In Kansas, if we want higher student achievement, we have to focus on it

From Kansas Policy Institute.

If we want higher student achievement, we have to focus on it

By Dave Trabert

I had the good fortune earlier this week to attend a presentation by Dr. Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. His impressive credentials are available here but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just say he’s “the guy” on economic analysis of educational issues, the impact of teacher quality on student outcomes, high stakes accountability and equity and efficiency in school finance.

Dr. Hanushek testified before a joint meeting of the Kansas House and Senate Education Committees on a number of education policy issues. Highlights of his testimony follow; his entire testimony can be found here.

“If you want to promote achievement, there is no substitute for focusing on achievement. Most specifically, virtually all attempts to encourage or promote achievement that try to do it by promoting other things are not particularly effective. For example, trying to ensure that there is a good teacher in the classroom is not accomplished by adding more education school courses to the requirements for teacher certification. Nor do we insure high achievement by mandating class size reduction.”

There was broad agreement among legislators in the room (including those who are educators) with Dr. Hanushek’s belief that “… getting effective teachers in all classrooms is the key…” to raising achievement. Yet Kansas has several policies aimed at improving teacher quality that are not particularly effective…and at least one that is counter-productive. Dr. Hanushek said that a U.S. Department of Education study shows that professional development training for teachers does not translate into higher student achievement. He also explained that having teachers with advanced degrees or national board certification doesn’t systematically translate into better achievement results. As a whole, teachers are dramatically different in their impact on student achievement, and these differences are much larger than differences that come from training or advanced certification.

Dr. Hanushek also said Kansas’ LIFO (last-in-first-out) tenure policies “…actively work against aiding student achievement.” Employment decisions should be based on teacher effectiveness rather than how long one has been employed. In other words, focus on what is best for students rather than the adults in the system.

“Just focusing on achievement is, however, not sufficient. A second point is that we need to get the incentives right. We have to point everybody toward the outcome that we want.”

For example, instead of paying more for teachers with advanced degrees, the incentive should be based on improving student outcomes. Highly effective teachers should make six figures. Effective teachers should receive bonuses to a lesser degree. Ineffective teachers should not be in classrooms.

Incentives also apply to funding decisions, especially in ensuring that incentives do not encourage over-identification of students who qualify for extra funding.

“There are many similar kinds of problems that can develop. If schools are rewarded with extra funds for all special education students who are identified, it might not be surprising to find that some schools tend to increase the numbers of students who are identified — particularly if the cost of providing programs for them is relatively less than the funding level. These examples are brought up intentionally because they identify conflicting sentiments in policy making. Of course we want to do something about failing schools. Of course we want to do something about special education students who bring various handicaps to school with them. At the same time, we do not want to encourage inappropriate behavior. We do not want to encourage over-identification of special education students.”

Kansas’ At Risk funding may be an example of this phenomenon. There were 134,592 At Risk students in 2005 when the additional At Risk weighting was 0.10 (i.e., At Risk students carried a 10% funding premium). But by 2007 when the funding premium was 28.7%, the number of At Risk students had jumped by 22% to 164,812. At Risk qualification is determined by eligibility for free and reduced lunches. There was not an economic downturn in 2006 and 2007; in fact it was quite the opposite. But districts certainly had an incentive to get more kids signed up. FYI, the At Risk premium for 2013 was 45.6% and there were 192,568 students identified.

Poverty is a good measure to use for consideration of additional funding but applications for free and reduced lunch should be verified against income records at the Department of Revenue. Of course, when we put extra funds into aiding poor children, we should monitor and evaluate whether schools institute programs that successfully pull up poor kids and close achievement gaps. Just putting funds into the schools does not insure that schools use it well to bring up student achievement.

Dr. Hanushek’s book Schoolhouses, Courthouses and Statehouses – Solving the Funding-Achievement in America’s Schools includes ideas for pulling these concepts together.

“That existing puzzle is a simple one: As we have provided increasingly larger funding for our schools, we have not seen improved achievement. I assert that that the answer is directly related to the fact that we do not link school finance issues with education policy and with student achievement. We often separate these.

School finance discussions often become contentious, because they have direct implications for teachers and other school personnel and for the funding going to each school district in the state. That having been said, it is clearly in my mind a mistake simply to view school finance through the lens of redistribution. Indeed, while it sounds odd, it is also a mistake to view school finance policy as an exercise in finance.

School finance should be viewed as an important element of educational policy. At various times in the deliberations of every state — including Kansas — many have taken the position that school finance policy is separate from education policy. In other words, we use school finance policy to address how much money schools have with which to operate, and we use a separate educational policy to help guide how the money is used.

I think that such a perspective is likely to lead to very bad policies – policies that do not achieve the results that are possible. To begin with, we now have ample research that indicates that there should be no expectation that just adding resources to schools will lead to improved student performance.”

To be clear, Kansas indeed has a student achievement problem. Public discussions of achievement often remind me of The Emperor’s Clothes, but Dr. Hanushek was very direct.

“At the end of this testimony, I have attached a set of figures about how well the U.S. and the separate states are doing in advanced math performance when compared to the world. It is not pretty, especially given that this is where our scientists and engineers of the future are likely to be drawn. The proportion of high achieving Kansas students falls behind that in Spain and Latvia and just slightly ahead of Italy. This is hardly the group that we should aspire to compete with. Particularly telling is the second figure that compares children of college educated parents with all children in other countries. Kansas is slightly below the U.S. average, but behind 24 countries. This performance of the most privileged Kansas students puts them on par with the average student from Slovenia or Luxemburg.”

In sum, it’s a matter of priorities. Will Kansas adopt policies based on what is best for students or will education and funding policy continue to be based on the wants of institutions and the adults in the system?