Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Another Useless Educational Metric

local_pass_vs_SOL2by James A. Bacon

We have documented in previous posts that there is only a weak correlation between the amount of money a Virginia school district spends per pupil and educational achievement as measured by the pass rates on Standards of Learning tests. But there are other ways to make the same point.

Our Lynchburg correspondent Jim Weigand has brought to my attention the publication of a report  based on 2015 data comparing the Required Local Effort (RLE) for Virginia’s localities and what the school districts actually spend on K-12 education.

For those of you not conversant with educratese, RLE represents the minimum expenditure required to meet the state’s “Standards of Quality,” an assessment of inputs such as the ratio of teachers and staff to the number of students. By comparing RLE to actual local expenditures, the VDOE report calculates the amount of a jurisdiction’s own tax dollars (as opposed to state and federal dollars) that it spends above and beyond the minimum requirement.

As the chart above shows, school districts vary widely in how much fiscal effort they devote to funding their schools — from 7% above the rock-bottom minimum in Patrick County to 284% of the minimum for the town of West Point. And what is the payoff for that extra spending? We compared the RLE percentage with average SOL scores for the 2014-2015 school year for each school district.


As can be seen in the scatter graph above, there is almost no correlation at all. The R² measure of correlation is less than 5%.

Does that mean the extra money is wasted? Not necessarily. Some school districts may be spending more money because they have a higher percentage of students who are handicapped, economically disadvantaged or speak English as a second language. But the graph is a pretty good sign that dumping more money into schools to meet or exceed the Standards of Quality is not an effective strategy.

Instead of blindly plowing more money into Standards of Quality, perhaps money should be steered to schools with more at-risk students. Or perhaps we could study what the successful schools are doing differently from the less successful schools and try to replicate the secret sauce. Or perhaps we could do almost anything but what we’re doing now.

To see the numbers for all localities in Virginia, click here.

Update: Over at Cranky’s Blog, John Butcher makes some adjustments to the data that I should have made, breaks down performance by SOL subject matter, and offers his own unsurpassed commentary.

A Step toward A World-Class Education? What a Joke!


Bureaucratic wasteland

by James A. Bacon

Virginia is gearing up for its biennial budget extravaganza, and Governor Terry McAuliffe has the chance to put his stamp on state spending priorities without meddling from previous or succeeding gubernatorial administrations. Yesterday he announced his plan for increasing spending on K-12 education by $1 billion over the 2016-2018 budget.

Key initiatives include:

  • Adding roughly 2,500 instructional positions — about one per elementary school and two per middle and high school — at a cost of $139 million.
  • Funding the cost of re-benchmarking the Standards of Quality (SOQs, not to be confused with Standards of Learning, SOLs) by $430 million.
  • Providing $50 million to divisions based on free-lunch population to be spent flexibly.
  • And committing $41 million for a “cost of competing” adjustment in areas with high living costs.

Said McAuliffe in making the announcement: “With thoughtful, bold ideas like the ones I am proposing, we will get back on the right track and ensure that we are laying the foundations for the New Virginia Economy. … I believe that if we want to have a world-class economy, we need a world-class education system, and this is where it starts.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The budget proposals may indeed be “thoughtful,” in the sense that a lot of thought went into them, but I would hardly call them “bold.” This is just stuffing more money into the same old educational model, tweaking the margins and packaging it with lofty rhetoric. To suggest that these changes will put Virginia on the path to a world-class education system is to engage in fabulist thinking.

teacher_collaborativesYou want bold? I’ll give you bold. Take the $5.5 billion in aid to public education given to school systems, and instead of empowering the bureaucratic status quo, empower parents of school children by giving them vouchers worth $4,000 per child. (The $5.5 billion averages out to $4,300 per child for the current school year, but if vouchers were given to every school child, they would cover children now attending private school as well as public school students; to stay budget neutral, the voucher per student would have to be smaller.)

Thousands of families that can’t afford private school tuition at $6,000 to $10,000 per child (and much more for elite institutions) could stretch their budgets and send their kids to private schools if they had a $4,000 voucher.

Of course, anyone who wanted to send their kids to public school would be free to do so. Local governments would continue supplementing their public school budgets with local and federal funds. Public school students would come out ahead from the arrangement because, to the extent that more kids attended private school, public schools would have fewer kids to educate — and more money per kid.

Virginia would experience a surge in experimentation. We would see educational marketplaces arising to match students with schools, teachers, tutors and teaching collaboratives. Lines would blur between school-based education, online education and home schooling. Free from red tape and bureaucracy, teachers could be freer to practice their profession as they choose — directly accountable to their students and students’ parents, not to bureaucrats and arbitrary standards. Bad teachers would lose clientele. Great teachers would prosper.

