Students in which states are climbing the highest?

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A lot of the headlines in the general and specialized media on education have focused the past few years on the seemingly interminable list of federal initiatives, which are more or less attempts by the federal government to define what “real” state reforms are (standards, tests, curricular materials, instructional practice, evaluations). It is ironic to anyone who watches this closely to remember that Secretary Duncan is largely working off of a cheat sheet he developed while superintendent of Chicago — hardly an experience that has a lot of empirical evidence to back it up. When not leaning on that experience, he has turned to a number of DC-based organizations with equally weak records in improving outcomes for kids (see here for a much deserved skewering of said friends of reform).

The real action has always been at the state and local level. The reasons for that are easy to explain: tradition, federal and state laws, and money (states and localities provide >90% of all K-12 funding). The press and the policy world’s focus on DC is not only misinformed, it is misleading. It is why we often hear pronouncements without meaning such as: Charter schools around the country have not performed uniformly well. Yup. Well, how about looking at the state level? State and local policy sets the parameters for charter consistency and performance just as they determine the success and failure of district, vocational-technical, virtual and private school options. Charters in Massachusetts are in many ways distinct from those in a number of states. And ours are highly successful in great part because of getting state policies right in the 1990s.

So, which states have shown the most progress overall (charter, district, and everybody included)? Which states can act as models for other state reformers who are not looking for dictates from the USDOE but rather to other comparable experiences?
There are a handful of states, but generally Massachusetts and Florida rise to the top for significant (and sustained) increases in student performance over time.

Matt Ladner works for the Foundation for Excellence in Education (an organization headed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush) and he is very bullish on Florida. He shared in a recent blog post entitled Read ‘Em and Weep Edureactionaries (not sure who those reactionaries are…) an interesting chart from an important report authored by Paul Peterson and Eric Hanushek, which once more shows that there is no correlation between money spent and K-12 academic performance.

Focusing on the 4th Grade Mathematics exam between 1992 and 2009, the authors found that increasing spending does not have a strong relationship with improved student learning.

But Ladner loses me when he starts putting the reforms in Florida on a pedestal at the expense of the reforms in Massachusetts.

Conflict-adverse state policymakers with extra billions of dollars burning a hole in their pocket and very wealthy and pale complected students should study MD, DE and MA for clues on how to improve their student outcomes.

If however you live in a state with average or above student diversity, real budgetary constraints on the amount you can spend on K-12 and strong competing demands for any additional revenue you are likely to scrape up, you should study Florida. In fact you should study Florida regardless unless you lack the guts for a good tussle.

He is in fact doing what many analysts do, which is conflate money with reform. Do I believe that money can be helpful in securing reforms? Yep. The fact is that the Massachusetts reforms (as opposed to the money) started in 1993 in reaction to a court case brought by the teachers unions seeking “adequate” funding. And it is a political fact of life that it’s often hard to get constituencies to agree to do hard things unless you provide additional resources.

In the case of Massachusetts, the money has largely gone to salary increases and sizable increases in funding dedicated to paying for the remarkable inflation in the cost of teachers’ health care.

But let’s dig into Matt’s thesis and start by following the money trail in both states. If Massachusetts increased its per pupil funding at the same rate as FL (1992-2009, NCES), it would have seen increases of 209% rather than the 236% we’ve seen. (The national average is 211% over that period of time.) Instead of increasing from $6,151 to $14,501, MA per pupil expenditures would now stand at $12,850, again according to NCES, or about $1,650 per pupil (see here and here).

That $1,650 per pupil differential in funding between Florida and Massachusetts is altogether due to the fact that Massachusetts increased teacher salaries far more than FL during the 1990 to 2011 period. In just the past 10 years, the average salary for a Massachusetts teacher has gone from $50,880 to $71,752 (+45%) versus $41,640 to $45, 732 (+20%) in Florida, according to the Teacher Portal (an effort by the National Education Association to track salaries and benefits).

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A separate but important expenditure side issue to note is that a recent study demonstrated that increases in health care costs for teachers in MA more than consumed all additional revenues from the state for education from 2000-2007, consuming $300 million more than increases in state funding.

The differential in the cost of health care, where average Massachusetts teacher plans are at least on average a couple of thousand higher, makes the difference in state education spending even less of an issue as it relates to the cost of reform.

There is of course the fact that normalizing (seeking apples to apples comparisons on purchasing power) the expenditure levels also corrects some of the differential, in as much as a Bureau of Economic Analysis report notes the difference in purchasing power between Boston and Miami to be on the order of 12 percent. (For those who may like extra handholding, Boston is the more expensive location!)

