Feds crack down on special ed efficiency

South Carolina has been hit by $36 million in U.S. Education Department penalties for “making tough but necessary cuts to all school spending in the midst of the Great Recession, special education included,” writes Education Gadfly. The “asinine” decision teaches states a perverse lesson:  “Finding ways to boost efficiency in special education literally may not be worth the trouble.”

 

NEPC: Base productivity ideas on research

The U.S. Department of Education’s Increasing Educational Productivity project, which provides dollar-stretching advice to school districts, isn’t backed by solid research, charges a National Education Policy Center report.

Researchers have ignored efficiency and productivity “over the last half-century,” responds Rick Hess. “Most cost-saving efforts in most sectors are based on sensible intuitions and experimentation rather than “rigorous science.”

Silver bullet: More time teaching at kid's level

Stuart Buck praises Barker Bausell’s Too Simple to Fail: A Case for Educational Change, which argues that “the only thing that improves education is spending more time on instruction at a given child’s level.”

Bausell suggests adding pre-K (using direct instruction) BS lengthening the school day and year. Schools would focus on relevant instruction, eliminating time wasters such as “candy sales, worthless school assemblies, loudspeaker announcements, sports activities, ad nauseam.” Disruptive students would be removed from class.  (“If this means that we have to leave certain children behind because they can’t meet behavioral expectations (or we don’t know how to enable them to conform), so be it.”)

In addition, Buck summarizes:

The entire curriculum should be exhaustive and detailed, and computerized tests should be based exclusively on the curriculum.

. . . Teacher behavior should be “monitored constantly to ensure the delivery of sufficient instruction, as well as satisfactory coverage of (and minimal departures from) the established curriculum.”

. . . Use efficient instructional methods. Bausell points to an example of inefficiency: “My son once had a teacher who had an elaborate class project involving building a medieval castle out of popsicle sticks that stretched over a period of several months. Regardless of what the teacher thought she was accomplishing, this is valuable time wasted . . . ‘”

Finally, recruit volunteer tutors who can help students practice reading sight words or learn math with flash cards.

Most teachers are supposed to “differentiate instruction” for children with a wide range of learning needs. Some students are way ahead, some on track, some way behind. Some speak English fluently; some don’t. A few students have disabilities. Others are behavior problems. If teachers had more time, no distractions and groups of children working at the same level . . .  Teachers, what do you think?

Getting more brains for the buck

Education productivity — the return on our investment in schools — varies widely from one district to another, concludes a study by the Center for American Progress.

Education spending per student has nearly tripled over the past four decades, after adjusting for inflation, the report notes.  Student achievement has remained about the same.

In more than half of the states included in our study, there was no clear relationship between spending and achievement after adjusting for other variables, such as cost of living and students in poverty.

Some districts spent thousands of dollars more per student to reach the same level of academic achievement. For example, Baltimore spends $2,500 more a year per student than Austin, Texas, after adjusting for the cost of living and student poverty. Yet Baltimore’s students are much less likely to score at or above the proficient level.

. . . after accounting for factors outside of a district’s control, many high-spending districts posted middling productivity results. For example, only 17 percent of Florida’s districts in the top third in spending were also in the top third in achievement.

Not surprisingly, the most productive districts make student achievement a priority. Leaders are willing to make tough choices, such as closing schools with low enrollment. The least productive districts spend more on administration, operations and other non-instructional expenditures.

Only Florida and Texas evaluate school-level productivity, the report finds. Often nobody knows which schools are spending money effectively and which are not.

Among the recommendations are improving data analysis, creating “performance-focused management systems that are flexible on inputs and strict on outcomes” and directing funding to students based on their needs.

Here’s a cool interactive map showing the return on education investment in various districts. In California, I see that San Francisco and San Jose rate fairly high in productivity, while Los Angeles is quite low.

Duncan: Get productive, drop ‘factory model’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan “knocked it out of the park”  in a speech at “Bang for the Buck in Schooling,” sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, writes Rick Hess, who hosted the AEI panel.

The New Normal — doing more with less — is “an opportunity to make dramatic improvements,” Duncan said. “It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.”

Duncan urged states and districts to consider raising some class sizes and consolidating schools, but not to try to balance budgets by “reducing the number of days in the school year, slashing instructional time spent on task, eliminating the arts and foreign languages, abandoning promising reforms, and laying off talented, young teachers.”

Duncan made clear the financial drag of the status quo, saying, “The factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century. Today, our schools must prepare all students for college and careers–and do far more to personalize instruction and employ the smart use of technology. Teachers cannot be interchangeable widgets. Yet the legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems.”

And his to-do list was spot on. He said, “Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over placement of students in special education–almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with.”

. . .  “Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers — with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.”

Small classes improve student learning only in the early grades, Duncan said. Duncan “laudably argued against gutting arts, music, and sports in a mindless effort to protect small classes, and pointed out that schools in South Korea and Japan excel with class sizes much larger than ours,” Hess writes.

While Duncan said in the Q and A that unions need to reform, he added that many problems are the fault of  “dysfunctional school boards”  that lack courage and superintendents who put “political longevity” over “doing the right thing.”  His own department ” in many cases has been a huge part of the problem,” Duncan said. “I promise you, we’re looking in the mirror every day to say how do we stop being this compliance-driven bureaucracy and how do we support innovation.” He also warned that no more federal bail-out money will be flowing to districts.

Duncan can “make it safer for superintendents and state chiefs to talk about productivity and efficiency alongside student learning, Hess writes.  The U.S. Department of Education can “scour its regulations to make it easier for states and districts to spend dollars smart. It can reduce paperwork and compliance burdens. It can fund and disseminate research and tools that help state and local officials gauge cost-effective programs and services.”

Ed Week’s Teaching Now has more on Duncan and his co-panelist, Shawn McCollough, superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District in Arizona, who cut $7 million in the past two years without layoffs. McCollough redeployed central-office staff to positions working directly with students and families.