level of investment and 25 years of improvement.

So let’s put DC into context in terms of revenue per pupil with data from the United States Census Bureau.

Ladner DC 1

DC charter schools seem to be bringing in somewhere in the neighborhood of half of that figure on a per pupil basis. Now let’s see what the Trial Urban District Assessment NAEP has to say about how DC kids compare. The chart below compares kids on NAEP 8th grade math scores for students whose parents graduated from high-school but did not attend college. The hope here is to rank districts by kids not born on third base.

Ladner DC 5

Note that if you do the same comparison by FRL status instead of parental education you still find DC ranked only ahead of Detroit and behind everyone else. The 17 point advantage for DC charter school kids in the above chart is considerable, but as the comparison makes painfully obvious, DC charters may be on their way, but they have not arrived. Still with less money and better scores the ROI is far, far higher than DCPS.

The heartbreaking part of the story however lies with the DCPS students. I’m not going to bother to look up the revenue per pupil statistics for Detroit but I am putting the over/under at half that of DC. Decades into DC reform efforts DCPS remains largely unchanged- far better at spending money than at teaching children, other than those who bought or worked their way into the high performing schools.

Next episode we’ll discuss what to do next. It shouldn’t involve continuing to bang our heads against the “better scores through improved management in an utterly broken system” wall. It also does not involve giving up.

 


Gentrification is the primary driver of District of Columbia Academic Gains

February 9, 2016

The Capital is playing games with some limited success but low-income kids still hunger for academic gains.

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

New study out today from the Heritage Foundation authored by yours truly on education in the District of Columbia. I will serialize the study a bit with a chart or two per post. The view I had of K-12 in the nation’s capital going into the project did not survive my investigation. My initial view going into the project is summarized in this chart:

 

Ladner DC 4

Moving your 8th grade math scores from 230 in 1990 to 263 (combined district and charter) in 2015 is a lot of progress- by far the largest gains in the nation. While things are somewhat worse if we look at District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) scores alone (258) they still are far above the earliest measure. Better yet- when you examine charter scores in isolation from DCPS scores, the scores are higher still. Any actual education going on in DCPS back in 1990 looks to have been mostly accidental- I’m not sure what you would score on the NAEP math test if you just answered “B” every time, but with 3% of DC students scoring proficient and 83% scored “Below Basic” on the NAEP 8th grade math exam in 1990, it could not have been much lower. In 2015 19% of DC students scored proficient and only 49% scored Below Basic. The improvement is undeniable: time to CeleNAEP? Those gains dwarf anything seen out in the states, and the charter school sector getting close to half of the students is clearly a major driver of improvement. Twirl for me, girl on fire!

Alas while this story is true it is far from complete. What is going on in DC is both complex, partially encouraging and in the end very disturbing.

Overall enrollment in DC (district and charter) had been growing in recent years along with average incomes. A complex phenomenon is underway in which sophisticated young parents have figured out that they don’t need to move to Maryland or Virginia if they can find a spot in the right district or charter school in the District. In the end your kid doesn’t get educated by a district or a CMO but rather by a school. DC is the champion for NAEP gains, but it is also the champion for achievement gaps.

You can see the gentrification going on both in DC’s statistics and with the naked eye walking around town. Somebody keeps buying those million plus dollar brown stones and some of them are parents. This begs the question: how much of DC’s apparent academic gains owes to gentrification?

Sadly the answer is- affluent children have banked the vast majority of DC NAEP gains over the last decade.

Ladner DC 7

There is a lot going on in this chart so pay close attention. These are again NAEP 8th grade math gains by family income (FRL status) over the last decade. First look at the light blue columns- gains for FRL eligible kids. DCPS district equals an 8 point gain, which is indistinguishable from the national average of 7 points. The 17 point gain for free and reduced lunch kids attending DC charter schools is the only real bright spot for disadvantaged kids in the public school system despite decades of reform. We used 8th grade math for purposes of illustration but you see a similar pattern across the NAEP exams.

Now observe the dark blue columns- DC kids whose incomes are too high for a Free or Reduced price lunch under federal guidelines. Here the gains are truly extraordinary- a 28 point gain for non-FRL kids attending charter schools and a 39 point gain for middle to high income district students. I’m placing my bet now that this isn’t solely due to schools in Georgetown doing an ever-better job educating kids with law-firm names, but also to the fact that people who once fled to Va and MD finding a spot that suited them in DC.

