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Public school funding matters, except when it doesn’t

There must be an explanation for how a big-spending liberal state like Minnesota would trail low-spending (and presumably racially backward southern states) on academic achievement for students of color, right?

Is money the only thing that matters in student outcomes?

The argument about the sine qua non role public school funding plays in academic outcomes seems to be settled science. Money matters, end of story, we are told. The work of Kirabo Jackson, Bruce Baker, and a host of other researchers produce the evidence for any dullard who dare disagree.

For example, the Shanker Institute says – rather decisively – “on average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes.” There once a body of research doubtful about the link between dollars and diplomas, but after decades of that doubt, emergent progressive academics have frustrated the conservative claims that money isn’t everything.

Or so it might seem.

A new report by Catrin Wigfall at the Center of the American Experiment looks at Minnesota as an instructive example of how unsettled the science actually is. It at very least raises questions unanswered by the public school funding boosters. Her research offers three findings that go a long way to contradict conventional claims about school funding:

Key findings from "Allergic to Accountability: Minnesota has little to show for decades of increased spending"

Diving deeper into the evidence supporting those findings, here is what Catrin says:

Disaggregating groups of students gives a better picture of a state’s academic performance and helps put to rest the claim that more spending necessarily improves student performance.

For example, Texas spends $9,375 per pupil compared to Minnesota’s $12,647 per pupil. Yet Texas black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students outperformed Minnesota black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students on each 2019 NAEP subject test for each grade level. Thus, assuming that Minnesota must do a better job educating its students because it spends more money is not accurate.

Mississippi, who spends $8,771 per student and whose student body is made up of nearly 49 percent black students compared to Minnesota’s 10.7 percent, has better performance than our state among students of color. Mississippi black and Hispanic students in both fourth and eighth grade math and reading outperformed Minnesota black and Hispanic students. Equally important, Mississippi’s NAEP test scores for fourth and eighth grade black students have been scaling up over the years, compared to Minnesota’s declining scores among fourth and eighth grade black students. And among low-income students—of which Mississippi has 75 percent compared to Minnesota’s 37 percent—Mississippi fourth graders ranked 3rd in the nation in reading. Minnesota’s low-income students ranked 40th.

There must be an explanation for how a big-spending liberal state like Minnesota would trail low-spending (and presumably racially backward southern states) on academic achievement for students of color, right?

I’m waiting for it.

I’ve invited Kirabo Jackson and Bruce Baker on to my morning broadcast but they haven’t agreed to join me yet. I wish they would because Catrin’s appearance left me with plenty of questions.

Even if there is some complex empirical answer for how some states spend more to produce less student success, there will always be confounding common sense questions for me. Like, how much does school funding matter to academic achievement when school districts spend $80 million on high school football stadiums, or allow bureaucratic inefficiencies to cause colossal budget overruns, or pay superintendents weirdly large salaries; or states make one unsustainable public employee pension deal after another; or local school boards to sign collective bargaining agreements that fatten union war chests while bankrupting districts and starving children?

If money matters, should it matter how it is spent too?

For now, as a lowly pedestrian to education debates, and a permanent observer of how “Minnesota nice” turns Black streets mean, I’ll rest in the knowledge of how the supposed empirical truths of money-first commentators hide the savagely practical realities faced by students in failing progressive cities and states.

School funding and academic achievement may be married, but the constantly quarreling from separate bedrooms and rumored to have divorced years ago but are staying together “for the kids.”

Here is a pdf of Catrin’s report:

Allergic to Accountability: Minnesota’s public schools have little to show for decades of increased spendin… by Chris Stewart on Scribd

Do you want to see my conversation with Catrin on the Citizen Ed morning broadcast? Here it is:

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Public Schools

Rev. Sharpton: Education problems are a ‘five-alarm’ fire

Rev. Sharpton continues his push for better education

Now would be a good time to listen to Rev. Al Shaprton.

You didn’t see that coming. Me, of all people, pointing to a left-of-center Civil Rights leader on the issue of education?

Mark the day.

I’m wore down by the scant attention the issues has seen during the run up to a historic election. After all of political campaigning and several mock debates, the two old men -both private school parents – vying for the American presidency failed to utter anything meaningful about the ineffective training our kids are getting.

It’s almost as pesky education problems that presidents have talked about solving for ages will suddenly go away like Trump’s Covid by spring (“like a miracle”).

Be patient folks. All we need is incremental changes through bold sounding and weak acting policy tweaks. That and a bazillion because that always works.


Maybewe may have tired of hearing the “failing schools” narrative and the subsequent lack of solutions that an exorbitant number of dollars thrown at it have failed to produce. I get it. Some might say, “we get it, not all kids are learning, but….”

I don’t know what the “but” is.

