Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Big step forward for Kansas students

When the Kansas State Board of Education receives a report on new reading and math test scores today, the results will look lower than what the public, teachers, parents and students are used to.

And that is actually very good news.

Kansas has made its reading and math tests much tougher by raising expectations, which means that performance will look lower. The new tests measure more than just knowing the basic facts of reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, the tests are designed to tell if a student is learning to think critically and solve more advanced problems - to handle the more complex demands of college, technical education and the workplace.

These tests are different from the types of tests students have taken in the past, and certainly different from what most parents (and grandparents) experienced. Instead of asking students to simply give answers based on acquired knowledge, the new tests ask students to apply that knowledge to new situations. These skills take time to acquire. The test format is different from what students have experienced in recent years. However, the most important thing to remember is the new tests are designed to be more challenging.

Kansas: Rising Achievement, Rising Demands

Kansas has long ranked among the top states in education performance, such as national reading and math tests, high school graduation rates and preparation for college, and each of these measures has improved over the past decade. However, Kansas school leaders have recognized we will have to do even better to help students succeed.

For example, Kansas high school graduation rates are at an all-time high, but economic changes mean most jobs will require education beyond high school. In the 1970s, only about one-third of jobs required more than a high school diploma. By 2020, it is projected that over two-thirds of the jobs in the United States will require some type of postsecondary education: technical training or a two-year, four-year or advanced academic degree. In Kansas it will be even higher: over 70 percent - fifth highest in the nation.

The good news is Kansas education levels have been rising. From 2000 to 2013 (the most recent year statistics are available), the percentage of Kansans 25 and older with a two-year, four-year or advanced degree has grown from from 32 percent to 39 percent, the percent of Kansans with “some college” has held steady at 25 percent, and the number of students completing technical programs has increased, according to state higher education officials.

The educational level of Kansas adults should continue to rise because educational performance by Kansas students has also improved, including high school graduation rates, the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth and eighth grade reading and math tests, and college preparation tests, such as the percentage of students meeting all four “college ready “benchmarks” on the ACT test. In fact, across 14 national indicators, Kansas ranks 5th in the nation.

It is worth noting that Kansas’ spending rank is 25th in the nation after adjusting for state cost of living differences, and Kansas spends less than any other state in the top 15 for student achievement.

Challenges Facing Kansas Schools and Students

However, being better than most states still leaves some big challenges.

First, too many students fail to prepare for college academic requirements and require remedial courses or simply drop-out of college without completing a credential. About 74 percent of Kansas graduating seniors take the ACT test and 93 percent of those students says they plan to enroll in college. However, about 20 percent of those tested self-report they did not take at least four years of English and three or more years each of math, social studies and natural science. Even students who do complete that “core” may not have passed the specific “college prep” courses required for qualified admission to state universities.

“College prep” courses are much more challenging than those required only for graduation. If students do not take courses to prepare for postsecondary education, they are much less likely to be successful in college. The new tests are designed to give parents, students and educators a better and earlier measure of student progress.

Second, as in all states, low-income, disabled, African American, and Hispanic students in Kansas lag behind in graduation rates and test scores, especially in preparation for college. Again, Kansas does better than most states with all groups of students, but it will be much harder to fill the educational needs of the state economy if these students do not make more progress.

This is particularly true when the numbers of low income, non-white students are growing rapidly. For example, Hispanic students were just 9 percent of ACT test-takers in 2011, but 13 percent in 2015. Only 15 percent of Hispanic students meet all four “college ready” benchmarks, compared to 37 percent of white students.

Improving educational levels is critical to individual economic well-being, as well as the state’s economy. Each higher level of educational attainment results in higher income, less unemployment, and less need for public assistance.

Third, academic preparation measured by state tests is not the only thing students need to be successful. Results of new Commissioner of Education Randy Watson’s “listening tour” of Kansas last Spring indicates Kansans place a high value on non-academic skills and characteristics. In addition, about one-third of Kansas jobs will NOT require postsecondary education. Many students are unlikely to want or even be capable of more rigorous academic courses. Kansas high school schools must provide programs to meet their needs, as well.

