Friday, September 23, 2011

Let's not focus on the achievement gap

A thought-provoking essay in the current issue of National Affairs by the prolific and sardonic Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute calls for a retreat from education reform's long-held focus on closing the achievement gap. Hess feels the federal No Child Left Behind Act has, ironically, become "education policy that has shortchanged many children." His thesis is that by focusing on improving achievement scores of the lowest performing subgroups of students, opportunities for reform that would also benefit the other students have been passed up. The result is that many parents, educators, principals, and elected officials see school reform as inapplicable to the average- or highly-performing students who make up the majority of children in most classrooms across the country.

Which begs the question--if most children in the country are, in fact, being served pretty well by their public schools (and there can be strong arguments made that children who are white, or female, or upper class, or suburban are served well enough by public schools), then why should the adults who care for and educate them want to reform their schools? Should education reform affect change throughout the system or should it focus more narrowly on those students poorly served by public schooling?

Hess puts himself firmly in the camp of reformers desiring wide-scale change in the nation's public education system. But there are certainly other schools of thought. Until recently, Wisconsin's school reform history exemplified reform targeting the lowest-performing students in the lowest-performing schools by providing options mostly for low-income, urban students. When Governor Walker came into office and expressed a need to reform labor relations laws applicable to all school districts in the state, as opposed to urban districts only, and to support an expansion of the private school choice program beyond Milwaukee, he ushered in a new era of systemic reform.

A new debate is now waging in our state. Do we need to rethink how we're delivering education services to all students, or should we remain focused on the students falling furthest behind? Hess argues that even the best schools are producing graduates suited only to thrive in a 19th century, or perhaps 20th century, world. For him, the need for systemic reform arises from the 21st century reforms the world is experiencing in nearly all other aspects, from technology to the economy to governance. He concludes, "[D]eciding that school is the place where we teach poor children to read and do math — and that everyone else will be left alone to figure out the rest — seems an impoverished and ultimately self-defeating agenda for education reform in the 21st century."

There are still a significant number of education policy thinkers and reformers who are not ready to conclude the entire system needs an overhaul, however. Just this week, the MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its "genius grants" to an economist whose work focuses on the achievement gap, for example.

In places like Milwaukee, where most students are poor, most are minority, and overall achievement scores are low, the debate over targeted versus systemic reform may be beside the point. But as more and more suburban school districts experience growth in their low-income, minority, and/or immigrant student populations, and see test scores drop, the debate is very relevant.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Public sector labor relations in the "new normal"

Given how recent legislative events in Madison have transformed the lives of local government administrators in Wisconsin, it is ironic that hundreds of county and municipal managers from across the country have descended on Milwaukee this week for the annual conference of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

The conference, which began Sunday and lasts through today, includes seminars on a variety of public administration topics, such as performance measurement, citizen engagement and priority-based budgeting. Not surprisingly, another seminar topic was "Labor Relations in the Age of the New Normal," which I had the privilege to moderate.

My mission was to launch the discussion by bringing the audience up to speed on what exactly occurred here in Wisconsin, which I did by laying out the core components of the state budget repair bill and 2011-13 state budget (my PowerPoint can be accessed here). Then, I turned the stage over to two municipal managers from Wisconsin and one from Michigan (where legislative initiatives are similarly transforming public sector labor relations) to discuss how they were managing their labor challenges in this "new normal."

Those leaders expressed several interesting insights, including the following:

  • One of the participants argued that whether or not the demands for changes in public sector collective bargaining and employee cost-sharing are politically motivated, the "evidence supported the premise." In other words, the failure of many local governments to respond to changing economic conditions and the changed political environment, and their reliance instead on continuing to negotiate labor contracts on a "business as usual" basis, had forced state elected leaders to take labor negotiations "out of their hands."

  • Another panelist was more critical of the tactics adopted by many legislatures and governors, calling those tactics a "Neanderthal" approach to managing employee relations that "presumes that employee morale doesn't matter and that we can incent superior performance even when putting the squeeze on public servants."

  • Several panelists noted that the decision by elected officials to exempt public safety employees from collective bargaining changes had made their jobs as managers even more difficult, as the existence of two distinct classes of employees (public safety and non-public safety) had generated both morale and logistical concerns.

  • Each of the participants agreed that direct employee engagement about the political and fiscal issues facing their governments was more important than ever. In addition, all agreed that communication with employees should continue "as if the balance of power in labor relations hasn't shifted" and that opportunities for labor-management collaboration on ideas for improving efficiency and cutting costs should be pursued aggressively.

  • One panelist suggested that the new normal will cause "managers to manage more" and "leaders to lead more." By that he meant that the existence of labor contracts and strong unions often was used as a crutch by municipal managers to avoid making difficult decisions or seeking efficiencies that would negatively impact their employees.

The discussion by the three panelists - as well as 45 minutes of questions and comments from colleagues - revealed the difficult position in which many local government administrators find themselves. Fully cognizant of their fiscal challenges and public demands to "do more with less," yet sympathetic to the livelihoods and morale of their often under-appreciated employees, they are torn between optimizing both their new tools and the performance of their workforce.

How appropriate that these lofty issues would surface here in Wisconsin, the ground zero for a new approach to public sector labor-management relations.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Networked schools outperform independent schools in world's largest school choice market

Milwaukee's private school voucher program, now in its twelfth year, is dwarfed by the 30-year-old voucher program in Chile, where almost half of all students attend private voucher schools. The Chilean program is therefore of significant interest to school reformers and researchers looking to make voucher and charter schools a success in the US.

