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Friday, April 7, 2017

Like Many Before Him, Trump Mistakes School Reform for School Improvement

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
April 3, 2017

Rather than setting a new education agenda, the Trump administration is repeating the mistake of its predecessors.

The administration promises to improve education through innovative reform while ignoring the basic building blocks of education: teachers and funding.

The specifics are new—charter schools and voucher expansion—but are little more than additions to a long line of gambles. President Bush bet on standardized testing and accountability. President Obama pushed the Common Core and statistical teacher evaluations.

Each of these reforms damaged schools in their own unique way. The No Child Left Behind Act narrowed the curriculum, led to test score manipulation, and authorized punitive sanctions. NCLB also fueled the narrative of a failing public education system, undermining the commitment to public education itself.

Secretary Arne Duncan used states’ failure under NCLB to demand Common Core standards and new teacher evaluation systems. That shift brought chaos with no payoff for students. Teachers and parents in several states quickly sued to block these policies.

Claims of federal overreach eventually led Congress to scrap the NCLB, Common Core standards, and teacher evaluations, replacing them yet again with another scheme—the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Trump administration’s expansive agenda for charters and vouchers threatens to be just as disruptive. School choice has its value but is no more a silver bullet solution than standardized testing. School choice will prove even more dangerous if not accompanied by common sense limits. The last few years offer numerous examples of how unregulated choice opens the door to segregation, profiteering, incompetence and marginal educational opportunities.

Debating the merits of these federal reforms, however, distracts public attention from the simple things that we know make a difference in student outcomes: good teachers and school funding. Neither requires fancy reform. Both require basic support for public schools.

Forty years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court explained what ought to be obvious: districts with higher property values can “provide a substantially wider range and higher quality of education services,” while those with lower values “have a higher percentage of inexperienced teachers, especially teachers with only one year of experience.”

Earlier this month, the Kansas Supreme Court put it more bluntly, “‘money makes a difference’ in public education.”

Experience confirms these simple truths. Reviewing decades of data, a recent study found that twenty percent increases in school funding, when maintained, result in low income students completing nearly a year of additional education, wiping out roughly half of the achievement gap between low- and middle-income students.

Last week, a separate study found that increasing school funding by ten percent causes a five percent jump in graduation rates in high poverty districts. A study of student achievement in Kansas showed, with a 99% confidence level, that “a 1% increase in student performance was associated with a .83% increase in spending.”

School funding trends, however, are going in the opposite direction. Between 2008 and 2012, annual cuts exceeding one thousand dollars per-pupil were routine—the equivalent of an assistant teacher aid in every classroom or the entire science and foreign language departments combined. In North Carolina and Florida, funding fell from over $10,000 to $7,000 per-pupil in just a few years.

Some cuts may have been necessary during the recession, but the recession cannot explain why, in real dollar terms, thirty states spend less on education today than they did before the recession.

The immediate results were teacher layoffs, lower salaries, and larger class sizes. The lingering effect is a dried-up pipeline of new teachers. In California, the demand for teachers is 40% higher than the supply of individuals seeking teaching credentials. The shortage forced California to put previously uncertified interns in the classroom on the promise that they would finish their coursework in their spare time. In other states, districts resorted to billboard advertisements just to get warm bodies in the classroom.

These cuts and shortages hit low-income and minority students the hardest. Even before the recent cuts, poor and minority students were twice as likely as their peers to have an inexperienced or unqualified teacher. Now they are being asked to do more with less.

In Illinois, schools serving predominantly poor student populations receive twenty-three percent less funding than other schools in the state. In Nevada, disadvantaged schools receive forty-one percent less than other schools.

Schools can hire and retain quality teachers if states maintain fair funding for schools. Classrooms can be positive environments if teachers get the support and training they need to respond to students’ needs. But every moment the Trump administration spends on school choice is a moment it ignores these core education needs.

Inexplicably, Trump’s proposed budget doubles down on this distraction. It cuts funding for after-school programs, teacher recruitment, and literacy assistance for students with disabilities and limited English proficiency. It takes this money and repurposes it for school choice.

Congress should see this education agenda for the gamble it is. The far more simple option is to give low-income schools the additional resources they need to boost graduation rates and cut the achievement gap. If basic facts do not motivate Congress, the clogged phone lines and countless emails rejecting this agenda during Betsy Devos’ confirmation should.

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