Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Once upon a time. . .

With our oldest daughter, the nickname “Princess” is more than a moniker, it’s a way of life. Life with her is a constant reminder of the story of the Princess and the Pea, as small issues can quickly become big ones. She is beautiful, bright, graceful, and majestic, but has a flair for the dramatic.

So when she started texting from Manhattan last week about water up to her waist and cars floating down the street, her mom and I chuckled and went to sleep. Manhattanites know the rest of this story: weather reports about 5 inches of rain in an hour, newspaper pictures of students kayaking to class, and hilarious tweets from KSU President Kirk Schulz confirmed our Princess’ story.

The story ends there, because most people would not draw the conclusion from this story that all of Kansas was underwater because one community was hit with heavy rain. One would only have to look out their door or window to confirm or deny that all of Kansas was flooded.

If only it were that easy with education data. One hears a story about a Kansas district in which half of the employees are administrators, or that one midsize district increased its administrative expenses by $60,000, and suddenly all Kansas schools are administratively top-heavy. To aid in this misleading narrative, a report from the Friedman Foundation shows that Kansas expenses for “Administrative and Other Non-teaching” personnel have increased 43 percent over the past 20 years. That report quickly became the go-to quote for folks who often didn't remember the “Other Non-teaching” part or know that paraprofessionals and aides were included in “Administrative and Non-teaching.”

So what has really happened in Kansas? It’s a question KASB’s Ted Carter went to work on, and his answer is illuminating.

Comparable staffing and student enrollment data goes back to 1998. Ted started in 1998, and to control for enrollment growth used a ratio of students to staff by category over that 17-year time period in Kansas. The graph shows a summary of the data (details are available at kasb.org/data).

During that time period, there was indeed an increase in total staff. Instructional support staff increased, as did student support, transportation and instruction. Boards of education added staff exactly where it was needed-closest to the student. During that same time period, special education inclusion increased demands for additional staff in the classroom, as did increasing populations of non-English speakers and at-risk students.

At the same time, there was a significant decrease in “General Administration” personnel and a small increase in building administration. Dollars were spent closest to the students, and cut were made farthest from the student.

This doesn’t tell a dramatic story. By the “man bites dog” criterion, it isn’t newsworthy that Kansas districts added staff to serve students who needed the most assistance. So instead we hear anecdotes and let them be the story. It is time for board members to tell your stories. We have cut administrative and added instructional staff and been good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

Don’t take a flood in Manhattan to be a cause for building an Ark in your backyard. Don’t believe an anecdote without confirming it, and don’t generalize it to every school in Kansas. Look outside to see what is happening in your local district.

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