McClaughry: Closing the educational performance gap

By John McClaughry

In the coming fiscal year the Vermont legislature will vote to spend over $1.7 billion to educate our preK-12 students. What are students, parents and taxpayers getting for this startling expenditure?

To answer that question, Katharine B. Stevens and Meredith Tracy of the American Enterprise Institute recently released a study for all 50 states entitled “Still Left Behind: How America’s Schools Keep Failing Our Children.” The authors used the most recent data (for the 2017-18 school year) for K-12 spending and results.

Their proxy for results was the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) average scores on eighth grade reading and mathematics. The authors adjusted the per student spending (in 2019 dollars) to reflect differences in state income levels.

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

“The report’s most important finding is that large proportions of lower-income eighth graders in 2017 still failed to demonstrate even minimum levels of competence in reading and math, as indicated by scoring below NAEP Basic. This was the case in every state — even those that appeared to have improved the most from 2003 to 2017.”

“That is, more than 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary School Act into law as a cornerstone of his War on Poverty legislation, and close to 14 years since the nation’s most far-reaching school reform initiative [NCLB] was launched, the disadvantaged children long targeted by reforms and increased spending were still failing in large numbers.”

First, let’s look at the findings for Vermont, for lower income (free and reduced lunch) and higher income students.

For eighth grade reading, 14% of higher income students in 2003 scored below “Basic,” the lowest NAEP category, equivalent to “just barely acceptable.” After 14 years of increasing educational spending, the percentage dropped to 12%. Not much improvement.

For lower income students, 33% scored below Basic in 2003, and 30% in 2017. Again, not much improvement.

The gap between upper and lower income students scoring below Basic was 19% in 2003, and 18% in 2017. There was no progress at all in closing the gap.

For eighth grade mathematics, the higher income students scored the same — 16% of them were below Basic — in 2003 and 2017. The lower income students scored far worse — from 41% below Basic in 2003 to 37% below in 2017.

The gap between upper and lower income math students declined from 25% to 21% over the 14 years.

The conclusion from Vermont’s results: an alarming percentage of our eighth graders, both high and lower income, are getting D- grades in both reading and math, per the NAEP test. The lower income students are doing far worse than their higher income peers, and the gap between them is not significantly shrinking.

The author’s conclusion from the national results: “It’s clear that a great number of schools have been failing disadvantaged children to a stunning degree for years, despite massive public investment that’s reached over $700 billion annually. We’re now heavily focused on getting schools open again, but reopening previously failing schools will unfortunately be much less help to children than many like to acknowledge.”

Now let’s look at Vermont spending. Vermont taxpayers spent about $14,100 per K-12 student in 2003 (in 2019 dollars). In 2017 the number had risen to $19,280. That put Vermont third in the country, after New York ($20,590) and Washington, D.C. ($20,127). New Hampshire was 13th at $15,731, and Utah was 51st at $7,748. The authors admit that comparing results with expenditures is “exceedingly difficult,” but say that “increased expenditures have not been shown to relate to improved outcomes in a clear, systematic way.”

“The dismal outcomes described in this report were produced in the context of great investment, of both resources and effort, over many decades. Indeed, today’s schooling outcomes are the cumulative result of a half century of intensifying reform efforts and steadily increased spending on K–12 schooling.”

What can a citizen and legislator take away from these findings? At the risk of oversimplifying: The billions spent on closing the gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers is not getting results. There is clearly some minimum amount of per pupil spending that must be provided (think Utah), but doubling and tripling that amount is not a recipe for educational success.

One better strategy for closing that gap would be to concentrate preK funds on the 20% of students who badly need early and more intense help, instead of spreading it over 100%. More importantly, in this age of internet access and pandemic-driven alternatives, we need to go beyond finding more billions to preserve intact the bricks-and-mortar, sage-on-the-stage government monopoly schooling, and enable all parents to seek out and choose among diverse education opportunities that work best for their kids. Yes, that would be disruptive.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Images courtesy of Flickr/ and John McClaughry

17 thoughts on “McClaughry: Closing the educational performance gap

  1. I took the 8th grade test in the early 1970’s. Didn’t read the questions, just filled in the little boxes with the #2 Pencil and find it amazing anyone would assume all kids try on the test. Time for a Test Party, throw the test overboard. Tell all kids to flunk the test.

  2. For decades, the Vermont government has proven it does not know how to effectively and economically run the PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM, which invariably, has poor outcomes.

    The best approach would be to privatize all of it.

    Parents would pay 50% of tuition.

    The state would require parents to set up an Education Savings Account, at birth of each child, and would require parents to make a minimum tax-deductible contribution of $2000/y, up to $5000/y, to each child’s account.

