September 10, 2014

Common Core Doesn’t Put the CCSS in Success


In previous posts on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I’ve written about the consequences of federal overreach, which, in itself, is a strong argument against the nationally imposed standards. Unfortunately, this argument is unconvincing for teachers, who have been led to believe these standards will give them more instructional flexibility and ultimately will help students make academic gains.

The following two quotes about CCSS reflect these widely held beliefs.

They are not a curriculum; it’s up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards.
—Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern

Not exactly. Though it’s true that Common Core is just a set of standards, curriculum is informed by assessment. If the assessment is Common Core, the curriculum is Common Core. School districts buy curriculum sets (textbooks, workbooks, reading materials, etc.) that reflect the standards and prepare students for assessments. This ultimately gives teachers less instructional flexibility.

The promise of these high standards for all students is extraordinary.
—Former NEA President Dennis Van Roekel

If only. As a teacher, I would have loved to set the same high bar for ALL of my students. But the truth is, not every student has the same readiness for learning. Last year, one of my 13-year-old students scored a 30 on the ACT. Would I set the same high bar for this student and a student who had just tested at a fourth-grade reading level? No, I would differentiate instruction, meaning I would assign a project with varying degrees of difficulty and interest-based learning.

The problem is not “setting the bar high enough,” it’s the challenge of scaffolding instruction to fill in the gaps where there is missed learning. Sure, setting a high bar for every child sounds great, but without instructional flexibility, how will teachers make decisions that best suit the needs of their students?

They won’t. Even if setting a high bar for all students did increase academic achievement, there is still some debate about whether the Common Core even does that. If Missouri really wants to see students make academic gains, we should trust teachers to do their job well, and reward the ones that do.


September 5, 2014

Charity Is Not Your Strong Suit, Francis Howell

 Annual Performance Report

On Wednesday, Elisa Crouch and Jessica Bock of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Francis Howell will allow transfer students from the Normandy School District to return. That is, if those students take legal action and force the school district to comply with the law.

The Francis Howell School District will continue to require court orders for students from Normandy who want to transfer, said Jennifer Henry, district spokeswoman. The district sent a letter today to parents to inform them that it was possible 350 students could be returning, but that it was unclear how many would take legal action. 

So far, 17 transfer students have returned to Francis Howell through court orders. 

Henry said district leaders continue to believe that the transfer situation depletes the resources for the larger student population who remain in the school district.

The district claims it is not accepting all of the students, as other school districts have done, because they are concerned about draining resources from the unaccredited Normandy School District. This is simply taking a faux moral high ground.

Francis Howell is a great district. They have great teachers, administrators, resources, and students. Because of the large size of the district, roughly 17,000 students, it easily can accommodate an influx of 350 to 400 students in need of better educational opportunities. And, as we just found out, student achievement in the district was not negatively impacted by the influx of Normandy students.

If Francis Howell really wanted to take the high ground, they would open their doors to students desperate for a quality education and they would lower their tuition rate. Even with a lower tuition rate, the district could still see a financial windfall. If they did that, they would be showing true compassion for the students who want to transfer and the students who do not.

Forcing students to sue in order to obtain their spot that they are promised by state law in order to save Normandy money is not charitable, it is poor form and simply bad policy.

September 3, 2014

The Score Is Falling! The Score Is Falling!—Or Not

When it was announced that hundreds of students would transfer from the unaccredited school districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens to higher-performing districts, receiving communities had a few concerns. One of these concerns was that transfer students would negatively affect their school’s standardized test scores.

Young families hunting for a house often use standardized test rankings as a tool to select a neighborhood. This is highly evident in the Lindbergh School District, where, aside from its relatively low tax rates and housing turnover, the district’s rising enrollment has been attributed to its top-ranking achievement record.

Data released from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) reveals the (receiving district MAP score) concerns were unfounded. In fact, receiving school districts saw little to no decrease in test scores in comparison to the previous year without transfer students. An analysis by St. Louis Public Radio shows that transfer students had no effect on the Annual Performance Report (APR) of many receiving districts.

Some districts did see a change in APR score, and this could be explained by a number of variables. For instance, the state itself saw a decline in scores overall. Also, standardized test scores are strongly correlated to the socio-economic makeup of a district. This may explain why Ferguson-Florissant, a low-income receiving district, saw the most decline—3.6 percentage points.

The transfer of 2,200 students did not cause the sky to fall—or scores for that matter. What it did was give students an educational opportunity. For the receiving district that has chosen not to accept transfer students, this should be a sign that it’s time to take those 350 children back.

