Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Benchmarks Don't Lie

I share this story because it marks such a rare occurrence: A positive news story in a Philadelphia newspaper about Edison Schools. More importantly, this story demonstrates how quickly the education establishment will respond to any competition and change instructional practices to meet the competition.

The article describes Edison's benchmark testing program, which has an instant feedback loop so that teachers immediately know their students' academic weaknesses and can tailor their lesson plans to meet student needs.

The Benchmarks lab is where second through eighth graders come each month to answer reading, math and language arts questions geared to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), the state's achievement test.

Used correctly, Vasconez said, the Benchmarks tests can change how schools operate. They allow teachers to get instant feedback on what students are learning and what they are missing. The teachers, in turn, can tailor their lessons to the weak spots of an individual far sooner than they typically can now.

However, the most telling part of the article is how quickly district schools are adopting Edison's testing practices.

The Philadelphia School District seems to agree that programs such as Benchmarks can affect teaching results. It has contracted with Princeton Review and Schoolnet to install a system similar to Benchmarks in its 21 "restructured" schools, which received extra resources to compete with the privately managed ones.

Competition matters. When students have any alternative to the traditional public schools, public schools change their practices to retain students.

It is worth reading just to understand the serious obstacles Edison continues to face in implementing their best education practices. They persevere to the benefit of many disadvantaged children.

While only Edison can be held accountable for its rough ride, Edison's slogan rings true: "Benchmarks don't lie." Too bad so many public schools don't have any.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Where's the money, Part II

Via Mackinac's Michigan Education Report:

DETROIT, Mich. - LaVonne Sheffield, Detroit Public Schools' chief academic officer, repaid the school district $5,861 in the past three weeks for personal expenditures and purchases without receipts that she billed to the district.

The reimbursements included $1,200 to the Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Society, $846 for a Skymall catalog purchase, $278 to Mario's Restaurant, and $344.60 for flowers she bought for staff.

Sheffield also paid back money for University of Michigan and Wayne State University alumni dues, and $118 for a room at the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas that she canceled to move to a different casino hotel for a district-approved conference. While at that May conference, Sheffield got married to Detroit police Inspector William Hudson.

Sheffield was among top-level administrators who repaid the district after the media requested debit card bills and receipts last month. Those receipts show some of the same misspending and lax bookkeeping for which principals and school bookkeepers were disciplined over the past two years.

District policy prohibits use of school money for "purchases of personal items that benefit school or district staff and their family members."

This happens in school districts across America and provides a clue as to why teachers do not have money for pencils or tissues.

School Choice Saves Schools Money

Brandon Dutcher makes a compelling case for why school choice could help ease the education budget crunch in Oklahoma. His arguments really apply nationwide, as most education budgets are in similar fiscal crisis.

Thanks to the government spending spree of the 1990s, Oklahoma is now experiencing its own fiscal unpleasantness. But consider how much worse the state’s budget crunch would be if private school parents and homeschoolers weren’t saving taxpayers a small fortune. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 1999-2000 private school survey, 31,276 students attend private elementary and secondary schools in Oklahoma. Informed estimates place the number of Oklahoma homeschoolers at 14,000 to 25,000.

So let’s say there are 50,000 Oklahoma schoolchildren whose parents are paying for their education. What would happen if these 50,000 kids showed up at their local public school tomorrow morning? (“I’m here for my free education, please.”) In order to maintain the current per pupil expenditure of $6,284 (of which 58 percent is state money, 32 percent local and county, and 10 percent federal), politicians would have to come up with a few hundred million more dollars every year. And that’s not counting construction costs. I’ve seen estimates of $15,000 to $35,000 per seat for a child in public school.

Just because the state provides for education doesn’t mean it has to produce all of it. Policy-makers should be glad so many parents are choosing to educate kids on their own nickel. Indeed, they should encourage this behavior by passing a modest tax credit, which would give parents more choices, reduce school overcrowding, and help ease the state budget crunch.

For example, let’s say a child is trapped in a school where she’s not learning to read or do math. There are several philanthropies – K-12 scholarship funds which help kids pay tuition at private and religious schools – which would love to help her, but they can only help a limited number of children. The demand for scholarships far exceeds supply.

Oklahoma policy-makers should allow a tax credit for individuals or businesses who donate money to these scholarship funds. Not only would this allow the philanthropies to rescue more kids, it also would help ease the state’s fiscal woes. An OCPA study released earlier this year (“The Oklahoma Scholarship Tax Credit: Giving Parents Choices, Saving Taxpayers Money”) pointed out that “when tuition scholarships enable students to transfer out of public schools into private ones, the state and local authorities have fewer pupils to educate and can therefore reduce expenditures accordingly. According to conservative projections, this tax credit could be saving Oklahoma taxpayers more than $138 million annually by 2012.”

Unfortunately, educrats always see the glass as half empty and see kids who choose alternatives as lost revenue. Kids who do not choose public schools are never saving the state money but instead costing them tax dollars.

Why Work Harder?

This little vignette from the Education Intelligence Agency makes it clear why teachers have no incentive to perform better.