A problem doesn’t go away because you shut your eyes out of exasperation.

In fact, the same issues that fueled decades-long school reform movements continue to dog our students, our workforce, and our economy. The pandemic is raising that simmering pot to a rolling boil.

That’s why I’m happy to see a surprising piece from Rev. Al Sharpton show up in my feed that points to the specifics of how Covid is worsening educational failure for populations that already struggle economically.

He says:

Four out of 10 young black men don’t finish high school, and student absenteeism runs as high as 30% in some cities.  Education is about capturing the curiosity and imagination of young minds; how is our system failing so many young students of color?

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned this long-smoldering crisis into a five-alarm fire. The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but 25% of its COVID-19 cases. The pandemic has torpedoed its way through the lives and wallets of Black and Hispanic communities with a vengeance, and the lash of this scourge is being felt just as acutely in our schools.

Nearly half of the nation’s public school students checked out of distance education when schools shuttered in March, and Black and Hispanic students fell even further behind.  Private schools saw just an 18% drop in student participation.

A full 70% of teachers say they weren’t adequately trained for the transition to distance education. Amazingly, only one in three districts expected teachers to teach live lessons and track student progress. But students in wealthy districts were twice as likely to get live, real-time learning.

Among teachers, 60% report that parents were unavailable to help their kids with online learning. Black and brown households — disproportionately headed by single parents working jobs where telecommuting just isn’t an option — were given a Sophie’s choice of either helping their children with schoolwork or taking a second or third job to keep a roof over their heads. Nearly half of our low-income workers lost jobs during the crisis, and many are just too exhausted to help after struggling to make ends meet and are, appallingly, offered next to no help.

One bright spot has been helping to get students connected.  A total of 95% of U.S. homes have broadband access, but still 15% of households with students haven’t signed up. Industry leaders, building on aggressive efforts to get everyone connected, stepped up with offerings of free broadband to low-income neighborhoods.

Chicago and Atlanta, led by African American woman mayors, forged groundbreaking public-private partnerships to make free home broadband service available to any public school students who need it.  And while the Trump administration dithers, Democratic leaders in Congress are pushing for an “Emergency Broadband Benefit” to get everyone connected to broadband.  This is an example where one of the key challenges for distance learning — residential broadband service — appears solvable by getting the key players to come to the table.

But this is only a start. One in four underprivileged teens has no computer in the house. Our failure to address digital literacy in low-income communities and to modernize digital curricula to stir the curiosity millions of students is another jaw-dropping failure. We will never win the future or achieve racial justice with festering ills like this unaddressed.

While I’d love to see more here in the way of support for direct educational funding to parents, more power for families to choose from an array of educational providers, and more roads to alternative learning opportunities, I give the Rev. props.

More leaders would keep their eye on the educational prize and focus the public’s attention on the problem, and then push policymakers to produce new policy solutions.

Read the whole story.

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Personalized Learning

Students aren’t missing. It’s the computers, stupid.

Do you need help finding those “missing students” that haven’t made it to online school yet? I can help.

A piece by ABC’s Ted Oberg follows a Houston student who hasn’t been schooled since last spring because she hasn’t had a computer or wifi access. Her name is Raquel and she represents the millions of kids nationally who have been “missing” from school district rosters, and falling behind.

These are the stories that break my heart. In a nation boastful of our economic power, we can’t get kids all they need for an education. We used to be able to put a man on the moon. Today we can’t get a Chromebook into a child’s hands.

A laptop during a pandemic. Apparently that’s too much.

Here’s the story:

The last time Raquel was in class was in March, just before Spring Break. After that, HISD shut down in-person learning and classes went online. Raquel didn’t follow there, “I don’t have no computer to use at home.”

Without a computer and without Wi-Fi, Raquel was one of the thousands of HISD students who just disappeared last year from online learning. At its worst, nearly one out of four HISD students was less than fully engaged. State figures show 49,514 students like Raquel either lost contact or were less than fully engaged.

It may be far less now. Thousands of the missing students have been contacted and HISD handed out nearly 100,000 tablets and computers, but thousands more are still waiting.


Like many parents, Raquel’s mother, Monique Smith, was anxious to get her daughter a device. “I am just worried about if she can get a tablet this year, so she could be doing some things, exercising her brain and staying positive.”

When Smith walked to school to get Raquel a device on Tuesday, she was turned away. Smith told 13 Investigates she informed the district she needed a device during a home visit in June, but on Tuesday the district initially said paperwork indicated she already got one.

Smith was in tears as she told ABC13 it wasn’t true.

Raquel didn’t have time for tears as she said, “I don’t want to be far behind because I don’t have a laptop.” Raquel is the kind of student the district is worried about.

