‘Pay for success’ preschool gains are iffy


Students in a preschool program in Utah meant to help kindergartners avoid special education. Credit: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

A  “pay for success” preschool program in Utah helped 99 percent of high-risk children avoid special education in kindergarten, Salt Lake County officials announced last month. Investors who bought “social-impact bonds” to fund the program received a $260,000 payout, representing a share of the district’s savings on special education. They’ll get more in coming years, potentially making a profit.

Results are too good to be true, early-education experts tell the New York Times.

Even well-funded preschool programs — and the Utah program was not well funded — have been found to reduce the number of students needing special education by, at most, 50 percent. Most programs yield a reduction of closer to 10 or 20 percent.

It’s either “a miracle, or these kids weren’t in line for special education in the first place,” said Clive Belfield, an economics professor who studies early childhood education.

It seems clear that “miracle” is not the right answer.

The school district used a picture and vocabulary test called the PPVT to screen the incoming preschoolers. Those who scored below 70 — 30 to 40 percent of children over three years — were labeled likely to need special education.

“To just assume that all these children would have gone to special education is kind of ridiculous,” said Ellen S. Peisner-Feinberg, a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

The test rarely is used to screen for disabilities, especially when used alone. Furthermore, 30 to 50 percent of the preschoolers may have scored poorly because they were not fluent in English.

Preschool pays — for kids and investors


First graders play during recess. Photo: Chris Detrick, Salt Lake Tribune

“Pay for Success” is succeeding in Salt Lake City. Expanding preschool cut special-ed spending dramatically. Most of the savings will go to repay investors who funded the expansion, reports the Salt Lake Tribune.

Private funding allowed about 600 students to enroll in public and private preschool programs in 2013. Of those students, 110 4-year-olds were expected to need special education during their kindergarten year.

But only one of the students — who are now in the first grade — has required special education, which translates to about $281,000 in cost avoidance for Utah’s public education system.

Goldman Sachs and J.B. Pritzker committed $7 million to the pay-for-success program.

United Way of Salt Lake has cut a check for $267,000 to cover 95 percent of the first-year savings.

Once investors are repaid, with interest, they’ll receive 40 percent of ongoing cost savings until the participating students complete sixth grade.

An Pay for Success project that tried to reduce recidivism at New York City’s Riker’s Island jail failed this summer, notes the New York Times. Goldman Sachs lost its money. The project was canceled.

Pay for what works


Salt Lake City uses social-impact bonds to fund high-quality preschool for at-risk children.

There’s a wild and crazy idea in funding social programs, writes AEI’s Katharine B. Stevens: Pay for what works — and stop paying for ideas that don’t work.

New York’s Rikers Island Jail tried a program to reduce youth recidivism that worked elsewhere, but failed at Rikers. Thanks to Pay for Success, also known as social-impact- bonds, it was evaluated rigorously and lost funding when it proved ineffective. Other ways of keeping juveniles out of jail will be explored.

Less than 1 percent of billions of public dollars spent annually on social services goes to programs that have evidence of actually accomplishing their goals,” writes Stevens. What’s unusual is that an idea was tried — and abandoned — without any cost to taxpayers.

1. The government and investors work together to find a social service provider with a rigorously-documented track record of success that proves their program is worth investing in.

2. Investors pay that service provider to run a scale-up of the program, aiming to improve specific, agreed-on outcomes for a defined group of at-risk individuals.

3. After the program is implemented for several years, the results are evaluated to see if the program achieved its goals.

4. If, and only if, the program is proven successful, the government pays investors back their original investment plus “success payments” out of the taxpayer dollars saved by preventing expensive problems that would have occurred without the program.

5. If the program isn’t successful, like Rikers Island, the government pays nothing and the program is closed.

Two private investors, Goldman Sachs and J.B. Pritzker, have put $6.8 million into the Utah High Quality Preschool Initiative. If Utah saves money on special education for preschool graduates, the state will use the savings to repay the investors.

Six Pay For Success projects have been approved so far and more are in the pipeline, writes Stevens. All are focused on preventing problems.