Unions Win Battles Against Individual Pay Hikes. Back on June 11, 2001, EIA first told the tale of Matthew Hintz, an industrial arts technology teacher hired by the Crete school district in Nebraska for $2,350 more than the district's usual starting salary. Hintz was the only qualified applicant, and that's how much he wanted. The district placed him at step one on the salary schedule, and added a $2,350 "bonus" to cover the difference between base salary and what he had been promised.

The Crete Education Association filed a complaint with the state Commission of Industrial Relations, claiming this arrangement was a "deviation" that violated the collective bargaining agreement. The commission agreed. The district took the case to court and the Nebraska Supreme Court decided 7-0 last week that districts cannot bypass the union to pay teachers more. According to the Omaha World-Herald, the union's attorney "hailed the ruling as a victory for collective bargaining."

Meanwhile, in Arizona, the Scottsdale Education Association filed a grievance against the district for its plan to spend as much as $500,000 on teachers who serve on committees or as club advisers. The union wants the money divided among all the district's teachers.

Friday, December 13, 2002

The truth hurts

Reason's Hit & Run discovers another argument for school choice: teachers who tell kindergartners that Santa isn't real and that the presents come from your Mom and Dad.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Affirmative Action Linking?

Homeschooling blogger Isabel Lyman describes an apparent new trend by edu-bloggers:

Name Game. Dr. Daryl Cobranchi, who runs the "other" homeschooling blog, has a new, politically-correct last name. Here's his explanation: "The Confidence Man on Saturday blogged a story out of the Sunday NYT on the controversy surrounding Rice University's new affirmative action, er, admissions policy. The school is not permitted to base admissions on ethnic or racial background but it somehow manages to do so anyway. Hmm - my mother's maiden name is Suarez. Think I'll start hyphenating my last name; I wonder if Instapundit has an affirmative action linking policy. Daryl Suarez-Cobranchi." Amigo, thanks to you, I am seriously thinking of using my mom's maiden name. How does Isabel Azuola-Lyman sound? Maybe I will get featured in the NYT with that moniker.

Unfortunately, my maiden name is Byrne and my mother's maiden name is Ward. Oh well, I guess I have to rely on gender.

More Special-Ed Hell

Special education teacher Margaret Ann Davis used a small paintbrush to apply Tabasco sauce diluted with water on the hands of an 11-year-old deaf and mute student who constantly sucked her hands. The Tabasco sauce was washed off after about five minutes.

The report said a teacher's aide reported the incident the next morning to the principal, who called police. Casper told police she had informed the student's mother of the incident, and that the mother had asked for assurance that it would not happen again.

Kim at Number 2 Pencil and others have linked to this piece by a special education teacher who describes the blackhole of special education.

One of the most shocking aspects of special education is that school officials continue to pressure parents into signing their kids over to the special education system. After my December Reason special education feature, I had several parents and special education teachers write about their experiences with aggressive special education "recruiters."

When we moved to Palo Alto, my oldest attended 5th grade at Briones [Elementary School]. The very nice teacher wanted to get him extra help. I was at first for it, thinking he would get tutored. But she wanted him in the special ed program! That didn't make any sense to me because he never had a problem at Faria [Elementary School] in Cupertino (the top elementary school in CA!) and tested always at the top. So I started looking into books on gifted children and told the Briones teacher I thought the problem was he was bored! She agreed and let it go. Later, I learned this same experience happened to a friend of mine -- her son transferred into 4th grade and Briones also tried to get him into special ed. She even went through the evaluation process and decided it didn't apply to her son. He is now a sophomore at Stanford! This is education gone amok.

I am a speech pathologist who worked for 25 years in public schools here in west central Florida. It is just as you describe it. I left special ed in disgust over the lunacy of it all. We had to pack the kids in to generate funds for our salary. It was an unwritten law we all followed.

The growth of special education is despicable, especially in light of what happens to many kids once they get labeled.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Abuse of Power

Former Superintendent Delaine Eastin, most-recently known for accusing California homeschoolers of truancy and breaking the law, seems to have broken a few laws herself while in charge of the state's education dollars.

The state Department of Education and outgoing Superintendent Delaine Eastin were slapped Wednesday with a $4.5 million judgment in a whistle-blower case in Sacramento Superior Court.

In an unusual verdict -- holding a high-ranking official personally liable -- the jury found Eastin "acted with malice" and that she should pay punitive damages, which could be millions of dollars more. . . .

Lindberg said he and others were forced to quit or were fired after they discovered the misappropriation of federal funds doled out by the department between 1995 and 2000 to community-based organizations that ran adult-education English and citizenship classes.

Investigations later found cases of embezzlement. Education Department officials were unable to account for $11 million in taxpayer funds.

Lindberg, who worked for the department for more than 20 years, said that after he brought his findings of wrongdoing to Eastin and other department officials, they attempted to "sweep them under the carpet." They demoted him to keep him from telling others, he said.

For a full account of how the California Board of Education and Delaine Eastin have wasted billions in education dollars see this new study by the Pacific Research Institute education team. Their findings are shocking!

