Data Must Drive Education Decisions

One of the phrases I often hear regarding the Common Core Standards—and the PARCC Tests aligned to these standards that are being rolled out throughout Illinois this year—is that this will lead to an “over-reliance on testing” in our public schools.  I have always found this notion confusing because, outside of public education, I have never heard anyone express a concern about an over-reliance on data.  Imagine your reaction if your doctor suggested a course of treatment and, when pressed for an explanation, could only cite a “feeling” that you might benefit.  Most of us would find this unacceptable.

I understand those who find standardized testing to be troublesome.  It is time-consuming, the technology necessary to do it efficiently may be lacking, and neither parents nor students are enthused about the stresses it inevitably causes.  These complaints are not baseless, and I have always advocated for cooperative efforts to make standardized tests less frustrating and fraught for all concerned.  Any process can be improved with a little thought and discussion.

However, the zeal with which some battle against outcome measures in public education—now including, I am sad to say, the new President of the National Education Association—has always baffled me.  I cannot see how taxpayers can be expected to spend billions of dollars on our public school systems every year to support educational practices based on anecdotes and hearsay.  The national pushback against the Common Core Standards is understandable to me only to the degree that it is based on concerns that are largely divorced from the educational needs of our children—turf battles, paychecks, and political posturing.  Moreover, if all the time, effort, and money invested in the implementation of outcome testing aligned to the Common Core Standards are abandoned, I wonder what information will be used to drive our nation’s policy decisions on improving public education in the years ahead.

Recent data—that troublesome word—indicates that our nation’s high school graduates are less prepared than we would hope.  According the US Department of Education, approximately 60% of our incoming community college student—and a surprising 20% of students entering four year colleges—will require remedial coursework in writing, reading or math.  In other words, those students will have to spend their money to learn material that should have been mastered in high school.

Much ballyhooed improvements this past school year in college and career readiness among Illinois students are due less to any measurable test score improvements and are more the result of the decision to drop the traditional ACT outcome measure in favor of a self-designed scale that had the net result of nearly doubling the measured readiness for work and higher education of Illinois’ high school graduates.  Although this move has some political utility, it points to the critical need for reliable data regarding student achievement in our public schools.

Therefore, I have a suggestion for those who believe standardized testing in our public schools is untenable, unreasonable, and unfair: look at the national and local data on the numbers of college freshmen who require remedial coursework when they enter college and see where students who graduate from your local district stack up.

Given that some passionately feel that testing in our public schools is rife with problems, perhaps a more persuasive case can be made for examining what happens to our area high school graduates (and the sub-groups of those graduates) after they receive their diplomas.  Our area colleges and universities gather student data that matches their high schools with information on who requires remedial courses upon admission and who—in the ultimate outcome measure—actually graduates from that college or university.

This would be very instructive information to make available on a school district’s website because it will allow local residents to have a very clear snapshot of whether their high school is better or worse at preparing their students for college success, and it would allow us to really drill down into what our schools are—and are not—doing well.

Weak high school academic outcomes and the problems they cause are a national problem, but perhaps we can at least start a local dialogue that is firmly grounded in data.  Given the important role high quality public education plays in the economic, social, and political health of our region, state, and country, this seems a reasonable way to begin our discussion in a manner that removes a polarizing element from the equation.

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The College Completion Crisis

Over 17 million students are now seeking a 2 or 4 year degrees at American colleges and universities, but many will never complete their studies.  For example, in Illinois only 19% of community college students will ever graduate, and only 68% of those seeking a Bachelor’s degree will finish.  This crisis of college completion affects every state in our nation, and the reasons why so many fail to finish need to be examined—as do ideas for turning the tide so that so much human potential is no longer wasted.

I recommend that those who are interested in a thoughtful and thorough examination of this problem read the report compiled by Complete College America entitled Time is the Enemy.  Word by word, analysis by analysis, and chart after frightening chart, this document details the nationwide college completion crisis.  Moreover, as this report explains, minority, low-income, and part-time students are far more likely to leave college with nothing but debt in hand.