    The state would pay the other 50% of tuition, but would have no voice in what is taught and how it is taught, just as with the existing Private Schools.

    That would save Vermonters at least one $BILLION per year.

    • Willem, consider Vermont’s current funding arrangement. Those 90 districts with School Choice ‘tuitioning’ provide voucher as follows:
      The 2020-2021 Average Announced Tuition of Union Elementary Schools is $14,859.00
      The 2020-2021 Average Announced Tuition of Union 7th-12th Grade Schools is $16,233.00

      If these amounts are provided as ESAs (Education Savings Accounts) and parents can use the money to send their children to the school they feel best meets the needs of their children, and that cost is less than the voucher, they can keep the difference in their accounts to use on future education costs. If the cost of their choices are more, they make up the difference.

      Consider the incentives. Parents will choose the most cost-effective program that meets their children’s needs (e.g. one that creates the best outcomes for the least cost). Schools will be incentivized to provide the best programs at competitive costs.

      Don’t reinvent the wheel. The current ‘tuition’ voucher is already 15% – 20% less than the cost per student at most public schools. Leave it as is for now. Let the market set the costs from there on. All that needs be done is to allow parents to use the current tuition voucher to send their children to the school of their choice, be it public or independent.

      As an example, consider the Village School of North Bennington, a public Elementary school that transformed itself into a private academy.

  3. My mother is a 92 year-old Nebraska farm girl. The test she took to enter 9th grade, is a test I am sure I would fail and I feel certain most college graduates today would fail as well. We need to look to the past and see what we can learn. One thing is class size. The empty old one room school houses which decorate our nation were a source of confidence, higher learning, and social skills including empathy and the Golden Rule. We all know it doesn’t take money to teach a child basic math and reading skills. This is a lie perpetrated by folks looking to line their pockets. Schools are so big that children are not just falling through the cracks, they are plunging down a river torrent with no hope of being rescued. Figure out a way to either homeschool or send to private schools. You might have to do without, for a time being, but it is the only way. Reach out to the homeschool community or church. You will find help. Also, if you are worried about the “social” skills your child will be missing out on if they don’t go to government schools, stop worrying. This is another lie that the elite academia is feeding you. Your child can learn in another setting besides what the government deems fit. Until we have school choice DO NOT PUT YOUR CHILD IN A GOVERNMENT SCHOOL! It might seem like the easy way out right now but you will have a world of hurtn’ in the future if you do.

    • The irony is that when School Choice is enabled, public schools (i.e. government schools) figure out they have to be competitive. Studies show that they improve too. Or disappear.

      BTW: Home schooling and private schooling aren’t mutually exclusive. Independent schools, (i.e. private and religious schools) are beginning to incorporate certain levels of homeschooling in their programs (e.g. Education Pods). If we enable the education free marketplace, the innovation and improvements will be something to behold. All we need are School choice vouchers that allow all parents to choose the education program that best meets the needs of their children. Do that, stand back, and let the education marketplace do its magic.

  4. In addition to looking at the student scores, the oversight of the school systems perhaps needs to be examined. The behavior, philosophy and wisdom exhibited by the actual school boards has a significant impact on how the schools and in turn the students perform.

    In the very recent past, we have observed questionable behavior on the part of Vermont School Boards in the execution of their duties, which raises serious questions. The Mount Ascutney School District’s firing of principle Tiffany Riley for raising questions about BLM. The Mill River School Board’s disrespect of parent’s concerns over flying the BLM flag and refusal to bring the issue to a town vote.

    And then there is the on going dysfunction in the Burlington School System that has been in chaos in recent years with poor performance and high turn over among high level administrators that has involved the School Board. Most recently, the Burlington High School’s interim principle abruptly resigned saying he was tired of being “disrespected” by the School Board and its Chairperson. The individual had been working as the “interim principle” for over two years, a matter that profoundly irked him. The Chair of the School Board claimed to be ignorant of any concerns on the part of the departing interim principle…..The Board Chair went on to say, the interim principle was going to be made permanent principle in a couple of weeks……The best one can say about this situations is the total lack of communication among the people holding the highest offices in the Burlington School system and the people they are responsible for.

    When situations such as these are handled so poorly by the people with oversight responsibilities, how can we expect student performance scores to improve?

    • When situations such as these are handled so poorly by the people with oversight responsibilities, how can we expect student performance scores to improve?

      Isn’t it obvious by now?. We can’t.

      It’s time to put the responsibility in the hands of the people directly affected – parents and their children. And its easy to do so. In fact, 90 school disteicts in Vermont already do. It’s called School Choice ‘tuitioning’. The model exists. It’s time tested. It lowers costs and improves outcomes.