The most recent research, published by the Cato Institute, finds that when the Chilean public school test scores are compared with those of independent private schools and with those of private schools that are part of multi-school networks or franchises, the students in the franchised private schools perform best. (The independent, mom-and-pop private schools do about the same as the public schools.) In addition, the Chilean research indicates the more schools there are in the franchised networks, the better they outperform the others.

The researchers note that in Chile, "The private voucher school sector is essentially a cottage industry. More than 70 percent of private voucher schools are independent schools that do not belong to a franchise." The franchised schools are either owned by for-profit school management companies; affiliated with non-profit, secular organizations; or part of the Catholic or Protestant school systems.

Do these findings reflect what we know about Milwaukee's program? Its hard to say, since only one year of comparative data on student performance in voucher schools is available and it does not differentiate between the various types of private schools. However, those data do indicate considerable variability in performance across Milwaukee's voucher schools--some are producing high scoring students and some are no better than the worst public schools. It would be nice to know if all the high performing private schools had something in common besides the fact they participate in the voucher program.

We do know that Milwaukee is in two major ways very dissimilar to Chile, where most private voucher schools are of the independent, mom-and-pop variety. Here, most voucher schools would be considered franchises under Chilean standards, as they are affiliated with a religious organization such as the Catholic Archdiocese or a Lutheran Synod. In addition, for-profit school management networks do not have a significant presence in Milwaukee, although that sector appears likely to grow, particularly in the charter school market.

What might explain the Chilean experience? The researchers posit that the franchised schools may benefit from economies of scale in purchasing, fundraising, and administrative expenses, allowing their leadership to spend less time worrying about budgets and more time focused on instruction. In addition, they suggest that larger networks are better able to spread the costs of implementing new curricula or other reforms. However, the researchers caution there may be another explanation; perhaps the larger franchises are simply better at recruiting good schools to join their networks.

As for-profit school management companies look to expand into the Milwaukee education market, these findings and possibilities are worth bearing in mind. However, at least one education policy wonk cautions not to read too much into any research on the Chilean program, since their system arose not from "a richly democratic public debate, but emerged instead from the policies imposed by the military dictatorship that ... controlled the country ... under the rule of strongman Augusto Pinochet."

UPDATE: School Choice Wisconsin reported on private school networks in December 2010, noting that despite the lack of national charter school networks in the city, the school choice program had resulted in growing local networks.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to schools

Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that one cannot simultaneously measure the location of a particle while also measuring the momentum of that particle. When you apply this principle to schools, it's a little disheartening--if we attempt to measure where we are now, we are no longer certain how fast we're improving. If the environment in which the measurement is taking place is also moving (think of the vast legal and budgetary changes at the state level), the uncertainty is all but overwhelming.

Thus, this year's analysis of public school data in southeast Wisconsin heeds Heisenberg and emphasizes the use of the 2010-11 data as a baseline. Knowing that all Wisconsin school districts will be in a state of flux over the next few years due to changes in contractual bargaining legislation, the state budget, a slow economic recovery, a new standardized testing system, and new standards for curriculum, in the future we hope to measure their improvements over time as these various "new normals" kick in. For now, we emphasize where they've been and where they are currently.

By analyzing trends in performance indicators such as WKCE reading and math scores, ACT scores, and graduation rates – and breaking down the numbers by minority group and gender – this year’s report provides a basic understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges of individual districts. Comparing these data with those from future years will provide insight into the impacts of the historic changes recently adopted at the state level.

This year's major findings include:
• The region trails the rest of the state in several grade levels and subjects when it comes to proficiency on state standardized tests. In addition, the data show a progressively wider disparity between the region and the state in all subjects at the higher grades, raising a red flag in the context of current efforts to drive educational reform toward college and career readiness.

• Measures of college preparation show mostly good news. For the third straight year, the most recent data show the average ACT score in the region held steady at 22.8 (even as the number of students tested rose by 6.3%), while the statewide average score dropped slightly. The region’s percentage of students passing Advanced Placement exams (13.6%) also is well above that of the rest of the state (10.7%). The region’s high school completion rate of 86.1% is below that of the state (89.9%), but increased more over the previous year than the statewide rate.

• Individual districts in southeast Wisconsin continue to compare favorably with state averages for attendance, truancy, and dropout rates, with 41 of the 50 districts achieving an attendance rate of 95% or better, and 36 posting truancy rates below 3% and high school dropout rates at 1% or lower. The region’s three largest districts – MPS, Kenosha and Racine Unified – lag well behind the rest of the region in all three indicators, however.

• Southeast Wisconsin school districts continue to rely more on property taxes and federal aid than those in the rest of the state. Meanwhile, regional spending allocations among categories such as instruction and administration mirror the rest of the state, but the region’s per-pupil spending of $12,422 exceeds the statewide average by nearly $1,000. Overall, per-pupil spending in the region rose slightly compared to the 2009-10 academic year.

• Enrollment in the region’s public schools tilted slightly upward for the first time in more than five years, which is primarily attributable to growth in 10 moderately-sized districts of between 2% and 7%. Amid this relatively steady overall enrollment, minority enrollment is accelerating. Minority enrollment in the region exceeded 40% in 2010-11 and grew 1.3%, whereas the last several years saw growth levels of below 1%.

In total, the data from 2010-11 continue to show a region whose largest and poorest school districts continue to struggle, and one in which the racial achievement gap remains large and static. While there is plenty of uncertainty about the direction and speed in which the schools will change over the next several years, it is certain that staying put is not an option for many districts.

The full report, as well as a poster-sized summary detailing data from individual districts, can be found here.

Underwriters of this year's edition include: Alverno College, Multiple Listing Service, Northwestern Mutual Foundation, Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance, Stifel Nicolaus, and Waukesha County Technical College.