Transfer students may not have made a difference on receiving districts’ APR scores, but the receiving districts certainly made a difference on transfer students.



August 30, 2014

Normandy Transfers: Taking It to the Courts

Earlier this week, I sat down with attorney Joshua Schindler. Schindler represents several Normandy students who would like to transfer to accredited school districts. Last year, roughly 2,200 students transferred from two unaccredited school districts in North Saint Louis. Due to a change in Normandy’s accreditation status, four districts chose not to allow Normandy students to return.

Francis Howell, Pattonville, Ferguson-Florissant, and Ritenour transfer students were devastated. They had to return to a school district in which 16.8 is the average ACT score (the state average is 21.6).  In a recent Washington Post article, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux wrote:

Carmen Clemons has two teenage sons who were in advanced-placement classes. One wants to be an engineer, the other a firefighter. She describes them as “nerdy, nice kids.”

This year, they were told they had to go to Normandy High. The school didn’t have the same advanced classes they had been taking. And on Day 5 of the academic year, they told their mother they had been “jumped,” or beaten up.

“No one broke the fight up,” Clemons said. “I was never notified. I had to go running in today to talk to the principal. We’ve worked so hard to raise respectful kids. My boys are such good students, but my son came home terrified when another student said, ‘If I see those shoes on your feet, I’m gonna take them.’ ”

Now she’s calling private schools, begging for scholarships. And she and her husband, who barely make enough to pay the bills, are thinking about selling their three-bedroom house.

After Judge Michael Burton’s decision to allow the Normandy students named in the lawsuit to return to their receiving districts, Pattonville, Ferguson-Florissant, and Ritenour chose to accept all students that had reapplied for the 2014-15 school year—Francis Howell interpreted the ruling to mean only one student may return.

Since Francis Howell’s decision to reject all but one transfer student, Schindler has begun laying the groundwork for a class-action lawsuit. Watch this video to learn more about the history of the Missouri transfer law, as well as the current legal situation surrounding the law.

August 28, 2014

Will California Teacher Tenure Lawsuit Affect Missouri?

Earlier this month, The View’s Whoopi Goldberg spoke out against teacher tenure, “Teachers who do not do a good job in teaching have no right to tenure.” The recently released 2014 EdNext poll shows that 50 percent of the public agrees with Goldberg and thinks that teachers should not be granted tenure. This is up 3 percentage points from last year.

Public sentiment against teacher tenure may have risen due to the highly publicized Vergara v. California case, in which Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled California teacher tenure laws violate the state’s constitution in regards to equality of education.

Tenure laws vary across states. A teacher is tenured in Missouri after teaching in the same district for five years. Tenure laws encourage a system in which school districts undergoing layoffs must keep low-quality, tenured teachers and fire high-quality, non-tenured teachers. This is an ineffective system, as research shows teacher performance has a strong correlation with student achievement.

In a 2013 StudentsFirst poll, Missourians overwhelmingly favored tenure reform—74 percent of those surveyed reported that they would favor a system in which teachers had to demonstrate performance in order to earn or keep tenure. Show-Me Institute Distinguished Fellow James Shuls found that even Missouri superintendents are in favor of teacher tenure reform.

If Missouri wants to be among the top 10 performing states by 2020, tenure reform should be a priority. Teacher tenure may protect good teachers, but it also protects bad teachers. To ensure every child receives a quality education, student welfare must take precedent over the interests of low-performing school employees. This is what the Vergara lawsuit taught the nation.

August 25, 2014

Missouri Should Stop Funding Ghost Students

Photo Credit - The Goldwater Institute

(Photo Credit – The Goldwater Institute)

Like most states, Arizona felt a financial crunch in the wake of the economic downturn of 2008. As a result, funding for education could not keep pace with the expected increases. An Arizona judge recently ruled that state lawmakers did not fund schools properly during this time and must appropriate an additional $317 million to Arizona public schools, immediately.

However, as Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute points out, much less money would be needed if “ghost students” were removed from the funding formula. A ghost student is essentially when the state pays for the same student twice.

In The Arizona Republic he writes:

“Arizona schools can apply for additional funding for current-year enrollment growth, but they do not have to adjust for enrollment decreases in the same year. Traditional school payments are generally not updated until the following year, which means schools get funding for students who aren’t in their classrooms anymore.

“As Goldwater Institute research has reported, the state pays about $125 million for empty seats every year.