Paid Informants

School district administrators in New Jersey will pay parents to turn in out-of district students.

These days, a truant officer's job goes beyond keeping kids in school. Some spend more time keeping out-of-towners out, sometimes by spotting bogus leases or trailing students home.

A few school districts are even going a step further, offering members of the public bounties of $100 or more for information on students who sneak across district lines.

Parents falsify proof-of-residence documents to get their kids into schools for their academic reputations, extracurricular activities or proximity to after-school care. Each illegal student costs a district thousands of dollars.

"I can understand why people might want to do it," said Piscataway, New Jersey, truant officer David Ford, whose district offers a $300 reward. "But it's not right."

It's not right. Children should have free exit and entry rights to schools rather than having to resort to desperate measures to get a higher quality education.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

The Price of Financial Aid

Via Reason's Brickbats:

Students Unknowingly Trade Privacy for Aid (12/3)

Students applying for federal aid are revealing their life to the world. Congressional investigators found the Department of Education is sharing applicants' information with the Pentagon, the Selective Service System, the Justice Department, other federal and state agencies, and private companies such as debt collectors.

Hard Times in Riverside County

Here's my new Reason Public Policy Institute commentary on the Indio Charter School's battle with the County of Riverside.

By any reasonable judgment, the Indio Charter School would be considered a success. The school, in the desert of Riverside County, California, offers a four-day week for 300 mostly-Hispanic students in grades K-12. Children attend school from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Indio charter school students attend class for 1910 minutes a week versus 1800 minutes in other California public schools. Of the 9 public elementary and 4 public middle schools in the city of Indio, Indio Charter School had the highest average score on California's Academic Performance Index (API). In fact, the school was 20 points ahead of the second-place school. Indio Charter School also had the highest average reading scores in all grades, except 7th, where it was second.

Despite the Indio charter's academic performance, the county of Riverside continues to penalize the school for offering a nontraditional school schedule. A ruling by the Riverside County Superior Court, upheld the state's right to withhold nearly $ 240,000 from the Indio Charter School. The state penalized the school, saying it failed to follow state attendance laws requiring students to attend classes for at least 175 days a year. Indio Charter School officials contend that their four-day week contains more than the required minutes of instruction and that California law allows charter schools more flexibility in their schedules.

Monday, December 02, 2002


Value-added is more than just a trendy phrase. Jonathan Crane from the Progressive Policy Institute, has a very-readable 7-page report on the promise of value-added testing for public schools. The most impressive part of his report is the discussion of teacher quality and value-added testing.

In a study of second to fifth grade students in Tennessee between 1991 and 1995, William L. Sanders found, with all other things being equal, the top one-fifth of teachers raised their students' achievement test scores 39 percentile points more than teachers of the bottom one-fifth. . . . A 39 percentile difference is enormous. It implies that a child who winds up in the bottom one-third of the distribution (say in the 30th percentile) after a year with a poor teacher, might have wound up in the top one-third (the 69th percentile) if they had been lucky enough to get an excellent teacher that year. What's more, these large effects were found in all kinds of classrooms with all kinds of students. . . . They helped struggling students as well as those who were excelling.

Concentrated Competition

Economic research by Caroline Hoxby (among others) has found that in order for charter schools and other systems of public-school competition to have an effect on public schools, the competition must be significant and actually impact specific public schools. This point seems obvious, but most school-choice experiments, including most charter schools, do not have a significant impact on the specific public schools they are competing with. In other words, until public schools feel a loss of students from their competition, there is no incentive to change ineffective school policies. In fact, I would argue that the right of students to exit the public schools (in a feasible manner), is the only reform strategy that will actually lead to real changes in public education.

So, I like the idea of Los Angeles school leaders and philanthropists coming together to create a “shadow” Los Angeles Unified School District through a charter-school network. Education Week reports that:

The Los Angeles Alliance for Student Achievement, the successor organization to two groups that mounted major education reform efforts in the 1990s, is hoping to open about 100 charter schools serving some 50,000 students over the next five years, alliance leaders say.

Plans are for the 2-year-old nonprofit alliance to apply for charters, hire principals, and then run "families" of elementary, middle, and high schools that together would strive to foster college-going cultures in disadvantaged communities. While details of the plan are still being worked out, its ultimate goal will be to leverage higher student achievement in the broader public system, chiefly in the 737,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

While this will be difficult to pull off, even with the Los Angeles education elite supporting it, a 100 charter schools in Los Angeles in five years would provide real competition to perhaps the biggest education BLOB of all, LAUSD. And as I have argued elsewhere, even with the Supreme Court decision in favor of vouchers, charter schools are a reform strategy that more closely reflects the tradition of "local" education policy in the United States. With a charter school, the reformers have a much smaller political set of stakeholders to contend with. Not to say that it is easy to convince stakeholders that a single charter school is a good idea, but much easier than convincing say the entire state of California that school vouchers are a good idea. And I truly believe that the way to widespread school choice is to let as many public school alternatives as possible be allowed to prove their viability.