Friday, March 10, 2006

O'Connor speaks, so does Standard and Poor's

The Raw Story provides a transcript of NPR's report on Sandra Day O'Connor's recent speech:
"I," said O’Connor, "am against judicial reforms driven by nakedly partisan reasoning." Pointing to the experiences of developing countries and former communist countries where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish, O’Connor said we must be ever-vigilant against those who would strongarm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. "It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship," she said, "but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings."
It is with that in mind that I report that the Senate failed to pass a constitutional amendment which would have politicized the judiciary. The bill was a political move meant to reduce judicial independence as a result of a court order requiring that the legislature fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide suitable funding for schools.


School spendingWhile we're talking about that, Standard and Poor's released a study of 17 Highly Resource Efficient Districts (KHREDs).
The most fundamental of the KHRED resource management strategies is not to spend as little as possible, as some might think (for example, Geary County USD’s spending of $7,534 per student is above, not below, the state average of $7,321). Instead, the fundamental strategy is to ensure that monetary resource allocations, whether they are high or low, are aligned with strategic priorities. The distinction, as one of the district leaders put it, is between the pressure not to spend at all and the pressure to spend in a deliberate, focused manner. These districts concentrate on learning.
Unlike most districts "KHREDs give less unilateral authority to schools than all other district respondents. Instead, they frequently form a partnership with schools to make joint decisions on resource use."

Other interesting differences between KHREDs and LHREDs:

KHREDs pay their staff differently…. While average salaries are similar, the minimum and maximum
salaries for KHRED teachers and principals are higher than all districts on average. This is especially true for principals, with KHRED starting principal salaries at $60,659 on average, compared to $54,910 for all other district responses. Similarly, the maximum salary for KHRED principals on average is $78,241, while all other responses have an average maximum of $71,474 for principals.

KHREDs generally have smaller classes than all districts in the state. This is true at all levels, elementary, middle, and high school, though it is most pronounced in middle schools, with 16.1 students per teacher in all districts and 14.5 students per teacher for KHREDs.

Notably, KHREDs use their own district staff to offer training to staff members at a higher rate (39%) than all other responses to the survey (28%). For all other responses, 48% of PD is provided through regional service centers, compared to 37% for KHREDs. Using district staff for training is a possible cost saver for KHREDs since salaries are already paid for the district staff delivering the professional development.
They pay more for a staff that they put to good use. They also pay staff for longer time periods, and use the extra time for training. Smart.

They aggressively seek the best possible teachers, casting a wide net and offering starting pay high enough to keep that staff. They provide more support for new teachers, and regular feedback to all teaching staff, and they use teaching aides to guide individual study, rather than to replace a regular teacher. KHREDs base changes in teaching methodology on published research, not guesswork.

And these are topics we've discussed before, and that you hear about all the time from educational researchers:

When districts aim to obtain the greatest long-term impact for their program resource allocations, investing in early childhood education is the place to begin. KHREDs target parenting, early reading, pre-Kindergarten, and Kindergarten programs.…

Additional resources are allocated to reducing or closing achievement gaps by targeting students who have not yet reached proficiency in core subjects, particularly in high schools.
One glaring problem caught my eye, and I'm sure there are others. This sounds interesting:
KHREDs hire more instructional aides and fewer regular teachers than LREDs
But they hire 2% fewer regular teachers and 2% more instructional aides. Their teachers are, on average, one whole year less experienced, and a whopping 3% more have Masters' degrees. I'd bet money that those differences aren't statistically significant. The two groups have nearly identical hiring practices. That's more interesting. It isn't the statistics that matter, it's how the staff is used. Unfortunately, that error indicates that the analysts may have taken any differences at all as meaningful, rather than trying to form some sort of ranking of what really matters and what just seems like it ought to matter.

Are the KHREDs representative? I'm not sure, and that really limits the degree to which they tell us anything. They do have nearly the same percentage of students on federal school lunch programs as the rest of the state, indicating a broad match of socio-economic status, but other factors can confound these sorts of comparisons.

Many of the things that are singled out are either cost-neutral or cost extra money. KHREDs report reducing bus routes, using bigger vans and buses, energy management, early retirement and outsourcing of non-academic subjects as the major cost-savers over those used by the average district (this is a silly survey design, since the amount saved is more important than what method was used, but it's all they tell us). The figure above shows that, while the average KHRED gets better results at the same cost, it's hard to say whether the districts getting better results at lower costs are actually reducing costs, or just benefitting from individual circumstances (district size, socio-economic status, etc.).

In a school system so carefully arranged around local control, I don't know how to ensure that money allocated in Topeka can only be used for expanding pre-school, or that teaching aides are tasked with helping in small group exercises, or that any of these tactics could be imposed from above. And that's a shame, because fear that local school boards will waste money is a major impediment to increased funding, whether that fear is justified or not.