Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A blurred vision (2015), or pimping for yourself

I love it when the News Journal attempts to raise objective reporting into self-interested advocacy.

Today's top headline was "Schools report: more money need for high achievement"

Check out the first two paragraphs of the story:

Delaware educators would have to increase per-pupil spending by as much as 83 percent to create high-achieving schools under the state’s current system, a new Delaware Public Policy Institute analysis finds.

The nonprofit group’s report, released at noon today, looks at the additional per-student investment that would be needed for 95 percent of public school students to score at the highest two levels on Delaware Student Testing Program reading and math exams in 2009

You almost wouldn't know that this is a straight up shill for Vision 2015, unless you dug really deeply into the article.

The Delaware Public Policy Institute took $235,000 from the Longwood Foundation and

hired Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates to look at Delaware’s current per-pupil costs in small, medium and large districts, then project how those costs would change to reach “modest” and “high” levels of student achievement. They defined “modest” as bringing 9 percent to 21 percent of the state’s students to Level 4 or 5 on the DSTP by 2009. At “modest” level, 62 percent of low-income, special education and English language learner students would reach Level 3 in reading and 41 percent would reach Level 3 in math.

“High” was defined as having 95 percent of all students at Level 4 or 5. Between 26 percent and 27 percent of students reached those levels on the 2007 exams.

The report concludes that to have "high" achievement under the current system would cost 83% more per student, rising from about $9,000 per student to more than $14,000, while the pricetag for Vision 2015--a mere $100 million--would achieve such results at a much lowever cost.

There are three problems with this story.

Mentioned but not highlighted by the News Journal is the fact that there is more that a little overlap between Vision 2015 and DPPI; to wit:

Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, Chairman of both Vision 2015 and DPPI

Paul Herdman, President of Rodel Foundation which is a financial backer of both Vision 2015 and DPPI

John Taylor, Steering Committee of Vision 2015 and DPPI Executive Director

UD Professor Dan Rich, member of both Vision 2015 and DPPI

DE Chamber of Commerce's James Wolfe, member of both Vision 2015 and DPPI

Let me get this straight: DPPI, which is essentially indistinguishable from the senior leadership of Vision 2015, commissioned a Colorado corporation to tell it how much more the current system would cost than Vision 2105. With Vision 2015 providing the starting assumptions of the study--AND PAYING FOR IT--why would anybody be surprised that Augenblick, Palaich and Associates would return a conclusion that was exactly what Vision 2015 needed people to believe, which could be released at almost exactly the same moment Education Secretary Valerie Woodruff decided NOT to fund the program?

Second problem: the assumptions that the study made. "High" expectations according to Augenblick, Palaich and Associates were that 95% of Delaware students should score a 4 or a 5 on the DSTP. I'm sure that to do this would cost 80% more than current expenditures because that's not the goal of public education. "Meeting the standard" is scoring at least a 3 on the DSTP. What this expectation does is invoke "grade inflation" to new and ridiculous heights. If the standard is set high--and the DSTP standards are high--then raising the bar for 95% is the same thing as requiring all A's and B's to graduate. It is unrealistic that ANY program the state could afford to finance would be able to achieve that goal. (And we should note that nothing in the Vision 2015 plan actually promises to achieve that.) So what the story does is posit an unrealistic goal to declare the present system ineffective.

Third problem: the Augenblick, Palaich and Associates study assumed that the DE public education system will remain virtually unchanged for the near future. The past 15 years have brought us core academic standards, high-stakes testing, public school choice, NCLB reporting requirements, a complete overhaul of teacher professional development ("clusters"), a new special education law, a drive toward greater consistency in curricula statewide, and the most consistent emphasis on continued incremental improvement throughout the system that any DOE administration has ever sustained. So, obviously, we should assume that nothing will change from here on out, right?

The biggest innovation that Vision 2015 seeks to implement is a dual change from local funding to statewide funding (at a higher level), and to change the funding structure so that students with greater needs receive greater funding. While I don't necessarily agree with all that, there is a salient point to be made here: that's a decision for the General Assembly and not for DOE. I don't care how heavily Secretary Woodruff might chose to fund the other changes of Vision 2015 out of her budget, that change would require one of the more titanic political fights of the new century to get passed.

Finally, there's a point to be made about all our would-be educational innovators (and I have been one of them). There is this tendency to talk in grandiose terms about what could be achieved in the "perfect" system, say, in 8 years (2015). This frees you from the obligation to do the dirty work of directly helping the students who are in the system right now, from the fourth grade on up. That's what Valerie Woodruff has been doing for the past decade. While I don't agree with every decision she's made, she has consistently said in word and deed that it is not worth sacrificing a hardwon DSTP score of 3 today for a potential DSTP 4 or 5 tomorrow. She works with today's kids, while consistently striving to make improvements for the future.

As a Libertarian the thing that most disturbs me about Vision 2015 is the centralization, bureaucracy, and higher taxes lurking behind the high-sounding rhetoric. As I've said before, I do not question the motives of these folks, but their goals and methods send a chill down my spine.

As a Delaware citizen in what is essentially a one-newspaper-state (sorry, State News), I find it not just chilling but offensive that the NJ staff would elevate a self-serving news release (that had a pricetage of $235,000) to the category of front-page news, backed up by a major editorial.

This is one of the few times I'm probably grateful for public and legislative apathy.


Sam said...

I've often thought how much fun it would be, if I had the funds to throw away, in starting a newspaper that would print all the stories controversial to the leading front page stories the big papers print, and then deliver them to every doorstep, free of charge. How long do you suppose I'd live, do ya think?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for for this post. I rhough I wass the only one reading between the lines.

Steven H. Newton said...

Also see my earlier post critiquing Vision 2015 if you haven't.