Where the money goes

“Inflation-adjusted federal per-pupil spending (part of the goal of which was to narrow achievement gaps) has nearly tripled” since the 1970s, but the gaps remain, writes Heritage’s Lindsey Burke on the Daily Signal.

Schools are employing more adults — especially more non-teachers — per student.

School funding declined in 2012 for the first time in 35 years, reports the Census Bureau. New York was the top spender, at $19,552 per pupil, while Utah spent only $6,206.

Utah legislator: End compulsory education

It’s time to end compulsory education and hold parents responsible for their children’s learning, wrote Utah Sen. Aaron Osmond on the Utah State Senate blog.

Some parents act as if the responsibility to educate, and even care for their child, is primarily the responsibility of the public school system. As a result, our teachers and schools have been forced to become surrogate parents, expected to do everything from behavioral counseling, to providing adequate nutrition, to teaching sex education, as well as ensuring full college and career readiness.

Unfortunately, in this system, teachers rarely receive meaningful support or engagement from parents and occasionally face retaliation when they attempt to hold a child accountable for bad behavior or poor academic performance.

The schools are “obligated by law to be all things to all people,” Osmond complains.

Learning is an opportunity, not an obligation, Osmond told the Deseret News. “Let’s let them choose it, let’s not force them to do it,” he said.

Utah spends the least per-student on public schools of any state and has the largest class sizes. I’ve always thought they got away with it because so many kids come from two-parent Mormon families. I guess even Utah has problems with under-parented kids.

“Utah lawmaker calls for end to compulsory education” is the Deseret News headline, which Jeff Landaw posted on Facebook. I responded: “There’s no such thing as compulsory education. We do have compulsory school attendance.”

Public school spending falls for the first time

U.S. public-education spending per student fell in 2011 for the first time since 1977, reports the Census Bureau. Public schools spent $10,560 per student, a drop of 0.4 percent from the year before. Adjusted for inflation, spending per pupil dropped once in 1995, according to the Wall Street Journal. In real dollars, spending per pupil was down 4 percent in 2011 from the peak in 2009.

New York spent the most per pupil at $19,076, followed by Washington, D.C. at $18,475. Utah spent the least, $6,212 per student, followed by Idaho at $6,824. (Both low-spending states have lots of Mormons, which means large families and fewer social problems.)

Thirty states increased per pupil funding: New Hampshire is spending 6.8 percent more.  Twenty states and the District of Columbia spent less. Illinois cut spending by 7.4 percent.

In the future, more education spending will go to teacher pensions and health benefits, leaving less for instruction, predicts Kim Rueben, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center and an expert on the economics of education.

Teacher’s got a gun

Arming educators is a reality in some places and under serious consideration in others, reports Education Week.

 In Utah, school employees have been able to carry concealed weapons onto campus for about a decade—without telling a soul—and at least four Texas school districts are known to have granted select employees permission to take concealed weapons to school.

A rural Texas district, Southland is 15 miles from the nearest law-enforcement agencies, says Superintendent Toby Miller. Deciding “we are the first responders,”  Southland is training some of its employees to carry guns.

The armed employees, a small subset of the district’s 32-member staff, went through mental-health screenings and trained for their concealed-weapons licenses together. The training will be ongoing, he said, as long as Southland employees carry weapons. And the guns fire so-called frangible ammunition, which breaks into small pieces on contact, preventing ricochet.

Armed staffers must carry their weapon at all times in a concealed holster: Guns cannot be carried in a purse or locked in a desk.

Michael S. Dorn, who runs the nonprofit Safe Havens International, worries about a new attitude among school employees since the Newtown shootings: “Now, I’m supposed to die” to defend students.

Dorn, a former school police chief, thinks too many teachers and administrators have switched to attack mode. “We’re seeing so many [school employees] saying they would attack” someone, he said, “whether it’s two parents coming into the office arguing over a custody issue or people pulling a handgun but not actually shooting anybody.”

A few weeks ago, a school principal told me she’s been thinking about whether she’d give her life to protect her students from a gunman as the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary did. Another woman said. “I’d want a gun.”

Other schools are taking a different tack: Marietta, Georgia public schools are installing “panic buttons” that call 911.  At an Alabama school, teachers and staff wear panic buttons around their necks that trigger a school lockdown.