So in 1990 let’s estimate that the number of DCPS FRL kids scoring proficient on 8th grade math as effectively zero. Twenty five years later, that figure is up to 8 percent for district kids (charters excluded). DCPS in other words remains largely what it has always been- an organization far better at employing adults than meeting the needs of disadvantaged children. As we will see in a future post, the academic results of DCPS continue to disappoint even in comparisons against other urban districts despite 15 years of strong progress and gentrification.

I am Ozymandias-Queen of Queens! Look upon the ineffectiveness of my broom ye mighty and despair!

Overall the situation in DC K-12 is very complex- with both positive trends and heartbreaking stagnation. Regardless of where you are coming from on the political/philosophical side of things, if you are a DC taxpayer you should not stand for this state of affairs as it touches upon economically disadvantaged children. The above chart shows is that despite a truly shocking amount of tax effort and a decade and a half of reform, what DCPS has figured out how to do is to give the most academically to the kids born on third base. Mind you this is much better than giving approximately nothing to anyone a la DCPS circa 1990, but that is in the big picture a cold comfort. In the end it is very positive for the fiscal health of the District of Columbia that third base parents can in fact get a quality education for their children it in the right bits of DCPS. Moreover, those third base parents are paying a mind-numbing level of tax and they deserve a quality education for their children.

So does everyone else.

 


The Choice Genie Continues to Flow out of the Florida Bottle

January 25, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

RedefinED has published their sixth look at the changing landscape of Florida education, reporting over 88,000 new choice students over the last two years.

Florida choice


I Love It when a (Decentralized) Plan Comes Together…

January 14, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jason and John White have been having a public dispute over the interpretation of the NBER Louisiana study. I await Jason’s response, and given the importance of the subject I hope both sides of this debate will take pains to avoid vitriol as it unfolds. A reasoned examination of the evidence will best serve us, and everyone should acknowledge in advance that we bring a variety of assumptions to the table with us in this debate.

There is one point in John’s response that I would like to address presently. Early on the Superintendent says:

More important, however, is the larger implication I take from Mr. Bedrick’s thesis: that private school choice advocates in America, Mr. Bedrick among them, have failed to establish a coherent, prevailing belief system about the role of private schools in providing an education of measured quality, at scale, for the nation’s most disadvantaged youth.

Towards the end he says:

Absent better systemic answers than those offered by ideologues, publicly funded private school choice for all children will continue to be more of a factor in legislative debates and scholarly conferences than in the homes and neighborhoods of America’s youth.

The use of the word “measured” in the first statement brings up the observer effect from physics: the act of observing can in itself change what you attempt to measure. People can have honest disagreements over how much private school participation we are willing to sacrifice for what type of measurement, but let’s not start with the premise that the answer is “whatever it takes no matter what.” For almost going on two decades now for instance the McKay Scholarship program has reigned as the largest voucher program in the country. Would I prefer having an evaluation component of some sort? Yes-I’m pretty confident that we would learn valuable information. Would I be willing to do it if a large portion of participating schools were likely to pass on participating? No- I would be content to let parents work out testing on an individual basis with their schools.

In other words I want to prioritize the needs of parents over my needs as an advocate.

On the issue of scale and having a plan, I think we could have a long debate about this, but ultimately I don’t think it is necessary. I think that the sort of effort that Superintendent White is referencing may relate to the sort of private philanthropic efforts we see going on in the New Orleans charter school space. An unexplored possibility to consider by the way, is that the Herculean private human capital efforts we see going on in the charter space may have eclipsed the private school sector. How many rational actors would open a private as opposed to a charter school in New Orleans given the totality of policy and private philanthropic efforts? But I digress…

The reason I don’t think we need to spend too much time debating the sort of genuinely heroic efforts we see going on in the New Orleans charter space: I don’t think we can afford to scale them. You don’t see it discussed often, but ah, well, the cost per teacher placement from sources like Teach for America has not been going down. Quite the opposite from what I understand. Don’t get me wrong- I love TFA kids and I fully support the efforts of philanthropists in rebuilding the New Orleans education system. I simply have my doubts that our collective philanthropic efforts could have handled a district the size of Houston had Katrina veered that way, much less the rest of the country.

