Outlier

Statisticians define an outlier as an observation point that is distant from other observations in a statistical analysis. Often, this occurs by chance. Additional modeling or deeper analysis (including more data, for example, or a longer range of data) can often correct for this. Outliers that are not the result of measurement error are often excluded from analysis about a data set.

Today, the 2017 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released. This release made me think of a particular outlier.

Back in 2013, Tennessee demonstrated what some heralded as an incredible achievement on the NAEP. In fact, a press release from Governor Haslam at the time noted:

Gov. Bill Haslam today announced that Tennessee had the largest academic growth on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of any state, making Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation. (emphasis added)

Those words — “fastest improving state in the nation” — have been uttered by Haslam and many political leaders in our state for years now. Often, this 2013 “success” is used as justification for “keeping our foot on the gas” and continuing an aggressive agenda of test-based accountability and teacher evaluation based on methods lacking validity.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2013 when these results were released:

Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth.  But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy.  Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap  – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.

Two years later, when the 2015 results were released, I noted:

This year’s scores, in which Tennessee remained steady relative to the 2013 scores suggest, if anything, that the 2013 jump was likely an outlier. Had the 2013 gains been followed by gains in 2015 and again in 2017, more could be suggested. And frankly, it is my hope that we see gains (especially in reading) in 2017. But, it’s problematic to suggest that any specific reform or set of reforms caused the one-time jump we saw in 2013. Saying we are the fastest improving state in the nation over the last 4 years when we only saw a jump in 2013 is like saying we started the first quarter of a football game way behind, scored a bunch in the second quarter, (so we’re not as far behind), and then scored the same number of points in the third quarter. The result is we’re still behind and still have a long way to go.

Fast forward to today. The leveling off I suggested was likely back in 2013 has happened. In fact, take a look at this chart put out by the Tennessee Department of Education:

First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”

Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.

All of this to say: You can’t say you’re the fastest-improving state on NAEP based on one testing cycle. You also shouldn’t make long-term policy decisions based on seemingly fabulous results in one testing cycle. Since 2013, Tennessee has doubled down on reforms with what now appears to be little positive result. Instead, as Rep. Jeremy Faison said recently, our policies are “driving teachers crazy.”

Oh, and that new TNReady test has so far not been very ready.

But what about the good policy coming from this? You know, like Governor Haslam’s plan to make Tennessee the “fastest-improving state in teacher pay?”

About that:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

Surely, though, all this focus on education since the NAEP buzz has meant meaningful investment in schools, right? Well, no:

Tennessee earns a grade of F when it comes to funding effort compared to funding ability. The researchers looked at Gross State Product and Personal Income data in order to determine a state’s funding ability then looked at dollars spent per $1000 (in either GSP or Personal Income) to determine effort. Tennessee spends $29 on schools for every $1000 generated in Gross State Product. When it comes to Personal Income, Tennessee spends just $33 per $1000 of average personal income. That’s a rank of 42 in both.

Then, the report looks at wage competitiveness — how much teachers earn relative to similarly-educated professionals. I’ve written about this before, and Tennessee typically doesn’t do well in this regard.

Maybe we’ve taken a minute to get serious about investing in programs targeting struggling students? Also, no:

One possible solution would be to embed funding for school-level RTI2 specialists in the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP. In fact, Rep. Joe Pitts offered legislation that would do just that last year. His plan would have added funding for three RTI2 specialists at each school for a total projected cost of $167 million. Commissioner McQueen was quick to shoot that idea down and came back this year with the funding proposal of $13 million, or one specialist per district. That’s only $154 million short of adopting a plan that would actually meet the needs of a program many suggest is an important way to improve educational outcomes for Tennessee students.

Maybe we are closing achievement gaps? Again, no.

Back in 2013, Tennessee students eligible for free/reduced lunch had an average NAEP reading score of 256 and scored 20 points below the non-eligible students. Now, that average score is 252 (four points worse) and 19 points below. For 4th grade, there’s a similar story, with free/reduced lunch eligible students scoring 25 points below their non-eligible peers this year. Four years ago, it was 26 points.

We’re not moving the needle. Our most vulnerable students continue to be left behind. Meanwhile, we hear nice words from top policymakers and see little actual result in terms of tangible improved investment in schools or any meaningful upgrade in teacher pay. Our testing system has yet to be proven.

Maybe now Tennessee policymakers will stop repeating the “fastest-improving” line and start doing the actual work of investing in and supporting our schools.

In any case, the next time you hear someone spout off that tired “fastest-improving” line, just yell back: OUTLIER!

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Lunch Money

The Tennessean reports on Metro Nashville Public Schools scaling back the offering of free lunch to all students.

Nashville schools is set to scale back a popular program that provides free lunch to all of its students.

