Thursday, July 17, 2014

Counting Pinheads- Efficiency and Learning

My grandfather wasn’t a particularly learned man, nor was he what most would call open-minded. When the Bunker Hill (current population 73) White Owls could no longer field a team and the school closed the doors, he proved he could hold a grudge. Even 20 years later, he just knew the huge conglomerate city district that took over was wasting his tax dollars. What measure did he use to make this determination? “Every day that %$@*&# yellow bus rolls by with one little pinhead on it.” I’m no statistician, but a sample size of one might be a bit small for making generalizations. How many of you have heard similar conclusions based upon equally sketchy data?

KASB’s new Research Director, Ted Carter, is a bit of a statistician, and he did an analysis of school spending and efficiency that goes beyond how many “pinheads” are on the yellow dog that rolled by my grandpa’s double-wide. Ted looked at national statistics on learning using the NAEP and graduation rate, and spending using total revenue per pupil. He then did a state-by-state regression analysis to see if revenue per student is correlated with NAEP achievement and/or graduation rates. He used statistical methods to control for variances in cost-of-living in each state.

What Ted found should not come as a surprise. A 2006 Legislative Post Audit found that within the state there is a strong correlation between spending and achievement on state assessments. KASB’s research found the connection between achievement and spending exists nationally as well. To use Ted’s words, “regression analysis indicates the amount of money spent per pupil is a significant predictor of achievement for all students, students ineligible for free or reduced price lunches, and students eligible for free or reduced price lunch. In other words, we can assert that per pupil spending and average NAEP proficiency levels are related, and we can expect that as per pupil spending increases, average NAEP benchmark percents will also increase.”

In other words, money matters. But of course money is not the only thing that matters. We have to think beyond test scores and spreadsheets. When thinking about our own children’s educations their score on a standardized test is never the most important factor in measuring school success. Parents want to know how their schools have fostered development of their child’s strengths, shored up their weaknesses, improved their job-skills, and showed them how to appreciate heritage and culture. These things can’t be measured by regression analysis, but they are required in the Rose Standards.

Determining efficiency is no easy task, and taxpayers want to know their money is being spent effectively and efficiently. Parents want to know their children are learning skills needed to be great citizens of the 21st century and beyond. School leaders and legislatures have to find the best path for both of these interests.

My grandpa would have dismissed this column and said with great bluster and colorful language, “Figures lie and liars figure” and/or “It was good enough for me…” And he would continue to sit in his chair, Archie Bunker-style, and count the pinheads on the bus. The Kansas Legislature created an Efficiency Committee that begins meeting Friday, July 18. I know they will take a measured, and statistically accurate view and not follow my grandpa’s statistical methods.

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