This raises the question- can we achieve “an education of measured quality, at scale, for the nation’s most disadvantaged youth” without these sort of efforts? If you care about the disadvantaged, the answer had better be “yes” because otherwise they will be remain holding the short end of the stick in life. To answer the question, I decided to examine the NAEP results and trends for low-income kids in the relatively regulated and highly philanthropic supported charter sector in Louisiana with similar kids in the Wild West and (relatively) lightly supported Arizona charter sector.

To get as close to apples to apples as possible, I compared the results for Free and Reduced lunch eligible students in general education programs attending charter schools in both states. The general education focus is due to possible differences in participation among ELL and SPED students in the two states. Louisiana has a comprehensive effort to support charters and to shut them down when they under-perform. If you see race as a proxy for other unmeasured factors etc. the average low-income charter child in Arizona is likely to be Hispanic, whereas I’m guessing in Louisiana they are more likely to be Black. Every state has their story about how their poor kids are the toughest to educate in the world (here is AZ it is “they come up North and they don’t even read Spanish!”) but I view all such claims as suspect-poor kids are tough to educate everywhere.

In terms of charter sectors, Arizona has an almost entirely decentralized process of school creation, and the only people making plans are those opening schools and parents seeking places for their child- no common app, the state rarely shuts a school down. etc. We have some TFA kids but I met more of them in a visit to the French Quarter than in 13 years of living here in AZ. The West in short doesn’t get any wilder.

The NAEP will only provide data for this comparison between 2013 and 2015, and I make no claims regarding this being a definitive comparison, merely suggestive. So with those caveats: here is what the gains look like across all four NAEP exams for FRL general ed charter students:

AZLA

So both sectors did well in generating gains overall for low-income kids- so bully for them. Louisiana charters enjoyed larger gains in 4th grade gains, but Arizona charters enjoyed a still larger advantage at the 8th grade level. If we look at the overall scores for these students rather than the gains, we see no decisive advantage for either state.

AZLA2

Those who care about the interests of poor children should celebrate the ability of Arizona charter schools to deliver big gains for low-income kids. They did it without direction from the state and without massive support from philanthropists. This is to be celebrated in large part because we don’t have enough philanthropy to do New Orleans everywhere even if we wanted to.

So- as one of the school choice Jeffersonian types, I’ll address Superintendent White’s point about a plan squarely. What is my plan? On charter schools, my plan is to let ‘er rip. It’s working out a splendid fashion and I love it when a plan comes together…

On private choice, I’d like to see a system that gives a meaningfully higher level of public subsidy to disadvantaged children (low-income, ELL, SPED) with some light touch academic transparency measures (NNR testing required by students rather than schools, academic studies, parent surveys) and then let that rip too. The great virtue of this plan in my view is that it doesn’t require me or anyone else to manage or direct it.

In other words, I think school choice technocrats should aspire to be in control of as little as possible. The NBER study reinforces my view of its desirability.

UPDATE: Jason’s response to Superintendent White is up at Ed Next


AZ Charters and the NAEP

January 8, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

My friends at the Arizona Charter School Association put together this rocking graphic on Cactus Patch charter students RAWKING the 2015 NAEP. Make sure to check out the two mini-graphs at the bottom showing just how much more diverse AZ charters are than the states in their neighborhood of scores and how how the per pupil funding stacks up. Stare at them long and hard, and think about the times you’ve heard people say things like the following. Maybe you said them yourself:

Oh but it’s the Wild West out here. Oh they really should not have let so many charter schools open, they should be more cautious about authorizing like right thinking people back East. Tut-tut, KIPP won’t open a school there at that funding level.

Line forms to the left to either update your flawed thinking and/or offer your heartfelt apology. There’s still room on the bandwagon for those who follow the evidence where it leads.

 


Policymakers are Doing their Part to Kill Private Education in DC

December 30, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been taking a close look at DC education, and I must say I’ve learned a lot- both good and bad. One of the bad things would be these charts from the Urban Institute showing that private schools are going the way of the Dodo in the District of Columbia. K-5 is above and grades 6-8 below:

 

A couple of notes: we’ve known for some time that charter schools hit private schools harder than districts- and well here you have it again. Also note that the collapse comes in spite of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program starting in 2004. DC’s charter school law effectively operates as a universal school choice program that reliably delivers more than $14k in funding to all comers, but limits the universe of schools to young and/or startup schools.