“Traditional school payments should be based on the number of students in the classroom, with payments updated accordingly throughout the year.”

In Missouri, we often hear that the state’s foundation formula for education is not fully funded. That is true, but Missouri’s formula is riddled with the same features that create ghost students in Arizona. Schools are funded based on the number of students from the current or two previous years. Thus, a district with declining enrollment could get funded based on their enrollment from two years ago, while a district with increasing enrollment gets funded based on the current year’s student count.

In addition, there are several other features that do not allow a district’s funding to decrease when it should. For instance, the amount counted as “local dollars” is pegged to 2004 assessment levels. If local property taxes increase, the state should pay less to the school district, but they don’t. On top of all of this, Missouri has a “hold-harmless” provision that prevents state funding from decreasing below a set level, even if the district should receive less based on the formula. As of 2013, there were 174 hold-harmless districts.

If Missouri were to remove these provisions it would allow the formula to adjust to the changing demographics of our schools. Then the formula would not be as dramatically underfunded as is claimed. This would be a wise step, because we simply cannot afford to continue to fund ghost students.

For more on the funding formula, check out our handy primer.

August 23, 2014

The Pension Problem Non-Teaching Personnel Pose

In a recent post, Education Policy Research Assistant Brittany Wagner discussed a new study examining the large growth in non-teaching personnel in schools. The study found that over the past 60 years, schools have increased non-teaching personnel positions by 702 percent.

Besides their salaries, non-teaching personnel also accrue pension benefits through the Public Education Employee Retirement System of Missouri (PEERS). According to the PEERS annual report, “PEERS is a mandatory cost-sharing multiple employer retirement system for all public school district employees (except the school districts of St. Louis and Kansas City), employees of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, and community college employees (except St. Louis Community College).” Members of the plan and their employers both contribute to the pension.

Over the last five years, the unfunded liabilities (liabilities minus assets) of this plan have increased by more than $64 million. Pension benefits like PEERS benefits are guaranteed and must be paid out. If PEERS can’t make those payments, taxpayers (i.e., you) will have to.

One way to prevent a situation like the one described above is to shift these pension plans away from a defined benefit plan (PEERS) to more effectively structured plans like defined contribution plans, hybrid plans (a plan that is a mix of defined benefit and defined contribution), or cash balance plans.

Maybe the addition of new non-teaching hires over the past 60 years is justified, but maybe it isn’t. School districts are making the public pension bomb bigger, and if they aren’t going to defuse it, shouldn’t school districts at least give the taxpayers, who are ultimately on the hook if these pensions can’t make their payments, some evidence to support their increase in hiring?

August 20, 2014

Normandy Transfer: An Evolving Story

After Friday’s decision by Judge Michael Burton that Francis Howell, Ritenour, and Pattonville School Districts would have to accept Normandy transfer students, Normandy parents exhaled a sigh of relief.

They thought the judge’s decision meant that all children were now able to return to the three school districts they had transferred to last year after the transfer law was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court.

To their credit, this was how Ritenour and Pattonville interpreted Judge Burton’s decision. The two districts decided to accept all transfer students who had reapplied for the 2014-15 school year.

However, Francis Howell opted to accept only the one child named in the lawsuit, excluding the 350 other students who had reapplied for transfer.

Now, the fate of nine more Normandy students is in the hands of a judge. Attorney Joshua Schindler will appear in court today, fighting again for the rights of Normandy children to attend an accredited school of their choice.

Regardless of the judge’s decision concerning the several children named in this lawsuit, Francis Howell and Ferguson-Florissant should accept all Normandy transfer students.

Normandy HS

These children have made their choice. Their choice should be respected, not just because it’s legally sound, but because it’s the right thing to do.

August 19, 2014

The Transfer Law: Another Disappointment

Cameral Cotton’s children were deeply saddened when they learned they would not return to Francis Howell School District. Cameral’s three children transferred from Normandy School District after the state’s transfer law was upheld last summer.

Through a series of legal maneuvers, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the State Board of Education attempted to prevent students, like Cotton’s children, from transferring from Normandy Schools Collaborative.

First, Normandy was unaccredited, then nonaccredited, and most recently, “accredited as a state oversight district.” However, the transfer law, which states that a student living in an unaccredited district can transfer to an accredited district, prevailed Friday when Judge Michael Burton ruled that Ritenour, Francis Howell, and Pattonville School Districts would have to accept transfer students.