The district currently provides free lunch to all students, regardless of income, but now plans to limit the program to 74 schools next year, while families at other schools must file paperwork to receive free-or-reduced lunch rates.

Why?

The district first began using the program in 2014, but must reapply for grant funding every four years, Stark said.

During that time, the number of students within the district recorded as needing federal assistance has dropped — from about 60 percent to just under 50 percent, Stark said.

The lower percentage of students eligible means the federal government won’t cover as much of the cost to provide free lunch to all students, Stark said.

The cost to MNPS to absorb the shortfall and continue offering the program across the board is $8 million. That’s less than one percent of the entire system budget.

Angst?

Nashville schools will still continue to provide free breakfast to students next year, Stark said. The money to fund that program comes from other sources, he said.

“We are hoping that can alleviate at least some of the angst,” he said.

Interesting that the concern from the standpoint of MNPS is parent angst, not student hunger.

Also worth noting: This announcement came on the same day that legislation to prevent “lunch shaming” sponsored by John Ray Clemmons of Nashville failed in a House committee. That bill would have prohibited separating students who had an outstanding meal debt at school. Clemmons cited a story about one Tennessee school where students with unpaid lunch debt were made to eat a peanut butter sandwich in the principal’s office.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

F for Effort

Another day, another story about how Tennessee is failing to invest in schools.

The National Report Card on School Funding Fairness indicates Tennessee is not trying very hard (the rhetoric of Governor Bill Haslam notwithstanding).

The Report Card analyzes several indicators of school funding to determine how a state supports schools. The most basic is raw spending on schools. Here, Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation. So, still near the bottom.

How does Tennessee distribute funding in high-poverty vs. low-poverty districts? Not great, but not terrible. The Report Card awards a grade of C and uses per pupil spending data to demonstrate that high-poverty districts (those with 30% or more of students on Free/Reduced Lunch) spend about 3% less than low-poverty districts. Of course, fairness would dictate that those high-poverty districts spend a bit more, but Tennessee is in the category of states doing an average job in this regard. Our state funding formula (the BEP) is supposed to ensure some level of equity, but the funding may not be enough in those districts lacking the resources to provide significant funds for schools.

Here’s the real problem: We’re not trying very hard to do better.

Tennessee earns a grade of F when it comes to funding effort compared to funding ability. The researchers looked at Gross State Product and Personal Income data in order to determine a state’s funding ability then looked at dollars spent per $1000 (in either GSP or Personal Income) to determine effort. Tennessee spends $29 on schools for every $1000 generated in Gross State Product. When it comes to Personal Income, Tennessee spends just $33 per $1000 of average personal income. That’s a rank of 42 in both.

Then, the report looks at wage competitiveness — how much teachers earn relative to similarly-educated professionals. I’ve written about this before, and Tennessee typically doesn’t do well in this regard.

According to the Report Card, Tennessee ranks 42nd in wage competitiveness, with teachers here earning 24% less on average than similarly-prepared professionals.

I noted recently that we’re also not doing much to improve teacher pay (again, despite Bill Haslam’s claims).

The good news: There’s an election this year. A chance for a new Governor and new members of the General Assembly to take a fresh look at education in 2019. Voters should ask those seeking these offices how they plan to improve Tennessee’s low rankings and move our state forward when it comes to public education. Clearly, we can’t pursue the same low dollar strategy we’ve been using.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Bad Company

A new report released by the Education Law Center puts Tennessee in some bad company when it comes to school funding and student achievement. That is, Tennessee is among the states with low funding and relatively low student achievement compared to the national average.

Authored by researchers at Rutgers University and released by Education Law Center, the report shows that most U.S. states fund their public schools at a level far below what is necessary for students in high-poverty districts to achieve at even average levels in English and math.

It’s not good when in the key findings section, Tennessee is mentioned more than once — and not among those the report’s authors suggest are doing what’s best for students.

From the report:

  • In numerous states – including Arizona, Tennessee, Alabama, Michigan, and Georgia – only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to reach national average student achievement outcomes.

And:

Alabama, New Mexico, Michigan, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee are not far behind in that they also have very low per pupil spending and low outcomes relative to the national average.

We’re not in good company. When Tennessee is mentioned in this report, which uses NAEP data and district level per pupil spending, we are mentioned among those states not investing sufficiently in high-poverty districts to achieve even average outcomes.

A number of Tennessee’s high-poverty districts lack the local fiscal capacity to improve investment. Improving state level spending could address this issue.

This may explain why under the old TCAP testing system, scores tracked the poverty and investment rates of districts. The same may well be true of TNReady, though it is new and has yet to be fully administered in a successful fashion.

While a tiny bit of effort is being made this year in terms of providing funds for as yet unfunded RTI mandates, Tennessee has much more to do in order to improve the education situation across the state.

