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Political agenda trumps needs of individual students at Lawrence newspaper

break-18987_640From Kansas Policy Institute.

Political agenda trumps needs of individual students at Lawrence newspaper

By Dave Trabert

A recent story in the Lawrence Journal-World about results of PISA international student achievement is yet another example of local media ignoring facts in pursuit of a political agenda. 

“Those findings may be politically important in Kansas, where Florida is often cited by conservatives as a model for implementing vouchers, charter schools and other kinds of “school choice” reform programs.”   

The “findings” were that Florida had lower scores than Massachusetts and Connecticut (the only three states that participated) and below average for industrialized nations. That part is technically true, but the reporter doesn’t mention that the PISA scores are based on overall averages, not individual cohort scores (e.g., White, Hispanic, Low Income). The reporter also doesn’t disclose that there are significant achievement gaps for low income students and minorities, and that disparate demographic student body compositions will therefore produce average scores that cannot be fairly compared.

Full demographic breakouts of PISA scores are not available, but the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows the importance of disclosing the potential impact of this information.

Ten points on NAEP is considered a years’ worth of learning, so there is nearly a three-year learning gap (29 points) between low income and other 4th grade students in the U.S. The gap is even wider in Massachusetts and Connecticut (32 points for each). Florida 4th graders actually outperform the U.S. average, Massachusetts and Connecticut for Low Income; Florida students who are not low income perform at the same level as Connecticut and only trail Massachusetts by 3 points. So why does Florida have a lower average score than both states?

The answer of course (which LJW and the education establishment know full well) is that Massachusetts and Connecticut are much more affluent than Florida, so their scores for Not Low Income count more toward their overall average than for Florida. For example, here are income-based formulas to calculate the average scores of Florida and Connecticut.

Florida average (227) = (.60 low income percentage x 218 low income score) + (.40 not low income percentage x 242 not low income score)

Connecticut average (230) = (.38 low income percentage x 210 low income score) + (.62 not low income percentage x 242 not low income score)

Basic middle school math demonstrates the inequality of comparing averages comprised of disparate elements, yet media and the education establishment will falsely use average scores from PISA and NAEP to promote their ‘just spend more’ theory of raising student achievement. Sure enough, the LJW reporter got his plug for higher spending into the story.

“Florida is often cited as a model for conservative school reform initiatives such as high-stakes testing, school choice policies and an A-F grading system for schools, many of which were begun under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Meanwhile, Massachusetts and Connecticut are examples of states that spend considerably more per pupil than the national average. Kansas ranks slightly below the national average.”

Again, the education establishment and LJW are well aware of the facts that dispute any relationship between higher spending and achievement, including Kansas’ own experience.  In fact, the PISA report directly contradicts the “just spend more” theory.

“Trend data between PISA 2003 and PISA 2012 shed light on how changes in spending per student relate to changes in performance.12 As shown in Figure IV.1.9, the PISA data show no relationship between increases in expenditure and changes in performance, not even for the countries where cumulative expenditure per student was less than USD 50 000 in 2003. Mexico, for example, is among the countries and economies with the greatest improvement in average mathematics performance between 2003 and 2012, but its levels of expenditure remained relatively stable between 2001 and 2011”.PISA 2012 Results: What Makes Schools Successful, page 42

I wonder why that quote didn’t make the story.  Or this one from the same page:

“Whatever the reason for the lack of a relationship between spending per student and learning outcomes, at least in the countries and economies with larger education budgets, excellence in education requires more than money. How resources are allocated is just as important as the amount of resources available to be allocated.”

Florida’s student-focused reforms are certainly making a difference for low income students.  Where Florida once had some of the worst scores in the nation, their low income students have shown tremendous progress (unlike Kansas) and now are typically above the national average.


Florida 4th Grade students who are not low income are also above Kansas and the national average; 8th grade students who are not low income are above the national average and just one point behind Kansas (a significant improvement from 1998, when Florida trailed Kansas by ten points).

Kansas students who are not low income are generally doing quite well and probably are competitive on an international scale, but low income students (who comprise about half of the overall population) are several years behind.  Sadly, that won’t change as long as the education establishment stubbornly pursues their own monetary wants and opposes student-focused reforms….or until local media does a better job of giving citizens balanced information.