Let us be plain: Those students who need to start college in remedial courses are by far the least likely to succeed.  Many argue this means we are simply pushing too many students who are not that interested in college into higher education, and there may be some merit to this argument.  However, given the extraordinary percentage of incoming students who require remediation across our nation, it is also worth asking how our public education system can grant high school diplomas to so many academically unprepared graduates.  Moreover, many students—regardless whether they require remedial coursework or not—are lacking the self-discipline necessary for college success, which perhaps points to the ubiquity of public school curricula that reward minimal effort and lax work habits.

Or is this simply, as so many claim, a reflection of a society in which our nation’s schools are forced to deal with too many children who are born to parents who cannot successfully be parents?

There is certainly evidence this sometimes might be the problem; anyone who has stood in front of a classroom has seen students who are buried by the weight of their own family dysfunction.  However, those who automatically blame the college completion crisis on single mothers who work long hours, absent fathers who play little daily role in parenting, and a troubled culture where children are exposed to violent images and experience much personal upheaval could perhaps benefit from a look back—about 75 years or so—at our nation’s history.

There was perhaps no time in recent United States history when there were quite so many mothers working long hours and raising children on their own, fathers were quite so absent, and American daily life was less stable and quite so saturated in the daily threat of bloody violence as during World War Two.  Nonetheless, that generation of children and adolescents not only survived but thrived under the most difficult of circumstances.  Perhaps the circumstances surrounding this time in American history were unique, but an equally reasonable case certainly can be made that it is both facile and fallacious to simply blame parents and society for every educational failing of today’s children.

We need change—even more so because our college students are themselves changing.  Traditional college students now comprise only 25% of our undergraduate population; the rest are juggling some combination of school, work, and family.  Rather than continue to insist that square pegs must somehow be made to fit into round holes, we should press forward on two fronts in order to better accommodate the needs of today’s students.

First, we should develop a free and comprehensive system of online instructional tools to help students refresh skills that may have either deteriorated during time away from school—or were never learned in the first place.  Rather than immediately place students into full-tuition remedial courses, we need to push them to first take personal responsibility for their own academic deficits in order to both reduce the semesters spent on remedial coursework and emphasize those skills of study and self-discipline that are critical for educational success.  Remedial classroom courses should, of course, still be available, but encouraging students to first use online tools in order to avoid incurring excessive debt for non-college coursework could benefit many.

In addition, we must grant academic credit to many more students for lifetime learning in order to prevent non-traditional students, who often have spent many years in the workforce or military, from wasting time and money on coursework they may not need because they have already learned those skills elsewhere.  A more comprehensive system of Credit-for-Prior-Learning options, when more fully integrated into our institutions of higher learning, might also allow us to bend the cost curve and improve affordability for a broad range of students in the years ahead.

Education And Income Inequality

Before I can discuss income inequality and its relationship to education, I need to do a little time traveling.

After I finished college, I moved to New York City.  I was anxious to experience my “New York Dream” and dive into the cultural richness of The Big Apple.  Arriving in New York with no job and little money, I was priced out of virtually every neighborhood, so my best option was an apartment in a saggy walk-up on East 104th Street in the heart of East Harlem.  I was not so naive that I failed to realize the new owner of my building—pursuing his own New York Dream of buying a decayed building on the cheap and flipping it for a small fortune a few years down the line—was likely thrilled to rent an apartment to an abundantly Caucasian Ivy League graduate who seemed blithely unconcerned about being the only white guy for many, many city blocks around.  However, preoccupied with the quotidian tasks of paying my bills and feeding myself, I was thrilled to have four walls that were barely affordable, so I set my worries about being part of someone’s gentrification fantasy aside.

I spent the next six years dutifully taking a subway from 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue to a series of offices in midtown Manhattan.  It was not long before I realized how the juxtaposition of my very down-at-the-heels neighborhood and the immense wealth I saw around me during my work days began to affect me.  My neighbors were typically neither lazy, stupid, nor criminal.  They were, however, hobbled by the lack of academic and social capital that holds back those without a solid education.

Those six years helped develop my understanding of the economic barriers and societal prejudices that hold back so many and—realizing that so much about one’s life is relatively immutable—my focus on quality public education as a critical change agent in the lives of those with few other options for personal improvement.  Finally taking my leap into teaching in a high school classroom at the age of forty-two was a sign of my belief that public education is the fulcrum upon which so much of our nation’s future swings.