Will anything like this ever happen in Virginia? Of course not. We can’t even pass a decent charter school bill. But as a mental exercise, it’s useful to remind ourselves how hide-bound we are in our thinking, how timid we are in our actions, and how totally unserious we are about giving our children a world-class education.

Southwest Virginia as SOL Outlier

Highest SOL pass rates shown in green, lowest in red.

Highest SOL pass rates shown in green, lowest in red.

It is well known that Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rates at Virginia schools are significantly higher in affluent school districts than in poorer inner-city or rural school districts. The point comes through clearly in the map above, created by Hamilton Lombard on the StatChat blog. (Click through to StatChat to play with an interactive map that can zoom in on specific geographic areas.)

But socio-economic status is not destiny. As Lombard notes: “Southwest Virginia, in particular, has a large number of schools with high SOL pass rates, despite also having some of the highest child poverty rates in the state.”

The Roanoke region, I would add, also performs well by this measure.

I wonder if the same pattern applies to higher-performing students, as measured by the percentage of students who score “proficient” in their SOL tests. It is theoretically possible that western Virginia schools and student bodies are good at attaining basic standards but are less less likely to achieve advanced levels of performance. If western Virginia schools match affluent Golden Crescent suburban kids in the rate of achieving SOL proficiency, then something really remarkable is happening.

I will urge Hamilton to map the distribution of “proficient” students to see what that tells us.


Tracking Virginia’s Quality of Life

Source: 2015 State of the Commonwealth Report

Source: 2015 State of the Commonwealth Report, (Click for larger image)

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s economy, dependent upon federal spending, has under-performed the national economy since 2010, and will continue to do so in 2016, according to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 2015 State of the Commonwealth Report. But lead author James V. Koch, president emeritus of Old Dominion University, does find a silver lining:

Once we adjust for differences in the cost of living, the spendable “real” income of most Virginians exceeds that earned by typical residents of the cities along the East Coast to whom we are frequently compared. Our dollars go further and our money has more purchasing power than that of our competitors. The moral to the story: If you’re concerned about your standard of living, there’s hardly any better place to live than Virginia.

Gini coefficient for selected Virginia localities. Source: 2015 State of the Commonwealth report

Gini coefficient for selected Virginia localities. Source: 2015 State of the Commonwealth report

The most common yardstick for standard of living is median household income, in which 50% of households earn more and 50% earn less. But that indicator misses a lot. As Koch points out, it does not take into account the cost of living. Thus, median household incomes in New York City are high — but so is the cost of living, canceling the advantage of higher incomes. As Koch also notes, median household income doesn’t tell us how equally those incomes are distributed. If incomes are hogged by the so-called top “1%,” that’s not much comfort to the other 99% of the population.

The Virginia Chamber and the Strome College of Business at ODU present the report with the idea that “thoughtful discussion of the challenges confronting Virginia can make it even a better place to live.” So, kudos to Koch for contributing to a deeper understanding of how to measure a community’s quality of life.

But the State of the Commonwealth report is only a first step. I would argue that further adjustments to quality-of-life metrics are needed to create a meaningful basis for comparing communities.

  1. Adjust for taxes. We should be looking at disposable income — income after taxes. Higher incomes push households into higher federal income tax brackets. Also, some states and localities soak up a much larger share of personal income than others. Virginia state/local government imposes a moderate-low level of taxation as a percentage of income upon its residents, making more disposable income available. This data is readily available and should be relatively easy to calculate.
  2. Adjust for transportation. Some regions have more efficient land use patterns than other, allowing for more varied transportation options, such as walking, biking and mass transit. As a consequence people in some communities spend a much larger percentage of their income on the cost of owning and operating automobiles without adding to their quality of life. Sprawling development in Virginia detracts from the standard of living. The H&T Index (housing & transportation) attempts to measure this effect. Perhaps there is a way to incorporate it into a more comprehensive quality-of-life measure.
  3. Adjust for time. People assign a monetary value to the time they spend commuting, which is time they could be doing something more productive or enjoyable. Localities vary widely in the amount of time residents burn moving from location to location. The Census Bureau captures this metric and a value assigned to peoples’ time.
  4. Adjust for education. Although government pays for most K-12 education in the United States by means of the public school system, Americans attach a monetary value to the quality of education, as seen by the vast sums they expend on private schools or the premiums they pay to live in better better school districts. Thus, the high quality of schools in, say, Northern Virginia would offset to a significant degree the frustration of longer commutes and higher transportation costs.

The conversation could be expanded even beyond those measures to include quality-of-life metrics relating to arts, entertainment and culture; the affordability and accessibility of higher education; and the comprehensiveness of the social safety net.

As we think about how to build more prosperous, livable and sustainable communities, it is important to expand the conversation beyond maximizing income, as desirable as that is, to moderating taxes, creating more efficient human settlement patterns, and improving the quality of education, with all the complex trade-offs those objectives entail.

More Meaningless Numbers from Virginia Educrats

bogus_numbersby James A. Bacon

In a story that generated front-page headlines, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced yesterday a “significant increase” in the number of Virginia public schools earning accreditation in 2015. The number of fully accredited schools increased by 10 percentage points to 78%.

“Offering every Virginia student a world class education in a public school is at the very foundation of our efforts to build a new Virginia economy,” the governor said. “This year’s strong progress is a reflection of the dedicated work of educators, parents and communities and a clear sign that the reforms we have put into place are working.”

“Getting challenged schools the resources they need to ensure student success is one of the most important steps we can take to improve our Commonwealth’s education system,” said Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton. “Every school that earned full accreditation this year is another school that is better preparing its students for a lifetime of success.”

O Frabjous day! Calooh! Callay! Maybe the educational establishment has finally figured out how to turn around Virginia’s ailing public schools! Maybe there is hope for the future!

Or maybe not. The press release was honest enough to acknowledge the following: “The 2014-2015 school year was the first during which students in grades 3-8 were allowed to retake SOL tests in reading, mathematics, science and history. On average, the performance of students on expedited retakes increased pass rates by about four points on each test.”

In other words, any comparison between 2015 results and 2014 results is likening apples to oranges.

What the press release does not tell us is how many schools this adjustment pushed over the minimum accreditation level. (“Students must achieve adjusted pass rates of at least 75 percent on English reading and writing SOL tests, and of at least 70 percent on assessments in mathematics, science and history.”) Four points on a 1-100 scale is not insignificant. Moreover, that four points is an average. It is possible, indeed probable, that the “expedited retakes” proved to be a bigger factor in improving test scores for poorly performing schools, where more students needed to retake the tests, than for strong performers.

Among the crucial data not included in the press release was the number of schools that would have been accredited had the old policy remained in place. The Virginia Department of Education did not provide the data for citizens to conduct their own analysis or draw their own conclusions.

John Butcher has been illuminating VDOE statistical prestidigitations far longer than I. As he has written on his blog, Cranky’s Blog:

The moving target moves; and having moved,
Moves on:  nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to give an honest answer
Nor all thy tears wash away the bureaucrats’ obfuscation.

The manipulation of data is insulting. And who suffers the most from this statistical sleight of hand? Children, disproportionately from poor, African-American households, who are consigned to schools with no effective accountability, that’s who. Just another example of how the bureaucratic, statist status quo works to oppress poor people of color in Virginia. If you think there’s such a thing as “institutional racism” in this country, this is it.

Update: Cranky calculates the impact of other “adjustments” VDOE makes to the data for students with limited English proficiency and for students who have recently transferred into a Virginia public school. On the math tests, the adjustments had the felicitous effect of increasing the number of schools achieving the 70% pass rate from 1,519 to 1,627, or six percentage points.

Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline


The case of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an 11-year-old autistic child in Lynchburg schools, started with kicking a trash can and ended with a charge of felonious assault, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

by James A. Bacon

Amid growing national concerns about “mass incarceration,” particularly of African-Americans, a Center for Public Integrity study found in August that Virginia schools refer students to law enforcement agencies at a higher rate than schools in any other state in the country — and three times the national average. The report highlighted the case of an autistic, 11-year-old African-American student in a Lynchburg school, Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who, in a series of incidents that started with kicking a trash can, wound up being charged with disorderly conduct and felony assault on a police officer.

There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the United States puts too many people into jail and prison, and that there has to be a better way to deal with minor crimes and misdemeanors.  There is less agreement about what that “better way” might be.

Fortunately, the federal system of the U.S. government creates a “laboratory for democracy” that allows lots of experiments at the state and local level. One such experiment for reducing the school-to-prison pipeline will take place in the City of Richmond when schools resume next year after the Christmas break. A new program called LIFE, reports Louis Llovio with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will divert students into an after-school program designed to “get them the skills needed to make better decisions.”

Richmond police arrested 149 students last year; of those arrests, 59 were for disorderly conduct for such behaviors as not sitting down in class or cussing at a teacher. In the hope of plugging the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” LIFE will be open to students committing minor offenses. Students will attend nine 90-minute sessions covering topics such as conflict resolution, drug and alcohol awareness, gangs and respect for self and others. Parents are expected to attend three of the nine classes.

Diversion programs have a mixed record, according to Llovio’s reporting — some research finds that they lead to increased recidivism. But program organizers continue to tweak them in the hope of improving outcomes, so it’s possible that the Richmond program will enjoy better results. Personally, I’m highly skeptical that 13 to 14 hours in an after-school program can do much to change a student’s behavior by the time he’s reached middle school or high school. But I’m willing to entertain the notion that if participants are chosen based on a teacher’s appraisal of their potential willingness to change, and if parents participate as well, the program might rescue a few kids from jail.

The key is to set goals and metrics by which to measure those goals. If results don’t improve, adjust the program. If they still don’t improve, shut it down.

Bacon’s bottom line. Two things worry me. First, one of the few clear public policy successes of the past two decades has been so-called “broken windows” policing, in which police crack down on seemingly minor offenses like vandalism in order to avert an escalation into major crimes. The thrust of the movement to roll back “mass incarceration” seems to go against the broken-windows philosophy. We need to be vigilant against a retrogression to the widespread public disorder of the 1970s and 1980s.

Second, we must remember the silent victims of school disorder — the majority of students whose education is disrupted by the behavior of a noisy, troublesome minority. The hand-wringing over “mass incarceration” paints criminals as the victims while ignoring the plight of their victims. While it’s true that the jailed and imprisoned population is disproportionately African-American, let us not forget that the vast majority of their victims are African-American. Affluent white Virginians living safely in their leafy suburbs have little to fear from the consequences of social experiments gone awry. Poor African-Americans have the most to lose.

So, let’s try experiments to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline, but let’s monitor them very closely and make sure they accomplish what we expect of them.

How the War on Poverty Went Awry


Edward C. Banfield

by James A. Bacon

In 1968, nearly five decades ago, Edward C. Banfield wrote a brilliant analysis of urban problems in America: “The Unheavenly City.” Today, his contributions have been all but forgotten. But they are worth resurrecting because of their prescience. While optimists proclaimed that the expansive programs of the Great Society would conquer poverty, Banfield believed the opposite. “Unless lower-class persons display an unprecedented amount of upward mobility,” he predicted, “the lower-class population of the city may grow, perhaps rather rapidly.”

Despite the expenditure of trillions of dollars on the social safety net, urban renewal and anti-poverty programs, poverty is as deeply entrenched and endemic as it was when the Great Society was put into place. Liberals and progressives say the reason is that American society simply hasn’t spent enough money. Just fund pre-K, raise the minimum wage or address the food desert, and we’ll get there. But disciples of Banfield know otherwise, for those programs fundamentally misdiagnose the problem of poverty in America.

Banfield viewed the poverty through the prism of future orientation. He divided society into four classes — upper, middle, working and poor — based upon the ability of people to envision the future, defer present gratification for future reward, and control their impulses. Those who worked for the future would be upwardly mobile; those who lived present-oriented lives would be downwardly mobile. Present-oriented people would tend to collect in the lower economic classes, earning less money. More important than their material poverty, these peoples’ lives would be marked by violence, crime, alcohol and drug addiction, child abuse and all manner of other social pathologies.

The American welfare state has done a reasonable job at ameliorating material conditions of poverty. As Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, Heritage Foundation scholars drawing upon Census Bureau data, America’s poor have access to material possessions once considered luxuries: 80% have air conditioning, 92% own a microwave, nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV, and half have a personal computer; 82% of poor parents reported never being hungry due to a lack of money for food; the average poor American has more living space than the typical non-poor person in Sweden, France or the United Kingdom.

What makes the lives of American poor people miserable is not material deprivation but dysfunctional behavior. As Banfield wrote, “A slum is not simply a district of low-quality housing; rather it is one in which the style of life is squalid and vicious.”

The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment. If he has any awareness of a future, it is of something fixed, fated, beyond his control: things happen to him. He does not make them happen. Impulse governs his behavior, either because he cannot discipline himself to sacrifice a present for a future satisfaction or because he has no sense of the future. He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless. His bodily needs (especially for sex) and his taste for “action” take precedence over everything else — and certainly over any work routine. He works only as he must to stay alive, and drifts from one unskilled job to another, taking no interest in the work. …

In his relations with others, he is suspicious and hostile, aggressive yet dependent. He is unable to maintain a stable relationship with a mate; commonly he does not marry. He feels no attachment to community, neighbors, or friends (he has companions, not friends), resents all authority (for example, that of policemen, social workers, teachers, landlords, employers), and is apt to think that he has been “railroaded” and to want to “get even.” He is a nonparticipant: he belongs to no voluntary organizations, has no political interests, and does not vote unless paid to do so.

The lower-class household is usually female-based. The woman who heads it is likely to have a succession of mates who contribute intermittently to its support but take little or no part in rearing the children. … The stress on “action,” risk-taking, conquest, fighting and “smartness” makes lower-class life extraordinarily violent. … In its emphasis on “action” and its utter instability, lower-class culture seems to be more attractive to men than to women.

Banfield goes on to make various predictions that that idealists and social engineers plausibly could deny at the time but seem indubitably true after five decades of failed social policy: Continue reading