Two full days

State Board agenda packed with hot-button issues

It seems that every contentious education issue of the day has a spot on the State Board of Education’s agenda for the two-day meeting that starts Wednesday.

The seven-member board is known for full agendas at its monthly sessions. But the February meeting is especially crowded, including such issues as testing, the state’s waiver from NCLB requirements, opting out of the Common Core State Standards, future state graduation guidelines, and parents’ rights to opt out of testing. There’s even a briefing on math standards, which have been a sore point for some Common Core critics.

Most of the issues are labeled as “information items,” meaning the board will be briefed and likely have a discussion but won’t take any action.

But the two new members who joined the board last month have added an element of unpredictability to the group’s deliberations, heightening interest in what individual members have to say on key issues.

The new board produced a surprise at its Jan. 8 meeting when it voted 4-3 for a resolution instructing education Commissioner Robert Hammond to grant waivers to districts that requested exemptions from the first part of CMAS/PARCC language arts and math tests, due to be given starting next month.

The motion was made by new GOP member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs and supported by two other Republicans plus Democrat Valentina Flores of Denver, the other new member (see story).

Since then 18 districts, including Douglas and Jefferson counties, have applied for waivers. But more important, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has issued a formal opinion concluding that neither the board nor the Department of Education have legal authority to grant such waivers.

Deciding what to do about the waiver applications is on the agenda for Wednesday morning. In light of the attorney general’s opinion, the department is recommending the requests be denied.

“I don’t have a lot of answers about how it’s going to go,”said board chair Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction.. “What the response will be from individual board members is unknown.”

The rest of the agenda

Here’s a look at the other issues the board will be talking about this week.

More testing – Significant numbers of seniors in some districts boycotted science and math tests last fall, raising concerns about opting out during the main testing season this spring. Under federal and state requirements districts face reductions in accreditation ratings if fewer than 95 percent of students are tested. The board will be briefed on that issue Thursday (see the slide show members will view).

Proposed resolutions on parents’ rights to withdraw from testing and in support of teaching social studies (testing isn’t mentioned) will be presented. Votes, if any, won’t come until March.

Common Core withdrawal – A majority of the board supports pulling out of the Common Core standards. But, like testing waivers, that may be easier talked about than accomplished. On Thursday the board will be briefed on the issue. An informal opinion from one member of the attorney general’s staff outlines the procedure, and the document basically concludes it can’t be done without legislative action.

NCLB waiver – Colorado currently has a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that gives it flexibility in rating districts and schools and in use of federal funds for the most struggling schools. That waiver needs to be renewed, and the state has to file its paperwork by March 31. The board will get an update Wednesday; see this document for details.

Graduation guidelines – Since 2008 the state has been working on high school graduation guidelines, a system that won’t go into effect until 2017-18. (The state can’t impose graduation requirements because the Colorado constitution gives local school boards final control of instruction.) A recent story in The Denver Post raised the issue of possibly watering down the proposed guidelines, so the issue has taken a higher profile. The board will have a study session on the guidelines Thursday, using this document.

New math – The board will have a “learning session” Wednesday on Colorado’s math standards, with CDE staff trying to explain how and why the standards seek to teach kids how to both get the right answers and also understand why those answers are correct. (Here’s the staff presentation.)

On top of all these issues, the board has the usual long list of other business, including a charter school appeal, rule-making hearings, and various procedural matters – plus time for public comment. Over the last year public comment sessions have been a lively forum, primarily for critics of testing and Common Core.

If board members were paid – and they’re not – they’d earn their money this week.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.