8-19 post

Cotton rejoiced when she saw the news over the weekend, only to learn from Francis Howell School District that the decision extended to just the children named in the lawsuit. Only one Normandy student will be returning to Francis Howell. Because Cameral Cotton did not participate in the lawsuit, her children will remain at Normandy.

Cotton’s daughter, Mar’Kita, dreams of becoming a history teacher for Teach for America. Her son, Mark, just wants to get into college. Both of these children blossomed at Francis Howell, and yet, they must remain in a school that, they believe, failed them.

If the transfer law was upheld for a few students, then it should be upheld for all students. Cameral Cotton should not have to wait for another class-action lawsuit just so her children can attend an accredited school. Burton’s decision may just apply to a few students, but the logic behind his decision applies to all Normandy students.



August 18, 2014

New Study Looks at Growth of Non-Teaching Personnel


Sparkly, purple, and lined with a shiny metal band, my retainer was wrapped in a napkin while I ate my school lunch throughout elementary school. “Don’t you lose that retainer,” I can still hear my mother saying. Inevitably, I lost it at lunch, and I knew there was only one place it could be.

Inside the trash can, remnants of sloppy joes and sour milk splattered the edges of the bag. A cafeteria worker, realizing what had happened, pulled the trash out and began to dig. “Here you go,” he said and returned the retainer to me.

I recalled the cafeteria worker who helped me find my retainer after I read Fordham Institute Research Analyst Matt Richmond’s report, The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach.

The report’s findings are startling. Over the past 60 years, schools have increased non-teaching personnel positions by 702 percent. It also found the U.S. spends more than double what Korea, Mexico, Finland, Portugal, Ireland, Luxembourg, Austria, and Spain spend on non-teaching staff salaries and benefits.

As the study’s title, and my own personal vignette, suggests, these workers are both seemingly underappreciated and overlooked. We know little about the non-teaching part of the education industry, except that it has grown at a much faster rate than students. One study showed that if non-teaching personnel grew at the same rate as the student population, American public schools would have an additional $24.3 billion annually.

This is not to say that schools would be better off with less non-teaching personnel, but if Missouri schools want to get serious about spending efficiently, then collecting specific data on non-teaching staff is a good place to start.

July 28, 2014

Decline In Catholic School Enrollment: Is Sector Switching The Answer?

In urban communities such as the City of Saint Louis, parents are able to send their children to magnet, charter, or public schools at no cost. All the while, tuition-driven Catholic schools are facing record low enrollment. The graph below illustrates the decline of Catholic school enrollment in the U.S. from 1960 to 2010 at the elementary and secondary levels.

catholic school enrollment

With rising costs of private school tuition and concerns about public school quality, parents choose free alternatives to public schools, often charter schools. These parents do not necessarily prefer non-secular education. As Carnegie Mellon University economics professor Maria Ferreyra showed, the number of parents who want to enroll their children in private [Catholic] schools is greater than the number of parents who can afford it.

For this reason, some Catholic schools “convert” to charter schools in order to continue serving low-income communities. In “Sector Switchers,” authors Mike McShane and Andrew Kelly analyzed this phenomenon.

They found that Catholic schools that become charter schools somewhat maintain their brand. They keep “…discipline, high expectations, and formation of moral values in students,” and throw out, “the financial issues that have plagued Catholic schools…”

The authors reached two conclusions: (1) switching leads to higher enrollment, and (2) switching increases minority student enrollment. Still, questions remain about how this practice will affect cities such as Saint Louis.

If you want to take part in the discussion, join the Show-Me Institute for the Friedman Legacy Day Policy Breakfast this Thursday. The event will include a presentation from McShane and panelists Matt Hoehner, Educational Enterprises regional executive director, and Corey Quinn, president of De Le Salle Middle School.

July 24, 2014

Charter Schools – More Bang For The Buck!


Whether it is chips at the grocery store or miles per gallon, it’s always good to get more for less. This is especially true in education. That is why a new report by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas is so important. A team of researchers, led by Patrick Wolf, Ph.D., calculated the return on investment of public charter schools. In other words, they looked to see if charter schools are providing more bang for the buck. It turns out they are.

Charter schools throughout the country, and especially in Missouri, spend less per student than traditional public schools. Charter schools, on average, also outperform their traditional counterparts. By combining these facts, the researchers calculated that the productivity advantage for charter schools in math and reading was 40 and 41 percent, respectively.

So, what do you call it when you get better outcomes for less money? I call it a big win for students, parents, and taxpayers.

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