Many believe that income inequality can be easily solved by taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor, but I do not think we can tax/redistribute ourselves out of the inequality problem we are experiencing because any additional revenues we can generate through increases in taxes and fees are going to be gobbled up by the many other needs (infrastructure, pensions, housing, healthcare, etc.) standing in line ahead of providing some tax benefit to those who are struggling.  Moreover, any minimal tax relief will be of little use if you cannot find a job to begin with because you lack the academic background to do a job and upgrade your skills as rapid changes in technology demand.

I continue to believe that the root of the problem of income inequality is the ongoing—and seemingly intractable—issue of providing quality public education to all of our children.  Income inequality is caused (or at least greatly exacerbated) by a public school system that continues to hand diplomas to young men and women who cannot read, write, compute, or think—and nothing else we try will help until we resolve this problem.

Nationally, according to the US Department of Education, 60% of students at community colleges and 20% at four year colleges need to take a remedial (high school level or below) class in reading, writing, or math—and these are students who have already earned their high school diplomas. Worse yet, at some colleges the number of incoming students who require remedial education is significantly higher.

This lack of adequate academic preparation in our public schools has a very detrimental impact on student persistence and completion in college, and many of our students are left in the worst of all possible situations—student debt but no degree—because the hill is just too high to climb due to the academic deficits they are struggling to remediate later in life.  Imagine how very limited the futures of these non-degreed but indebted men and women will be and how this will contribute to the problem of poverty—and continue to drive inequality.

Throwing the most needy a bone in the form of a subsidy or a temporary job will solve little or nothing because they are often far too academically disadvantaged to benefit in the long term.  Obviously, not everyone with a good education will rise out of poverty, but we can be certain that almost none will unless we reform our nation’s public schools in order to consistently emphasize higher standards and measurable results.

An Alternative To The ACA Is Needed

The idea driving the passage of the Affordable Care Act was simple and laudable: We must help those who cannot obtain health insurance due to pre-existing health conditions, prohibitive costs, or a combination of the two.  This was to be accomplished by both establishing new mandates regarding coverage and creating a system of subsidies based on income.  In addition, in order to encourage states to broaden their eligibility for Medicaid coverage and allow more low-income individuals to enroll, the federal government would, at least for a few years, cover the increased costs for states that agreed to participate.

Multiple misstatements, confused clarifications, and endless extensions later, we now know that although the idea was simple, its execution was anything but.

Some of the problems were surely the result of overlaying a federal system atop both myriad state insurance programs and a complex private insurance market.  Some of the difficulties were certainly due to ideological differences regarding the proper role of the federal government.  Other compromises were driven by private interests battling to protect their profits.  Add a dollop of hubris and ladle a heaping spoonful of government incompetence on top, and the sagging soufflé that is Obamacare was ready to serve to the American people – like it or not.

There obviously needed to be a way to help those with chronic medical conditions, low incomes, or a toxic combination of the two to afford needed medical care.  However, the much-touted advantages of Obamacare turned out to be, when the American people finally got a look, both oversold and illusory.

The promise that Obamacare, through some financial alchemy never fully explained but presumed plausible, was going to cover everyone, reduce costs, and allow everyone to “keep your plans and your doctors if you like them ” is nowhere near the actual outcome.  In fact, we can now see the magic of Obamacare is instead simply a mix of well-worn public and private sector solutions that are much the same as the promises of those ancient alchemists to convert base metal into gold—less than meets the eye.

The public sector part of the equation is pretty much the same as every public sector solution: pour buckets of taxpayer money on the problem and assure everyone that you know what you are doing.  It is difficult to see this facet of Obamacare is anything other than a massive federal jobs program that will, as is typically the case, take care of itself at our expense.

The private sector component of Obamacare is nothing but Healthcare Economics 101 dressed up in new clothing: lower plan costs by both reducing provider networks and increasing deductibles.  Therefore, in order to make the numbers (sort of) work, Americans had to be forced into plans that in many cases drastically narrowed their choices of doctors and ramped up their out-of-pocket costs.  Whether this is actually an improvement or merely a sham will be decided after we finally figure out whether we can now see the doctors we need at a price we can afford.

Going back to the primary problem that the ACA was meant to remedy, the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, it seems it would have been much simpler to create a system of premium subsidies based on the information already entered into our individual Federal income tax returns—no exchanges, no cancelled policies, and minimal hassle.