Our own Comptroller suggests we’re about $500 million short of where we need to be in order to properly fund public education. A pair of lawsuits from school districts are pending, each of which claims our state is failing when it comes to funding schools. This report lends credence to those claims.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

You’ve Got Questions

If you are involved in public education in Nashville, you’ve been hearing a lot recently about budget issues. You’ve got questions. The answers are still elusive, however.

TC Weber takes a crack at explaining a bit more about the MNPS budget and the two issues (an enrollment drop and a shift in funding priorities) causing some concern around the district.

Here’s some of what he has to say:

The first question is why this short fall wasn’t identified and adjusted for at an earlier date. Some of you may not be familiar with how the state funding process works. Each student is assigned a dollar value by the state. Every 20 days the district submits a count to the state in which funding is based on. Twice a year, the state cuts a check. So, I’m curious why this shortfall, or potential shortfall, wasn’t spotted in October. Or November. Or December, Finding it in February is a little curious. Unless people were just ignoring it till February when they went out to the mailbox looking for a check and the mailbox was bare, so then questions arose.

The second question arises from the size of the shortfall. I say, “$7.5 million” to you and your eyes get wide. But if I put that 7.5 next to 900 million, it ain’t so eye widening. What I’m saying is, we should be concerned, but does this warrant a crisis like reaction? And that’s how we’ve reacted. A hiring and traveling freeze has been imposed. Individual school budgets – monies that have been pre-approved and are part of the this years budget – if not already spent, are required to be re-submitted for approval.

TC takes the time to explain a bit more about Title I funding, too. Check out the post for more on the puzzle that is the upcoming MNPS budget.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

 

Amy Frogge Talks School Budgets

MNPS School Board member Amy Frogge highlights the importance of funding our public schools in her latest Facebook post:

As the old saying goes: Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value. Despite all the hype from politicians (particularly this election year) that education is a top priority, Tennessee remains 36th in the nation on education funding, and Nashville ranks 54th out of 67 urban school systems in per-pupil funding (according to the Council of the Great City Schools). What better investment could our state make than providing ALL students with an excellent education? Yes, that money should be spent wisely, but adequate school funding REALLY makes a difference. Just ask any teacher (who- at one point or another- has probably spent her last $20 trying to buy supplies for her classroom).

I remember a conversation I had about school funding back in 2012, around the time I was first elected to the school board. Another elected official told me how awful local schools were, rolling her eyes at the thought of investing more money into our “failing” system. The irony of this conversation was that this person was spending approximately $25,000 per year to educate her own child at a prestigious private school- a school where, in addition to the high funding, students enter class already well equipped with every possible advantage. This article is for those who live in such a bubble.

Folks like this “won’t mention that there is research . . . showing that states that did provide more money to low-performing schools got better results — but never mind. . . .

And, apparently, people who don’t believe in a link between funding and student achievement won’t listen to teachers on the ground who can tell them otherwise.”

Frogge then links to this insightful article from the Washington Post about the impact of inadequate funding.

MORE on school funding in Tennessee>

Not Really Improving

What’s Missing is What Matters

Coming Up Short

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Improving in the Wrong Direction

Last month, Education Week published the annual Quality Counts report on the state of education in the states. Rankings take into account school funding (both total dollars spent and equitable distribution of those dollars), K-12 achievement, and overall chance for success of people born in the state.

Since Governor Haslam likes to make much of the “success” of his Administration when it comes to education, I thought it’d be interesting to compare how the state was ranked back in 2011 when Haslam took over to today.

Haslam likes to say Tennessee is “fastest-improving” in education.

That’s interesting when you look at the 2011 rankings and see that in overall education climate, Tennessee received a grade of 77. Compare that to the 2018 rankings, and we’re at a 70.8. We’ve gone from a solid C and closing in on a B to a C- nearing a D. Back in 2011, Tennessee was ranked 23rd in the nation in education climate. Today, we’re ranked 37th.

Let’s dig a little deeper. It is noteworthy that in K-12 achievement, we’ve moved from a 66.3 to a 72. As for chance of success, we inched up narrowly, from a 72 to a 74.2. In funding, we’re not making much progress at all, moving from a 65.7 to a 66.2. Yep, still holding on to that D grade in school funding.

Governor Haslam will be the first to tell you about the hundreds of millions of new dollars he’s pumped into public schools. It is true that the state has added money to K-12 budgets over his term. However, that hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Other states also continue to increase investment in public schools. Clearly, other states are also moving forward in student achievement.

Going from 23rd in national rankings to 37th is the wrong kind of improvement. Failing to actually increase investment in schools relative to other states means you aren’t actually “fastest improving.” Our state’s own Comptroller says we’re at least $500 million short of adequately funding our schools. Large unfunded mandates remain and our teachers still earn about 30% less than similarly prepared professionals – though with a slight bump this year, we may finally edge Alabama in this category.