What It Will Take to Succeed

How do the new Kansas assessments address these issues? Because these tests are given in grades three through eight and in once in high school, educators, parents and students will have a better idea how well they are preparing for college and careers long before their junior or senior year in high school, and have more time to adjust plans, choose the right courses and seek additional academic help and career counseling if needed.

It is important to note the higher standards reflected in these tests does not mean Kansas education performance has declined or more Kansas students or schools are somehow “failing.” It does, however, mean more will be expected. Preparing for success after high school will require more challenging courses than many students - and parents - are used to. Many of these students will be the first in their family to attend college. It will require more from teachers and support staff, such as academic and career counselors. It will require more individualized instruction.

Finally, meeting these higher standards will require the right resources. The Kansas Legislature is setting out to develop a new school finance system while the Kansas Supreme Court considers legal challenges to both the previous system and the “block grants” that froze state operating funds for the current and next school year.

This give Kansas the opportunity to fund schools based on what it takes to educate a successful student, which is exactly the standard adopted by the Kansas Supreme Court through the so-called “Rose Capacities.” While those capacities, ranging from basic skills to civics, economic, health, the arts and preparing for postsecondary education, have not been completely defined, one thing is clear: the only states that outperform Kansas across all national measures of educational outcomes spend more money per per pupil and target additional resources at low income and other special needs students. These are the states Kansas will be competing against for high-paying, high-skill jobs.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

New polls show mixed attitude on education policies

Two national opinion polls regarding K-12 education have been released, offering sometimes contradictory insights into public views on educational issues.

The 47th annual PDK/Gallup poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools focused heavily on standardized testing and academic standards, including the controversial Common Core. It also polled on attitudes toward school choice, evaluation of public schools and views on the roles different levels of government should play.

The 9th annual Education Next Poll on School Reform addressed some of the same topics, but also covers more in depth issues of interest on what is usually considered the “conservative” side of school reform.

The PDK/Gallup poll broke out results by the nation as a whole, public school parents, political party (Republican, Democrat and Independent) and ethnicity (blacks, Hispanics, whites). The EdNext poll also includes the public and parents, the same three racial/ethnic groups, and a separate category of teachers.


The PDK/Gallup poll reports “Americans agree that there is too much testing in schools, but few parents report that their children are complaining about excessive testing.” Two-thirds of respondents say there is “too much emphasis on standardized testing.”

Only 14 percent of both the public and parents say standardized tests are “very important” to measuring the effectiveness of public schools in their community. On the other hand, 78 percent of the public and 80 percent of parents say student engagement in their classwork was very important. Other indicators of public school effectiveness rated higher than testing as “very important” included students who feel hopeful about their future (77 percent of the public, 81 percent of parents), students who graduate from high school (68 percent of the public, 75 percent of parents), high school graduates who go to college or community college (38 percent of the public, 39 percent of parents) and graduates who get jobs immediately after completing high school (27 percent of the public, 31 percent of parents).

Yet the EdNext poll found that two-thirds of respondents strongly or somewhat favored continuing the federal requirement to test all students in reading and math once a year in grades three to eight and once in high schools.

Forty-four percent of all PDK/Gallup respondents opposed allowing children to be excused from taking standardized tests, with 41 percent supported an opt-out policy. The EdNext Poll found just 26 percent of the public supported an opt-out. While PDK/Gallup found 47 percent of public school parents supported an opt-out compared to 40 percent opposed, EdNext found just 32 percent of parents in support and 51 percent against. PDK/Gallup reported 31 percent of parents said they would excuse their own child. EdNext did not ask that question.

PDK/Gallup asked other questions that found limited public support for testing. Only 16 percent said scores on standardized tests provide the most accurate picture of a public school student’s academic progress, trailing examples of students’ work (38 percent) and teachers’ written observations (28 percent) and grades awarded (21 percent).

Only about 20 percent of respondents thought it was important to use standardized tests to compare students in the community to other districts, states and countries.

However, blacks and Hispanics were generally more supportive of standardized testing than whites.

Although EdNext found more support than PDK/Gallup for standardized testing, only 29 percent of the public and 35 percent of parents thought state tests did a “very good” or “good” job measuring what students learn in reading and math.

Common Core Standards

When the Common Core was introduced several years ago, supporters were confident support would grow when the public learned more about it. That is not reflected in the PDK/Gallup poll.  Sixty-one percent of the public and 72 percent of parents say they know “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about the Common Core standards - and 54 percent of both groups oppose requiring teachers to use these standards.

The EdNext poll shows slightly higher levels of support for the Common Core, depending somewhat on the wording of the question, but acknowledges support has been dropping from previous years. In addition, EdNext found that a majority of both the public and parents say implementation of Common Core standards has had a “somewhat” or “strongly negative” impact in their district.

Supporters of the Common Core say they were designed to raise standards. PDK/Gallup found that while opposing the Common Core, 39 percent of the public and 33 percent of parents feel community standards are too low while 37 percent of the public and 48 percent of parents say current standards are about right, and 6 percent of the public and 12 percent of parents say standards are too high.

School Choice

Both polls found strong support for “public” school choice. PDK/Gallup found nearly two-thirds of both the public and parents support the “idea of charter schools,” which generally means a public school at least somewhat independent from the local school board and free from most state regulations; and are in favor allowing students and parents to choose which public school to attend, regardless of where they live. EdNext reported majorities of the public and parents - but not teachers - either completely or somewhat favoring the formation of charter schools.

However, the polls differed regarding public support for private education. PDK/Gallup found 57 percent of the public and 58 percent of parents were opposed to allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.

EdNext asked several different questions regarding private school choice. About 55 percent of the public and parents either “completely” or “somewhat” supported the idea of tax credits for private school scholarship for low income students, and nearly 20 percent were neutral. Kansas passed such a program last year and expanded eligibility this session.

A narrower majority also supported a proposal to give “all” families government assistance to help pay for tuition at private schools. There was less support for proposals to help only low income students attend private schools. In all cases, African-Americans and Hispanics had stronger support for these private school choice proposals than whites or the public at large.

EdNext also reported that support for school choice proposals have been edging down over the past several years.

Evaluating Public Schools

There was no “news” from the PDK/Gallup poll on one issue: as has been the case for 30 years, Americans think highly of their local schools - and think the rest of the nation isn’t doing very well. Two-thirds of parents and the public give the school their child attends a grade of A or B. A majority give an A or B to schools in their community. However, only about 20 percent say schools nationally rate an A or B.

EdNext results were similar, with 52 percent of the public and 55 percent of parents giving their community schools an A or B, and 23 percent of the public and 28 percent of parents giving public schools nationally an A or B.

EdNext also reported that over 70 percent of parents and the public think their community schools deserve an A or B for serving the most talented students, but only 29 percent of the public and 40 percent of parents said the same about serving the least talented students. Respondents also thought public schools were doing a better job with girls than boys.

PDK/Gallup asked what percentage of students in this country were receiving a high quality education. Less than 10 percent of parents and the public believe more than 75 percent of U.S. students are receiving a high quality education, and only 29 percent believed 50 to 75 percent of students are receiving a high quality education. That means about two-third of respondents think less than half of U.S. students are getting a high quality education.

School Funding

As has been the case for the past 10 years, the PDK/Gallup poll found the public believes lack of financial support is the biggest problem facing public schools. Eighty-four percent of the public and 88 percent of parents say how much money schools have to spend is “somewhat” or “very” important. At least 20 percent of every group except Republicans (11 percent) say lack of financial support is the biggest problem facing schools. No other issue exceeds 10 percent except “standards/quality of education” (10 percent of public school parents, 11 percent of Republicans).

EdNext asks a different set of questions. First, the poll asked respondents to guess the average amount of money spent each year for a child in the local community and the U.S. as a whole. The average guess ($6,307 locally, $7,056 nationally) is far below the actual TOTAL revenues reported by the U.S. Government ($12,380 nationally and $11,596 in Kansas in 2012-13).

Next, respondents are asked whether funding for public schools in their district should greatly increase, increase, stay about the same, decrease or greatly decrease. Respondents who were not told the actual level of spending supported an increase by about two-to-one. If told the actual level of funding, support for increased funding dropped - although in most case a plurality still favored increased funding. In no case did more than 12 percent of any group favor a decrease in funding.