If there is a compelling national interest in helping citizens afford needed care, why whip up new systems instead of using those that already exist?  The necessary tax data would have been easily obtainable, and private insurers would certainly have been happy to welcome more paying customers.  The premium subsidies necessary to cover those with pre-existing health problems would obviously have been higher, but those inherent costs would no longer be borne by the individual, and private insurers would still be able charge rates congruent with the expected costs of treatment.

Would this have been expensive?  Yes.  Very.

However, it would have been minimally disruptive and absolutely transparent regarding taxpayer liabilities.  In addition, employers terrified of the costs of Obamacare mandates would no longer be driven to turn us into a nation of part-time workers.  This simplified approach would have been preferable to the ACA beast now lurching across the insurance landscape, and it might still provide a functional fallback position that will allow us to ditch Obamacare – yet still offer coverage to more Americans – while we debate more reasonable alternatives.

Why Do Our Public Schools Never Improve?

Quality public education is, as I have written many times before, the foundation of our society, and our ongoing failure to provide it to all students is a source of continued frustration and confusion for many.  Why can’t we ensure all of our schools provide a decent education for all of our children, particularly those for whom the K-12 years are their best—and perhaps last—springboard out of difficult life circumstances that have whittled their avenues for personal improvement to a precious few?

Maybe we need to re-think how we look at our public schools and reconcile ourselves to the fact that their educational missions are sometimes tangential to their roles as drivers of local economic activity and reassurance for parents who are nervously eying their children’s futures.

Economically speaking, public schools are a big deal on a national level.  Moreover, on a local level—particularly when it comes to small to medium sized communities—they are enormously important as sources of jobs, service and construction contracts, and the free daycare they provide for parents.  Public schools are, therefore, only able to effect changes to the extent that those changes are not in conflict with their local economic benefits.

Let’s face it, there is little coherent reason why a local school superintendent should be paid more than a state’s Governor, except insofar as it establishes a top boundary for salaries that pulls everyone else’s paycheck just that much higher.  Likewise, the need to create and protect local jobs helps to explain why perfectly serviceable school buildings are routinely abandoned to build new ones, little that can be outsourced to a less expensive vendors ever is, and office operations often look like a snapshot from 1990.

There is, added to this, another basic human need: a desire to believe in bright futures for our children.  It is unfortunate that one sure-fire way to keep every parent happy is to keep moving their children along toward graduation with as little focus on learning outcomes as possible.  This would not be a terrible problem if we were an agrarian society of subsistence farmers, but it is a catastrophe in a complex and interdependent world that places a premium on communication skills, technical expertise, and overall intellectual alacrity.  It is, in addition, not fair to have roughly 75% of our high school graduates—if ACT measures of college readiness and the explosion of remedial students in two and four year institutions can be accepted as reasonable indicators—not realize they are unprepared for higher education until they actually step onto the campus.  Racing to address core academic deficiencies far past the point when they should have been identified and corrected is extremely difficult.

In addition, as a recent article in The New York Times points out, although we may have still have the best elite universities in the world—as measured by standards that are only distally related to teaching and learning—recent studies seem to indicate that the overall quality of the educational outcomes in our nation’s higher education system lags behind our international peers.  This should not be surprising.  Just as a house tends to sag when the foundation rots, an increase in academically deficient freshman entering colleges and universities corrodes classroom standards and expectations and, as a consequence, results in diplomas being awarded to less proficient graduates.

We need to rebuild the foundation of our nation’s educational system, so we need to convince the stakeholders—students, parents, and educators—in our K-12 system to buy into the idea that raising academic standards is essential if we are to avoid slipping ever further behind globally.  Each group, however, is likely to resist necessary changes for reasons that perhaps speak to the reasons we can’t seem to make any other meaningful but necessary changes in our society.

Students will, as a rule, not be interested in more demanding assignments and grading.  Isn’t one’s youth supposed to be all about play and self-discovery?  Parents typically are not going to be all that excited about their children stressing about schoolwork and test scores.  Why are you making my children miserable instead of nurturing their self-esteem?  Educators find higher academic standards problematic because they tend to expose systemic shortcomings, bring unwanted attention to weak teachers and administrators, and rile up a lot of parents about the failings of their children.  Can’t we talk about dress codes or building a new school instead?