Admittedly, the Quality Counts data analysis is pretty hard on all the states. It’s disappointing, though, to see Tennessee lose ground in the rankings over the past seven years. Our state’s economy is going strong. We’ve had multiple years of revenue coming in over projections. We should be investing that money in our schools and providing them with the necessary resources to achieve at higher levels.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

A Taxing Vote

Voters in Williamson County approved a sales tax hike expected to generate some $60 million in revenue dedicated to school construction.

The Tennessean has more:

The tax increase — from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent — is projected to raise about $60 million over three years to help pay for  school construction.

“Voters overwhelming support public education and have agreed to use sales tax to fund schools,” said Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney. “I am surprised at the margin. I thought it would be a tight race but it’s a 2-for-1 margin. This is a huge victory tonight for the commission’s plan for the school district.”

More on Williamson County school funding:

The Williamson County Game

Got mine, want more

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

 

The Williamson County Game

Public education advocate Kim Henke writes about the tax game going on in Williamson County as the state’s wealthiest county “struggles” to fund schools.

Here’s some of what she has to say:

I’m embarrassed that last summer, WCS had to cut $6 million from the operational budget because the County Commission wouldn’t do the right thing and raise property taxes ahead of an election year. There is no reason that the 7th wealthiest county in the nation with the lowest property tax rate in Middle TN and the lowest in the state among communities with >100,000 residents should have to cut new teacher positions, counselors, and special ed staff. We shouldn’t have so many portables. We shouldn’t have kids in overcrowded schools eating lunch at 9:45 in the morning. We shouldn’t have roving teachers with carts teaching class in hallways and closets. We shouldn’t have principals mopping floors because the roof leaks. We shouldn’t have underpaid teachers and support staff who often work two jobs and can’t afford to live in Williamson County.
I’m embarrassed that WCS is in the bottom 10 of Tennessee’s 141 school districts in per pupil expenditures in a state that’s in the bottom 10 of PPE nationwide.
This is a fake funding crisis.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Got Mine, Want More

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s Education Committee voted unanimously Monday night in favor of a resolution supporting changes in the state’s BEP formula that would direct additional state resources to the wealthiest county in the state. Williamson County is also the 7th wealthiest county in the United States.

The Williamson Herald reports:

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s education committee voted unanimously Monday night to approve a resolution of support for state legislation that would modify the Basic Education Program (BEP) to provide Williamson County and others a more reasonable allotment of state funding for education.

I suppose “reasonable allotment” is in the eye of the beholder.

The state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP, is designed to provide all districts a base level of funding to support public education. The formula came about in response to a successful lawsuit by small, rural districts who sued suggesting the way the state was funding schools was unequal. In 1992, the General Assembly enacted the Education Improvement Act which included the Basic Education Plan (BEP) as a new school funding formula. One of the primary goals of this formula was (and still is) equity.

What the legislation sponsored by Jack Johnson would do is direct additional state resources to the five school districts in the state with the greatest ability to pay.

While the BEP certainly has shortcomings, I would suggest finding ways to direct more state funds to a county quite capable (but unwilling) to dedicate local resources to schools is not a very responsible use of state taxpayer dollars. To be clear, improving the BEP by making formula adjustments (adding a component for RTI, for example), would necessarily mean additional funds going to Williamson County.

Here are some fun facts about the county now begging the state for more cash:

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Middle Tennessee.

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Tennessee with a population over 100,000.

Williamson County is the wealthiest county in the state of Tennessee and 7th wealthiest in the United States.

Williamson County Commissioners have been reluctant to raise property taxes in order to continue to provide resources to schools.

An analysis of household income compared to property tax rates in similar affluent communities reveals that Williamson County’s tax burden is incredibly low. The chart below comes from public policy professor Ken Chilton, who teaches at Tennessee State:

That red bar on the chart is Williamson County, with a property tax burden on a $500,000 home of just over $3000. That’s just over 3% of the average household income, far lower than similar communities in Tennessee and across the country. Plus, as Chilton notes, Tennesseans pay no personal income tax.

Despite these facts, Williamson County Commissioners are headed to the state with their hands out, begging for more help.

Tennessee is a state making long overdue improvements in public education. As more state dollars become available, those dollars should absolutely be invested in continuing to improve our public schools. By closing the teacher pay gap, for example.

Giving money to those districts that have the ability to generate funds on their own but won’t is not a pressing need in our state. In fact, doing so would only serve to exacerbate the inequity the BEP was intended to address. Of course, these Williamson County Commissioners aren’t concerned about inequity. They are clearly concerned about ensuring one of America’s wealthiest communities continues to pay bargain basement prices for its public schools.

Policymakers should reject this rich get richer scheme and focus on education needs that will benefit every district and lift up those least able to generate funds for schools.

 

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport