Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Will More Money Really Help Poor Students?

schoolby James A. Bacon

Once upon a time, the liberal critique of Virginia’s school funding system was that schools with rich kids got more money per student than schools with poor kids. The state of Virginia moved to address funding inequalities two-and-a-half decades ago. Now liberals have raised the bar. It’s not enough to provide equal resources. Now the state needs to provide poor students with more money per student than affluent students. Perhaps a lot more.

“The fact is it costs substantially more to help low-income students reach similar levels of performance as students from wealthier families,” states a new report by the Commonwealth Institute, a left-of-center think tank focusing on Virginia issues. “Studies in New York and Wisconsin find it can cost two to two-and-a-half times as much to educate lower-income students. Other studies in California, Kansas, and Missouri find costs ranging between 55 to 64 percent more.”

In Virginia, says the report, Virginia contributes 14 to 19 percent more per low-income student than other students. Yet that’s not enough, the authors say. Some other states do even more.

Virginia has more than 512,000 disadvantaged kids in its public schools, about four out of ten students.

These students face serious challenges that can make success in the classroom more difficult. For instance, they are more likely to have distractions in their home life, such as moving frequently, hunger, and parents coping with substance abuse. Many do not have the luxury of outside resources, such as private tutoring, that students from higher-income families may receive. They are less likely to be involved in organized activities like music lessons, clubs, or sports teams that can lead to social and mental development.

So, what’s the solution? The Commonwealth Institute says Virginia should increase funding for its “At-Risk Add-on,” a program created in 1992 to compensate for the fact that poor students cost more to educate than better-off students. The program pays 1% to 13% more funding per low-income student, depending upon the concentration of low-income students in the school district. The Commonwealth Institute proposes increasing that payout to 1% to 25%. “Making this adjustment would almost double the state’s share of add-on funding and would increase state support in Virginia’s highest poverty schools by more than $200 per student.”

Bacon’s bottom line. There are a number of issues here. Should we adopt the principle that it is the state’s obligation to provide a level of funding sufficient to ensure that poor kids have comparable educational outcomes to other kids? Rejiggering the At-Risk Add-On formula to steer an extra $200 per student to poor schools won’t get there. Once it’s apparent that $200 is not enough to make a difference, the Commonwealth Institute’s logic would suggest that there is no limit to what we would be morally obligated to pay.

Further, it is ridiculous to say, as the Commonwealth Institute does, that extra money for poor students “would not take away from school divisions in better off communities.” More money for the At Risk-Add On program has to come from somewhere — the pot of money the state uses to provide state aid to public education. Skimming more money off the top for poor schools would leave less to be distributed among all schools. How reasonable is it to ask middle-class families, who pay sales and property taxes to support schools in their own communities, to do with less so the kids of poor families, who already get 14% to 19% more state support than kids from middle-class families, can get even more — even as poor families pay very little into the system themselves?

It is especially unreasonable to dock funding for middle-class students when there is no guarantee that extra money would actually improve educational outcomes in schools plagued by disciplinary breakdowns, bloated and incompetent district administrations, decrepit school buildings suffering from short-changed maintenance, and a host of other ills. The underlying assumption of the Commonwealth Institute is that poor educational outcomes of poor kids is a problem that only more money can solve. That’s just not true.

I’m not heartless. I understand that little kids are not responsible for the poverty of their parents. I’d like to live in a country where poor kids get a decent shot at succeeding in life. I’m just not convinced that what we’ve been trying for the past 50 years is working, nor that doing more of the same, only with more money taken from the middle class, is the solution.

Do Virginia Schools Have “Crisis” of Too Much Discipline?


Data source: Virginia Department of Education, “Discipline, Crime and Violence Annual Reports”

by James A. Bacon

The drumbeat of studies and pseudo-studies purporting to show endemic discrimination in public institutions continues with the release of a new report by the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center.

“Virginia schools have a crisis on their hands,” states the press release. “Waves of students are being pushed out of school through the widespread, discriminatory overuse of suspension and expulsion.” Last year Virginia schools issued more than 126,000 out-of-school suspensions to approximately 70,000 students. One fifth were issued to elementary pre-K and elementary school students. The majority of suspensions were for “relatively minor, non-violent, subjective behavior like ‘disruption,’ ‘defiance’ and ‘disrespect.'”

Moreover, the suspensions were disproportionately issued to males, African-Americans and students with disabilities. African-Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to receive short-term suspensions.

The report recommends “five proven methods” of addressing misbehavior in school, including social and emotional learning, multi-tiered systems of support, threat assessments and restorative practices.

Needless to say, the supposed discrimination against African-American students is an illusion. Some of the greatest disparities exist in school systems in majority-black cities with black superintendents, black-majority school boards and predominantly black teachers and administrators, such as Richmond and Petersburg. The problem isn’t that the students are black, the problem is that disruptive students are more likely to come from dysfunctional families characterized by no father, substance abuse, domestic violence, and chronic economic insecurity, which, for various historical reasons, affects far more black households than white households (although, in a trend that should please those who fret over such disparities, is affecting an increasing share of white households as well.)

The larger story can be seen in the chart above, taken from Virginia Department of Education annual reports on discipline, crime and violence in Virginia schools. Over the seven years leading up to 2013-2014, the number of crimes and disciplinary infractions reported by Virginia schools plummeted from 372,000 incidents to 146,000 incidents — down 60%. Over the eight years up to 2013-2014, the number of suspensions declined gradually but steadily from 199,000 to 146,000. Expulsions, not shown in the graph, have dropped more than half to 479.

Something is going on, but I’m not sure what it is. The period between 2006-2007 and 2010-2011 showed a mind-boggling decline in disciplinary incidents and then suddenly decelerated to a level almost identical to the number of short-term suspensions. Call me a cynic, but I doubt the numbers reflect the reality in Virginia schools. I would conjecture that administrators’ reporting practices changed far more than the behavior of students in hallways and classrooms.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the touchy-feely approach to school discipline advocated by Legal Aid Justice Center is actually working. It would be a wonderful thing indeed if we could find ways to improve the behavior of the 70,000 students who received suspensions. Getting booted out of school, even temporarily, only subtracts from their time to learn. On the other hand, those 70,000 students disrupted the educations of far more students who came to school ready to learn. As documented here, the cost to non-disruptive students, who themselves are disproportionately black, is substantial.  The Legal Aid Justice Center doesn’t seem to notice them at all — perhaps because they cannot be portrayed as victims of discrimination.

I’d like to hear from readers. Is school discipline improving as much as the numbers suggest? Or are the numbers a mirage? Are local administrators ignoring infractions in order to report numbers that please their bureaucratic overlords in Richmond and Washington?

No Standardized Tests for Grit and Determination

Kirabo Jackson

Kirabo Jackson

by James A. Bacon

There is near-universal agreement that teachers are a key component of the schooling environment. And few observers would dispute that some teachers are better at their jobs than others. But there is little but discord and controversy over how to evaluate teachers. Teacher-advocate groups like the Virginia Education Association, for example, reject the use of standardized testing data to judge teacher performance. (See the previous post, “What the Virginia ‘Education’ Association Is Trying to Hide.“)

One body of research has shown that teachers who improve test scores (high value-added teachers) also improve students’ longer run outcomes such as high school graduation, college attendance and earnings. But other research shows that noncognitive skills not captured by standardized tests, such as adaptability, self-restraint and motivation, also influence adult outcomes. Thus, judging teachers on the basis of test scores only would overlook important contributions they may make in building students’ character.

Now comes C. Kirabo Jackson with Northwestern University, whose paper, “What Do Test Scores Miss? The Importance of Teacher Effects on Non-Test Score Outcomes,” has been published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Drawing upon rich administrative data for all public school 9th graders in North Carolina from 2005 to 2012, Jackson captured proxies for non-cognitive skills such as suspensions, attendance, course grades, and on-time grade progression, each of which is strongly correlated with certain non-cognitive skills.

“The results,” writes Jackson, “support an idea that many believe to be true but had not previously been shown — that teacher effects on test scores capture only a fraction of their effect on human capital. This underscores the need for holistic evaluation approaches that account for effects on cognitive and non-cognitive skill.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I have no ability to critique Jackson’s social scientific methodology, but I find his conclusions intuitively plausible. Common sense tells us that it takes more than intelligence to succeed in life. It takes grit, drive, determination, focus and self-discipline. Insofar as teachers may influence those behavioral traits, standardized test scores may not capture their full contribution.

Some might throw up their hands and say, “Well, there you go, there’s no point in evaluating teachers with test scores.” I would argue, to the contrary, if Jackson’s analysis survives scholarly scrutiny, his paper suggests that schools use a broader set of metrics to evaluate teachers than standardized test scores alone.

The larger truth still holds: Teachers vary in quality and effectiveness. Some teachers just aren’t cut out for teaching, and they should be culled from the profession. Because the profession is disinclined to judge anyone harshly, subjective evaluations are largely worthless. School systems need objective metrics by which to evaluate teacher performance — and ideally those metrics should made available to parents. Here in Virginia, if Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores or Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) provide an incomplete portrait, then by all means let’s gather the data that can.

What the Virginia “Education” Association Is Trying to Hide

by John Butcher

It’s a strange state we live in. The meetings of our legislators are open to the public; their work product goes in the newspaper and on the Internet. The public is free to evaluate their positions, express opinions, and hold them accountable by voting them in or out of office.

Virginia’s judges perform in open court. Their work product is public and subject to legal review by the appellate courts. Judicial Performance Evaluations based on feedback from attorneys and jurors go to the General Assembly, which has the power to fire judges, and to the public, which can fire members of the General Assembly.

By contrast, the data showing how effectively public school teachers are educating our children are treated as a state secret.

The Virginia “Education” Association says that performance data might let the public make “prejudicial judgments about teacher performance.” They want teacher evaluation to be left to the school systems, which are free to ignore ineffective teaching — and do. So, Virginia parents are deprived of information to evaluate their children’s teachers or even to gauge how school divisions are managing — or mismanaging — inadequate teachers whom parents are taxed to pay.

Brian Davison of Loudoun sued the Department of Education and punched a small hole in this conspiracy against Virginia’s schoolchildren. (See Davison v. Virginia Education Dep’t, No. CL14 -4321; circuit court, city of Richmond, final order, 12 April 2016). Now the Virginia “Education” Association has threatened to sue VDOE, Brian, and me, seeking court orders to prevent, among other things, our disseminating and commenting upon Student Growth Percentiles (SGPSs) and, perhaps, other data regarding teacher effectiveness.

At the outset, this demonstrates that the Virginia “Education” Association is too stupid to count to “one.” The First Amendment bars this attempted prior restraint of our truthful speech.

As well, the information already available provides a window into what the Virginia “Education” Association is trying to hide.

We know that the Standards of Learning are an imperfect measure of teacher performance. The scores go down as there is a strong correlation between SOL scores and the socioeconomic disadvantage of students increase. In contrast, the Student Growth Percentile (“SGP”) provides an indicator of effective instruction, regardless of a student’s scaled score. Indeed, the SGP, which measures improvement, not absolute scores, appears to be insensitive to economic disadvantage.

VDOE calculated SGPs in reading and math for three or four years, ending in 2014. Here are the 2014 statewide distributions of average SGPs by teacher.


Here we see, as expected, a few very good teachers, a few ineffective ones, and a whole bunch who get average or nearly average performance from their students.

The 2014 data allows us to take a close-up look at individual teachers, albeit with personal identification data stripped away.

Continue reading

The High Cost of Disruptive Behavior at School

school_disciplineby James A. Bacon

It seems intuitively obvious that allowing students to “act out” in the classroom disrupts teaching for the students who want to learn. But it’s impossible to tell from anecdotal information what effect the disruption has on student achievement and graduation rates, much less upon future earnings.

In “The Long-Run Effects of Disruptive Peers” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Scott E. Carrell, Mark Hoekstra and Elira Kuka have tapped longitudinal data from Alachua County, Fla., to demonstrate that the negative effects of disruptive behavior in elementary school is measurable and long lasting.

“With respect to college attendance, our findings indicate that one year of exposure to a disruptive boy peer reduces college enrollment by 0.2 percentage points,” the authors write. “We estimate that one year of exposure to a disruptive peer in elementary school reduces the present discounted value of classmates’ future earnings by around $100,000.”

While not as important as teacher quality in explaining differential outcomes, the authors argue, the presence of disruptive students is nevertheless a significant factor, accounting for 5% to 6% of the rich-poor earnings gap. “Our estimates imply that with respect to college enrollment, a year of exposure to a disruptive male peer is equivalent to a 7 to 11 percent increase in class size for one year, a 2 percent reduction in Head Start participation, or a one-fourth standard deviation reduction in teacher quality.”

And that’s just exposure to one bad actor for one year. In some schools the earnest students are subjected to the disruption of multiple kids with disciplinary problems over many years.

Bacon’s bottom line: The researchers do not measure the impact of disruptive students directly. They use a proxy, children from households experiencing domestic violence, on the logic that there is a strong correlation between children experiencing or witnessing violence at home and their tendency to disrupt classrooms at school. It is not a perfect proxy, of course. Not all children from families experiencing domestic violence create disorder at school; likewise, some disruptive students come from non-violent families. The negative impact of students known to be disruptive arguably would be even stronger.

Acknowledging this impact does not tell us what to do about it. It does not tell us how to discipline or isolate disruptive students. But it does reinforce a point that I have made frequently on this blog: that disruptive pupils cause harm to pupils who come to school prepared to learn. If a teacher focuses his or her attention on the disruptive student, he spends less time teaching students who are behaving themselves. The effects are cumulative and long lasting, hurting academic performance, high school graduation rates, college attendance rates and future income.

The disciplinary issue has been politicized in recent years by American Civil Liberties Association and U.S. Justice Department insistence that school disciplinary action in Henrico County and other jurisdictions disproportionately affect minority students, especially blacks. Such a focus ignores the fact that the victims of disruptive behavior are also disproportionately minorities and blacks attending the same schools and classes.

The breakdown in school discipline has other effects not captured in this study. I chatted this weekend with a young woman who taught students at a Richmond-area middle school where there were a large number of disruptive students. She described to me how she went home after school and cried every day. Finally, she transferred to a new middle school in Henrico County where the students were well behaved. She is very happy with her job now. (Race and ethnicity never entered the discussion. Her problem was the behavior, not the racial identity, of the disruptive kids.) The well-known problem of teachers fleeing schools with disciplinary problems makes it more difficult for those institutions to recruit and retain good teachers, which arguably has a secondary negative impact on the motivated students.

I’m not saying that we should shunt all the disruptive kids off to reform school. But I am suggesting that we should be cognizant of the long-lasting impact of their behavior on other students. We cannot let their rights to a decent education be trumped by our concern for the troubled kids.

What Role School-District Ideology in the Racial Performance Gap?


by James A. Bacon

It is widely acknowledged by every serious (and not-so-serious) student of the racial performance gap between whites and African-Americans that half or more of the difference can be explained by socio-economic status. Whites come from more affluent families on average, and they enjoy the benefits that come from affluence, not the least of which is growing up in an intact family household where the adults themselves are well educated and have more money to lavish on their children.

But roughly half the variation cannot be explained by socio-economics. I have raised the possibility on this blog that different ethnic groups have different cultural attitudes towards education (pretty indisputable when it comes to the superior performance of Asians). But school divisions’ approaches to education might be a factor as well. One could hypothesize that school boards and administrators in more politically conservative localities would have a different approach to education — to pedagogy and student discipline, say — than their counterparts in more ideologically liberal districts.

I came to this question by way of a blog post on Taki’s Magazine, “Crevasses in the Classroom,” (hat tip: Andrew Roesell), which took a look at data published by the Stanford Education Data Archive. The Stanford scholars use the data to document and explain the gaps in white-black and white-Hispanic academic performance (though curiously, not the Asian-white gap), and, as expected, found that socio-economic differences explain much but not all of the difference.

In Taki’s Magazine, Steve Sailer rummaged through the database and found that school districts with the most extreme disparities in performance tend to skew heavily to the left side of the ideological spectrum. The greatest gap in the country occurs in none other than the People’s Republic of Berkeley, California, where the median black student would score at only the 5th percentile if he were white. How could that be? Sailer’s explanation:

One exacerbating factor might be that Berkeley’s schools have traditionally been run according to progressive education fads insisted upon by white leftists. For example, the Gates Foundation gave a million dollars to Bill Ayers’ brother Rick Ayers, another ’60s radical ex-fugitive, to work his “small learning communities” voodoo upon Berkeley High School, with an unsurprisingly disastrous impact on math test scores.

Frustrated black parents in Berkeley have at times organized protests in favor of “back to basics” education for their children.

The second worst disparity, says Sailer, is in Chapel-Hill Carrboro, home of the University of North Carolina; the third is in Shaker Heights, the “famously liberal” suburb of Cleveland”; the fourth in Asheville, N.C., “the arts and crafts capital of America, which attracts gays and polite white-flight types”; and the fifth in Evanston, Ill., home to Northwestern University.

The theory sounded plausible, but anecdotal. So I decided it to test it with some Virginia data taken from the Stanford Education Data Archive. (My apologies to Stanford for any abuses that I may have subjected the data to.) Since my goal was to do a quick-and-dirty analysis for purposes of a blog post, not an academic treatise, I looked only at Stanford’s 4th grade English language disparity. A more comprehensive look would entail running correlations for other grades and doing math scores as well. Also, readers should note that the data set I drew from encompassed only 78 of the state’s school districts, so it is not complete.

I could think of no readily available metric that measures the ideological proclivities of school boards and school administrations. As a proxy, I took the percentage of voters who voted for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, reasoning that the priorities and sentiments of a more liberal-Democratic leaning electorate would be reflected in the election of local school board officials, the appointment of school administrators and the approach to education generally.

The findings from this one admittedly superficial analysis, seen in the chart above) seem to confirm Sailer’s reasoning. Approximately 15% of the variability in white-black academic performance in the 4th grade can be explained by the political inclination of the electorate and, by implication, the ideological proclivities of the school districts.

Now, I’m not prepared to draw hard-and-fast conclusions from just that one data sample. I’d like to take a much more comprehensive look. But the preliminary findings suggest that such an effort would be worthwhile.

From the Frying Pan into the Fire?

byrd_midde_schoolSo, the Henrico County School Board has done the politically correct thing and re-named Harry F. Byrd Middle School to Quioccasin Middle School. Quioccasin, a Native American word meaning “the gathering spot,” is a local place name used for the road on which the school is located.

I’m OK with re-naming the school, which is located in western Henrico County near where I live. Virginians should re-think they way they honor former segregationist governors (even one who enacted the first law in the United States banning lynching). But given the tenor of our times, I wonder how long the new name will remain politically correct. Can’t the use of Native American names be condemned as “cultural appropriation?”

If calling a football team “the Redskins” is outre, how long until people begin calling for re-naming of all the places names stolen from displaced and exterminated native peoples? Where is the logical point at which enough is enough?