Now mind you, this is less than half the revenue per pupil in the District of Columbia Public Schools (traditional district-see Census Bureau second bullet Tab 11) and they get better academic results than the district at this lower cost. Bully for them. The law of unintended consequences however is a cruel mistress and she has been whipping DC private schools with a bloody cat o’nine tails.

No but you can have this…

The DC Opportunity Scholarship program meanwhile only offers a maximum of $8,381 per child for students in K-8, and unless it is both reauthorized and redesigned one cannot help but wonder if there will be many private schools for these students to attend in the years ahead. Please someone explain to me how it makes sense for a charter school law to operate as a defacto universal choice program at $14k per child, while the private choice program offers substantially less per child and only to poor children. The Urban Institute data clearly indicates that this is a recipe for extinction of the private school sector outside of elite institutions. To put matters bluntly- who in their right mind would seek to open a private school in preference to a charter school in DC under this system of finance? Did you miss the part where private schools have been dropping like flies while charter schools proliferate? The funding for charters is large, universally available and reliable. The funding for DC Opportunity Scholarships is small, restricted and uncertain.

It’s little wonder why a number of D.C. Catholic schools gave up the ghost a few years ago and converted into charter schools. The school financing system practically clubbed them over the head. I’d like to invite my friends from the pro-means testing wing of the private choice movement to reflect upon the viability of supporting DC style scholarship programs when those programs must compete with defacto universal choice programs with far greater funding. Who wins that battle? Sadly the universal program restricts eligibility to young/startup schools with limited curricular diversity- how does this make sense? If parents decide to extinguish private schools as a result of a remotely equitable competition, you won’t see me shedding any tears. Our currently policies however make it look like we are out to quash private schools kind of like, well, this:

 

 


Competition Is Healthy for Public Schools

December 9, 2015

Competition Benefits Public Schools

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

As more North Carolina families are using school vouchers, enrolling their children in charter schools, or homeschooling, some traditional district schools are experiencing slower growth in enrollment than anticipated. The News & Observer reports:

Preliminary numbers for this school year show that charter, private and home schools added more students over the past two years than the Wake school system did. Though the school system has added 3,880 students over the past two years, the growth has been 1,000 students fewer than projected for each of those years.

This growth at alternatives to traditional public schools has accelerated in the past few years since the General Assembly lifted a cap on the number of charter schools and provided vouchers under the Opportunity Scholarship program for families to attend private schools.

Opponents of school choice policies often claim that they harm traditional district schools. Earlier this year, the News & Observer ran an op-ed comparing choice policies to a “Trojan horse” and quoting a union official claiming that “public schools will be less able to provide a quality education than they have in the past” because they’re “going to be losing funds” and “going to be losing a great many of the students who are upper middle-class… [who] receive the most home support.”

Setting aside the benefits to the students who receive vouchers or scholarships (and the fact that North Carolina’s vouchers are limited to low-income students and students with special needs), proponents of school choice argue that the students who remain in their assigned district schools benefit from the increased competition. Monopolies don’t have to be responsive to a captive audience, but when parents have other alternatives, district schools must improve if they want to retain their students. But don’t take their word for it. Here’s what a North Carolina public school administrator had to say about the impact of increased competition:

New Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton said the district needs to be innovative to remain competitive in recruiting and keeping families in North Carolina’s largest school system. At a time when people like choice, he said Wake must provide options to families.

“In the past, public schools could assign students to wherever they wanted to because parents couldn’t make a choice to leave the public schools,” Benton said. “Now we’re trying to make every school a choice of high quality so that parents don’t want to leave

Wake County is not unique in this regard. As readers of this blog surely know (and as I’ve written elsewhere), there have been 23 empirical studies investigating the impact of school choice laws on the students at district schools. As shown in the chart below, 22 of those studies found that the performance of students at district schools improved after a school choice law was enacted. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found any harm.

Academic Outcomes of Public Schools in Response to Competition

Beating district schools over the head with more and more top-down regulations has done little to improve quality. A better approach is bottom-up: empower parents with alternatives and give district schools the freedom to figure out how to provide a quality education that will persuade parents to choose them.

[A version of this post was originally published at Cato-at-Liberty. Hat tip to Dr. Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation for the story from New Wake County. Thanks to Bob Bowdon of Choice Media for the image.]


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