Control of Education

Both surveys asked which level of government - federal, state or local - should control certain aspects of educational policy. With some exceptions, most respondents favored the state first, followed by local leaders (school boards) and federal control last.

Personnel Policies

EdNext asked several questions about teacher issues. Fifty-three percent of the public and 58 percent of parents say teachers in their local schools deserve a grade of A or B for the quality of their work. Forty-seven percent of both say teachers nationally deserve an A or B.

EdNext also asked respondents to guess the average yearly teacher salary in their state. The average response was below the actual average salary. As with funding, respondents were then asked if teacher salaries should greatly increase, increase, stay about the same, decrease or greatly decrease. Over 60 percent of respondents thought pay should be increased, and over 45 percent said taxes to fund teacher salaries should be increased.

When told the actual level of salaries, support for higher salaries dropped below 50 percent, and support for higher taxes dropped below 40 percent. However, in no case did more than 11 percent of respondents say salaries or taxes for salaries should decrease.

EdNext also found that a majority of respondents favor basing part of the salaries of teachers on how much their students learn. However, PDK/Gallup found that 55 percent of the public and 61 percent of parents oppose requiring student test performance in evaluating teachers.

Finally, EdNext found that parents and the public oppose “teacher tenure” by about two-to-one, with about 20 percent neither favoring nor opposing. More respondents said teacher unions generally have a negative effect on school funding than a positive effect, but about 20 percent did not have an opinion.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Questions on K-12 School Funding

A number of state leaders and organizations are beginning to look seriously at the development of a new school finance system to replace the law abolished by the 2015 Legislature and the two-year block grant system adopted in its place. Here are some basic questions about school funding in Kansas and information to help answer them.

  • What is the right balance of state, local and federal revenues and the right balance of sales, income and property taxes?

In Kansas, as in most states, public schools rely on a mix of state, local and federal revenue. Nationally, federal funding provides about 9 percent of school district revenues, with the balance split almost equally between state sources (45.6 percent) and local sources (45.3 percent), according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Public Education Finances Report.

Kansas is much higher in state funding (56.4 percent) and lower in local funding (36.2 percent), and is also below the national average in federal funding (7.4 percent). The higher share of state funding was a deliberate choice in 1992 when the now-repealed school finance formula was adopted. The goal was to both increase school funding and reduce local property taxes, as well as narrow the range of property tax rates for school districts. At the time, general operating levies ranged from under 10 mills to over 100 mills.

Although Kansas ranks relatively high in the level of funding provided by the state, it remains below average in total dollars per pupil because local and federal revenues are so low. In 2013, Kansas funding from the state ranked 19th at $6,537, but ranked 32nd in local revenues at $4,198, and 45th in federal revenues at $861. Overall, Kansas ranked 27th in total revenues per pupil at $11,596. Kansas per pupil funding has generally been about 5 percent below the national average for the past 20 years.

Both Kansas’ funding rank and the share of funding from state sources will be much more difficult to maintain if the state continues to phase-out the individual income tax, which has been integral to those positions. According to the 2014 edition of Kansas Tax Facts, the state currently receives approximately 40 percent of state general fund revenue and 30 percent of all state revenue from the individual income tax. Most (but not all) state aid to K-12 education comes from the state general fund, which indicates that over 20 percent of current school funding can be attributed to the individual income tax.

Income, sales and property taxes are the only major revenue sources currently available in Kansas, accounting for over 83 percent of total revenue to state and local governments. Most of the rest are taxes on motor fuels, vehicles and unemployment compensation that could not be used for K-12 education.

As a result, eliminating the income tax over time means the state must either rely more heavily on sales and/or property taxes, or reduce either the amount of school spending or the rate of increase compared to other states and past performance in Kansas.

  • What is the role of local funding for Kansas school districts, such as the Local Option Budget?

The original proposal for the 1992 school finance formula called for a complete state takeover of school funding in Kansas (except local school building costs) and included a local option budget only as a temporary “hold harmless” feature, or to finance local “extras.”