“Very worried,” Dr. Lathan said. “And will continue to be worried until we know we’re back face to face and we’ve been able to engage with all of the students that are assigned on an HISD roster.”


Tuesday morning, the district opened some 36 distance learning centers so students without devices could sign on somewhere, but HISD didn’t announce that until late last week.

Smith said she wasn’t even told about the centers specifically for families like her, until Tuesday afternoon, and her school is one. We suggested they go back and ask.

Raquel was optimistic, “I was hoping I’d get me a laptop so I can go to school and be in my classes now, since it’s a new year.”

How many Raquel’s are there?

As my friend Dirk Tilotson points out regularly, the digital divide is actual an injustice canyon. It’s estimated that as many as 40 million Americans are without the reliable internet access that is critical to getting an education. Tens of thousands are without laptops.

These aren’t missing students, they’re victims of incompetent leadership nationally and locally.

And, guess who is most hurt? According to a McKinsey report, “only 60 percent of low-income students are regularly logging into online instruction; 90 percent of high-income students do.”

In schools that are predominantly Black and Brown, just 60 to 70 percent are logging in regularly.”

Something is wrong with us.

I don’t care what else we do as a nation, whatever else we tout as evidence of our being “great again.”

We ain’t shit until Raquel gets a laptop, WiFi, and teachers who can teach.

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Public Schools

One thing way worse than standardized testing is unstandardized testing

Sometimes I feel like I’m the last man standing in favor of standardized testing.

I don’t think people know that when I ask “how are the children,” I’m usually asking about their intellectual care and development. I’m an education activist so when you answer, I expect to hear results from a relatively objective source.

Like standardized test scores.

I can hear your collective sighs and hisses. Heresy, I know. Am I unaware that testing students, as a practice, was invented by the Klan?

Don’t I know the tests states give school children in 2020 are actually the product of mad scientists in 1940. (Because that’s totally plausible).

While those are fascinating questions, I have my own questions.

What is the rate of reading, math, and science proficiency in your city or school district? What gaps do you see when you disaggregate the testing results by race, class, and gender? Which schools are accelerating the academic growth of their students, and which ones aren’t?

If you can find a way to answer those questions without testing, let’s talk.

For now I realize you will ignore all the ways the knowledge of psychometricians outstrips yours. You will call them “high stakes tests” when in fact the highest stakes are suffered by people graduating from K-12 schools nominally illiterate or functionally innumerate.

You will repeat the language produced in teachers’ union focus groups, “test and punish,” but you won’t say the alternative is to ignore how mass miseducation sets up millions of students for the greatest punishment of all: poverty.

Researcher Richard Phelps, a longtime defender of standardized testing, articulates one of my biggest concerns about removing standardized testing from the landscape.

He says:

Without standardized tests (or standardized grading protocols) in education, we would increase our reliance on individual teacher grading and testing. Are teacher evaluations free of standardized testing’s alleged failings? No. Individual teachers can narrow the curriculum to that which they prefer. Grades are susceptible to inflation with ordinary teachers, as students get to know a teacher better and learn his idiosyncrasies. A teacher’s (or school’s) grades and test scores are far less likely to be generalizable than any standardized tests’ (See, for example, Gullickson & Ellwein, 1985; Impara & Plake, 1996; Stiggins, Frisbee, & Griswold, 1989; Woodruff & Ziomek, 2004a, 2004b). (In Phelps, 2008, Table 1 lists some common fallacies proffered by testing opponents, along with citations to responsible refutations.)

I know we’re supposed to say “trust teachers.” I’m ok with that only if we add “but verify” to that sentiment.

Which brings me to a new report authored by Lynn Olsen and Craig Jerald for FutureEd that details the weirdly bi-partisan coalition (Tea Party and teacher unions?) who would have us blow up the accountability totem and send us all back to the bad data stone age.

This is how they summarize their report:

Standardized testing has been a cornerstone of school reform for two decades. But a bipartisan backlash against testing in recent years and the suspension of statewide testing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have left the future of state assessments in question.

That’s the conclusion of a new FutureEd report, The Big Test: The Future of State Standardized Assessments. Written by senior fellow Lynn Olson and education analyst Craig Jerald, the report examines the evolution of the testing backlash, the current landscape, and how state testing systems must change to survive.

Drawing on a comprehensive, new 50-state analysis of testing legislation from 2014 through 2019, Olson and Jerald examine the striking scale of the pushback against testing and how the backlash is likely to play out in the dramatically different education landscape we suddenly find ourselves in.

I will go down clinging to the utility of standardized tests for civil rights monitoring, public policymaking, and system improvements. Yet, I fear the hull of that boat is below sea level.

You can read the report here:

The Big Test by Chris Stewart on Scribd

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