      Just do it!

  5. Let’s just keep spending more and more on education so we are sure to have enough competent graduates to export. Sounds like a plan!

  6. John:
    To put the questions you ask in a little different perspective: “What are we, all the taxpayers, getting for these huge increases that we were not getting 4 or5 years ago?”
    I ask this question of our public transportation system, when they came to our town for funding, starting 4 years ago. To date, they have not been able to answer the question.

    • The Unions are sucking up all the money, there is NO accountability for teacher results which means we are getting 1/2 the results the kids deserve for the over taxing we pay….

  7. To “enable all parents to seek out and choose among diverse education opportunities that work best for their kids…. would be disruptive”??

    How disruptive has it been to continue with the system we have for the last 50 years?

    Consider that the NAEP performance evaluation referenced in this commentary puts the Vermont public school monopoly in its most favorable light. After all, fewer than 5% of Vermont’s students take the NAEP tests and doing so is voluntary. Even though the sample NAEP cohort is supposed to represent all students, clearly it doesn’t. Just look at Vermont’s in-state NECAP, Smarter Balance and DLM assessments for the ten year period between 2005 and 2015. All Vermont students take these assessments.

    In 2005, 40% of Vermont’s 8th graders scored below proficient in Math. Ten years later, in 2015, 91% scored below proficient. Now that’s what I call disruptive. Especially given that the cost per student nearly doubled over that time period.

    If funds are to be ‘concentrated’ anywhere, they should be targeted to the parent’s choice of schools, public, private or religious. And this is why.

    Self Determination Theory:
    “The findings have led to the postulate of three innate psychological needs, competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which when satisfied yield enhanced self-motivation and mental health, and when thwarted lead to diminished motivation and well-being…. the more students were externally regulated the less they showed interest, value, and effort toward achievement and the more they tended to disown responsibility for negative outcomes, blaming others such as the teacher.

    Failing to provide supports for competence, autonomy, and relatedness, not only of children but also of students, employees, patients, and athletes, socializing agents and organizations, contribute to alienation and ill-being.

    Recent research has indicated that self-determined students were more likely to have achieved more positive adult outcomes including being employed at a higher rate and earning more per hour than peers who did not possess these skills.” (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997).

    It’s not the choices parents and their children make that has the greatest impact on education outcomes, but the fact that they are the ones making the choice in the first place.

  8. Schools segregate students into class levels by age, not by potential or achievement. It is apparently no longer accepted to have a pupil repeat a year. For reasons beyond my comprehension administrators seem not to recognize the difficulty of teaching a class wherein some students are reading Clemens’ “Life on the Mississippi,” and some who can hardly read comic books, are beyond their depth yet were cruelly admitted to a class not suited to their abilities where they’re confronted by a course not geared to their needs. Mixed potential and learning achievement in one class also deprives the higher achieving students of learning that can be geared to their abilities.

    • Re: “Mixed potential and learning achievement in one class also deprives the higher achieving students of learning that can be geared to their abilities.”

      This is only true in a one-size-fits-all system, like Vermont’s public-school monopoly. And because the monopoly is a one-size-fits-all system, this is the only outcome we hear about.

      When I served on our local public-school board, we found parents and students choosing multi-aged classes with various levels of competency, and mixing those students with those of differing abilities, actually enhanced the learning experience of all classes, because the curricula wasn’t limited to a specific pedagogy. Advanced students actually learned more as they assisted less advanced students in the learning process.

      Again, this isn’t the case for all students. One size does not fit all. But regardless of the choices parents and their children make, when they are the ones making the choices, outcomes inevitably improve.

      • Vermont’s one-size-fits-all monopoly on Public Schools, is basically the Wagon Train approach to education and teaching–it moves at the speed of the slowest wagon.
        Ten years on a school board taught me that if inspired teachers just entering a school for the first time actually try to incorporate the teaching skills they learned to become certified, they are ‘reined-in’ and strongly encouraged to maintain the established pace and methods of teaching. And all students suffer while their parents pay more and more for lackluster schools.
        The biggest impediments to increasing the effectiveness of our over priced and failing public educational systems are the teachers unions…

        • Indeed. In my school board experience I watched many motivated, innovative teachers be made to wear the scarlet letter until they conformed or left the building.

          School Choice will benefit innovative teachers as well as parents and their children.

          • OTOH, to blame the union is to descend into another rabbit hole of confusion and conflation. Simply allowing School Choice is the neutral solution. After all, if a unionized school can compete with non-unionized schools, that’s fine too.

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