However, Local Option Budgets grew from less than 4 percent of total district budgets in 1993 to over 17 percent in 2015 for two major reasons. In the late 1990s, the Legislature cut the statewide mill levy from 35 to 20 mills and took it off automobiles, and replaced those funds with state aid. That meant state aid was increasing, but was largely offset by reduced property taxes. As a result, school district general fund budgets per pupil increased less than inflation in nine of the twelve years between 1993 and 2005.

After the Montoy school finance decision in 2005, the Legislature increased K-12 funding significantly, but most of that money was targeted for specific programs, such as special education, at-risk and bilingual services, that were the basis of the lawsuit. These dollars did not go into general funding for all students.

Because most general state aid went to tax cuts or targeted programs, districts had to increasingly use the Local Option Budget to cover the costs of “regular” education programs which increased due to inflation, to keep salaries competitive with the private sector, or to improve programs.

  • What is the role of technical schools and community colleges?

Projections show the percentage of Kansas jobs requiring postsecondary education will continue to increase. The Kansas Board of Regents set a goal of increasing the state percentage of adults with a technical credential or an academic degree to 60 percent by 2020. Recent incentives for boosting the number of students earning credentials at technical and community colleges have been successful.

More students in technical and community colleges will increase cost. The only alternative to local funding is either increased state aid, which will have to compete with tax cuts or K-12 funding, or increased tuition, which will place a larger burden on lower income students who may have to rely on these programs for access to any postsecondary education.

  • What special funding or weightings should be included in the funding formula?

Transportation, special education, language services have long been funded as separate programs or weightings, because they are required at least in part by state or federal law. The largest weighting used in the previous formula was based on students eligible for free meals, because studies show lower income students consistently start school academically behind their more advantaged peers and frequently fail to catch up without special assistance. The previous formula also provided additional funding for smaller districts on a scale that increased as enrollment decreased.

The cost of each of these programs differs substantially among districts because of different student populations. Without weightings or some other way to target extra resources, children in districts with sparse student populations, or with high concentrations of students with disabilities or requiring English language instruction or low income families, will be disadvantaged. They will have to spend less on “regular” education programs and will be unlikely to help all students successfully prepare for college or careers.

In fact, what some call “failing schools” usually differ only in that they have many more special needs students than what are viewed as successful schools.

  • Should a new formula consider changes in the organizational structure of school districts?

These questions raises the issue of school district consolidation, or at least changes in how districts cooperate with each other in certain operations.

According the Digest of Education Statistics, Kansas ranks near the bottom of states in students per district (41st), students per school (40th) and students per school district staff (39th). In other words, Kansas is notable for small districts and small schools (in terms of students), small classes sizes and more teachers and other district employees. Kansas also allows school districts to pick and choose services from multiple service centers and cooperatives, unlike some states which set up regional service providers.

To some, this may sound highly inefficient. But while Kansas is on the low end of the scale for organizational size and staffing per pupil, it is on the high end for student achievement, ranking 5th in the nation on an average of 14 measures of student achievement. (See KASB Research for information on these measures.) At the same time, Kansas spends less than the national average. No other top 10 states spends less than Kansas, and no top ten states has fewer low income, harder-to-educate students. This indicates that Kansas is actually quite efficient, and certainly is doing something “right.”

Consider an alternative perspective. Small districts in Kansas keep schools tied to their communities. Small schools keep students from getting lost in the crowd. Small classes give students more individual attention from teachers. More teachers and other staff mean there are more caring adults in the lives of students, from the teacher to the bus driver, the lunchroom staff, and the coach.

Virtually every school district already participates in various cooperative services, but leaving the decision at the local level means private sector vendors of goods and services compete for school district business based on both price and service.

In fact, these are exactly the arguments used to call for charter schools and private schools in other states: to create smaller, more independent schools in place of larger, less responsive bureaucracies. Perhaps Kansas already has what some reformers say public education needs.

  • How should a new formula account for student success?

The most important question to ask about any educational policy is this: based on the evidence, what will help more Kansas students leave school prepared for success as adults? Kansas already ranks very high in measures of student success, yet spends below the U.S. average.To improve results, state policies must first avoid doing harm to what is working well.