Lonely groundhogs: Where’s the math?

Oak Norton, a Utah blogger, predicts the Death of Math after reading a new secondary math textbook circulated by the state education department. For example, the Lonely Groundhog assignment, adapted from the Interactive Mathematics Program, sets up a game:

. . . Once winter is over (groundhogs) live in fancy houses that are decorated with the most beautiful shapes. Since groundhogs aren’t very creative, they live in houses that look just like the house of at least one other groundhog. Groundhogs that live in identical houses always play together. However, one groundhog has a house different from all the rest. Sometimes this groundhog is left all alone. If you can help find the lonely groundhog, perhaps you could introduce it to all the other groundhogs.

Each group gets 40 cards with pictures of groundhog houses, which are evenly distributed face down. One card only has no match.

Your group’s task is to discover the singleton card of the lonely groundhog. When your group thinks they have located the house of the lonely groundhog the task is ended, whether or not you are correct. Therefore, you must be sure that everyone is confident of your answer before you announce that you are done. 

The rules ban showing, trading, passing, drawing or looking at cards or putting cards in a common pile when duplicates are found. However, “you may set your cards face down in front of you once you think you have found a match.” And anything else is legal, so presumably kids are supposed to describe the shapes on their cards.

But the point isn’t to learn to identify or describe shapes. Students are asked:

What were your group’s strengths and weaknesses? How can you help your group work together better and improve your individual participation? How did you know when you were done? How confident were you in knowing you had solved the problem? Why were you so confident?

The homework asks students “to reflect upon the way you participate in groups within a math classroom and outside of a math classroom.”

1. a. Think of a time when you or someone in your group was left out of the discussion. Describe the situation. Did anyone try to include that person? If not, why not? If yes, then how?

b. What might you have done to help with the situation?

And so on and on. I came across a teacher who’d assigned Lonely Groundhog homework — and work on quadratic equations. So we’re not talking about little kids here.

Norton is afraid that under Common Core Standards, the state will force all districts to use the same, inane learning materials.

Teachers, is this game less stupid and time-wasting than I think?

It’s the students, stupid

“The main problem with our education system today is not what is taught, where it is taught, by whom it is taught or how it is taught,” writes Teresa Talbot in the Deseret News. After 24 years teaching in Utah public schools, she believes, “The main problem with education today is students who refuse to work,”

It is the students in a science class where the teacher finally stopped giving students work to complete at home because very few of them bothered to do it. Instead, she began giving students time in class to complete all assignments. Over a third of her students failed because they refused to work in class.

. . . It is the students in my math classes who, when I showed them how to work a multiple step problem, called out, “I’m not doing that; it’s too much work.” It is the students who “complete” and turn in every assignment and still score less than 30 percent on the test covering that material because they are not the ones who actually did the work they turned in.

No matter how good the teacher, the technology or the curriculum, passive, lazy students won’t learn, Talbot writes. She blames ” a society that no longer values the individual work ethic” or holds students responsible for their learning.

What’s alarming is that she teaches in Utah, the traditional values state.

On Teaching Now, Anthony Rebora asks if “schools and educators bear part of the blame for failing to reach and support disengaged students?”

Parents, grade thyself

Tennessee may ask parents to sign a school-involvement contract and grade their own effort, writes Lucas L. Johnson II in the Huffington Post. But parents who “fail” will suffer no consequences.

Under Tennessee’s contract legislation, parents in each school district are asked to sign a document agreeing to review homework and attend school functions or teacher conferences, among other things. Since it’s voluntary, there’s no penalty for failing to uphold the contract – but advocates say simply providing a roadmap for involvement is an important step.

Michigan has enacted a similar measure.

In the case of Tennessee’s report card proposal, a four-year pilot program will be set up involving two of Tennessee’s struggling schools. Parents of students in kindergarten through third grade will be given a blank report card at the same time as the students, and the parents will do a self-evaluation of their involvement in activities similar to those in the parental contract. Parents will give themselves a grade of excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement or unsatisfactory

Utah will ask parents to evaluate their involvement in an online survey.  Louisiana is considering legislation to grade parent participation.