Monday Reading List: School Choice Might Be DOA in Congress and Different Ways to Look at Testing

Alyson Klein of Education Week reads the tea leaves and thinks a big federal "school choice" push is unlikely this year:

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to Washington primarily to do one thing: Use the power of her office to expand school choice, her passion for decades. Members of her own party appeared to deal a major blow to that goal Thursday, when the House panel charged with overseeing education spending approved a bill that doesn't include two of DeVos' big budget asks: using an education research program to offer school vouchers, and allowing Title I dollars to follow students to the school of their choice.

I have dealt with this before - both on the blog and on twitter - but I will reiterate and expand upon my premise: rank-and-file GOP legislators are much less enamored of vouchers than their party's ideological policy wonks are. In part, this is the natural divide between political ideas and political practice, but there's something more specific at work here.

DeVos's plan for school choice carves the money for choice out of "Title I," which is a federal program that sends money to schools and districts based on a formula. The formula for how much money a school receives is predicated on a few factors, but the most significant one is the number of students in a school who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. That particular signifier is a proxy for poverty.

Even if you're a Republican legislator who HATES federal spending in theory ... in practice, every school district you represent receives a bunch of predictable federal money, which local officials depend upon to balance budgets every year. When President Barack Obama made a bunch of changes to Title I spending, in order to foster reforms through both the Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs, he did so while adding billions of new dollars to the program, ensuring support in both legislative chambers. DeVos will have a hard time carving school choice funds out of Title I, because every school superintendent in America will call his/her congressional representative and beg to be held harmless; that superintendent, in many cases, will be the congressperson's largest employer.

Wayne D'Orio of The Hechinger Report looks at what may be America's most popular summer school:

“My kids begged me to come to summer school,” said Chantelle Mullins, a mother of two elementary school students. More than half of the learners — 58 percent — in the 270-student elementary school are involved in summer learning programs; about 20 percent of kids at the combined middle/high school are continuing to study in the summer ... Wilder [Idaho] is part of a new national trend to customize learning to each child. But the tiny district of just under 500 students is taking the idea to the extreme. Located about 40 miles west of Boise, Wilder has erased grade levels and been awarded a state waiver to avoid seat-time requirements (meaning a student does not need to prove she spent x number of hours learning algebra, for instance). Other schools around the country are starting to take notice — and schedule visits.

As we learned last week, it's hard to determine which trends in personalized learning are worth emulating, and which are falling flat. One way to sort the wheat from the chaff is to couple real data analysis with long-form examinations, like this one. Personalized learning isn't going anywhere, so lay people and policymakers alike need to get much smarter about assessing its efficacy.

Speaking of assessment, Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat finds that some schools are trying to dodge weak assessment data by putting their least effective teachers in grade levels that lack formal testing regimes:

... it’s a big problem when schools encourage their least effective teachers to work with their youngest students. And a new study says that the pressure of school accountability systems may be encouraging exactly that ... The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools ... The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects — generally third through 10th grade math and English — less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early elementary grades or social studies. That’s exactly what they found.

Part of this phenomenon comes from the design of accountability systems themselves, but part of it is just bad educational management. Most state accountability systems want students to be reading at grade level by third grade. That means that schools have four years - kindergarten, first, second, and third grades - to get a student to be able to read at grade level. Giving that student the least effective teachers for 75% of that time is bafflingly stupid, even if the test itself isn't perfect.

Speaking of tests, Susan Dynarski is in The New York Times examining how to make college admissions more egalitarian:

The two standard college admission tests — the SAT and the ACT — could be administered universally and free of charge to students. That would reduce the administrative barriers to applying to college, help identify talented disadvantaged children, and increase the likelihood that they will attend a college that matches their skills. A child born into a high-income family is six times as likely to earn a college degree as one who is poor, research that I have participated in shows. This gap is largely rooted in disparities in achievement that appear as early as preschool ... Michigan began requiring public school juniors to take the ACT in 2007, and the share of high school graduates taking a college entrance exam rose immediately to nearly 99 percent from 54 percent. That growth was even sharper among low-income students; only 35 percent had been taking the test.

First, this research seems quite promising, as the costs associated with expanding free access to the the SAT and ACT are modest, relative to other potentially-transformative educational investments. Second, this article also illustrates the hypocrisy about "testing" in this country. Many of the same people who lampoon "testing" in schools also pay thousands of dollars on SAT prep classes for their own kids, so that those kids can have a privately-financed advantage when it comes to applying for college admissions. Just sayin.

Have a great week!