In suggesting that the Massachusetts’ reforms are less applicable to most states than those enacted in Florida, Matt is in essence equating money with reform. That is, he is implicitly making the argument that the teacher salary increases and the incredible run-up in teacher health care costs are a big part of the Massachusetts reform agenda. Logically, he is also assigning these increases in salary and health care costs a role in Massachusetts’ faster improvement on the Nation’s Report Card, where the Bay State has improved faster than Florida on 4th and 8th grade math, and where Florida has outpaced Massachusetts’ rate of improvement on 4th and 8th grade reading.

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I’m all for paying teachers more – in fact especially open to paying starting teachers more. But the fact is with low starting salaries imposed and absence of merit pay opposed by the teachers union because of their insistence on a uniform salary schedule, there is little to no reason to think that higher average salaries have done much during this period to improve the quality of teaching unless you make two pretty indefensible assumptions. One, schools of education have changed in a way that has altered the pipeline of prospective teachers. (Um, not true.) Second, teachers who are paid more are better teachers because of motivational factors. The second statement is not empirically tested and unknown as of yet, but it assumes that teachers who received lower pay before held back on the talents they possess. Observation tells me that such cases are limited in the extreme.

I also hope Matt is not asserting that paying more for health care is related to the quality of teaching.

The reforms in MA — mainly (1) choice through a high-quality charter process, inter-district choice, strengthening vocational-technical schools (which are schools of choice); (2) the development and implementation of high-quality standards; (3) high-quality student testing, made public and attached to an independent school audit system; and (4) teacher tests based on the standards and unlike the various PRAXIS tests given out countrywide in that Massachusetts’ tests are content-driven — are not what has driven up the cost of education in Massachusetts. There has been an increase in teacher quality, and rather than being driven by salary increases, it is due to the unique way we test our teachers. While content-knowledge may not make a great teacher on its own, it sure does keep a lot of unprepared teachers out of the classroom.

The argument that these reforms are the work of “conflict-adverse state policymakers with extra billions of dollars burning a hole in their pocket” is more than a tad myopic.

Anyone who has looked at what Florida has accomplished over the past 20 years to improve student performance is impressed by a couple of important reforms such as holding the line on making sure third graders read at grade level before being promoted and the innovative and highly accountable Florida Virtual School, which receives funding only if and when students complete their online courses. The state has also increased choice options beyond what we’ve seen in Massachusetts. And Florida has improved on the Nation’s Report Card.

That said, last I looked (the 2011 NAEP), the Sunshine State is still below the national average on 4th grade math and absolutely dismal (somewhere below 40th in the country) on 8th grade math. Its improvements on 4th grade reading are solid, driving Florida to around 10th place in the country. Florida’s 8th grade reading scores on the NAEP are, again, pretty bad, coming in somewhere around 35th in the country.

Moreover, Florida’s gains on the NAEP have in recent years slowed and in some cases been reversed. The stalling of student performance in Florida has been accompanied by recent increases in funding for K-12 that outpace those in Massachusetts.

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So not only does Massachusetts at least keep pace with Florida in terms of improvement from 1992-2011 on NAEP (with one giant, gaping exception which I will note below), but it is doing it at a different level. Florida started from the bottom and moved to a below average state in terms of performance. The Bay State went from just above average to the top performer in the country — and to being competitive on international tests like the (2007) TIMSS, where we scored in the top six countries in math and science, and tied for number 1 on the 8th grade science test. We are playing in the big leagues.

And we continue to show improvements on NAEP.

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Moving from the bottom to an average performer as Florida has done, while good, is not nearly as hard as going from above average to the top. As they say, the higher the altitude, the tougher the climb. Florida’s slowdown in improvements is, one hopes, temporary.

Now for the big, gaping hole Massachusetts must address – and where it would do well to learn from Florida — improving Hispanic student performance. While the Bay State has outpaced Florida’s impressive rate of improvement among 4th grade Hispanics on reading (comparing the 1998 and 2011 NAEP, MA has gone from 196 to 216, while FL has gone from 203 to 220), we have fallen flat on 8th grade Hispanic reading; from 1998 to 2011, Massachusetts went only from 242 to 248, while Florida improved from 247 to 259. (It is worth noting that from the first year the NAEP disaggregated Hispanic performance, Florida Hispanics have outscored ours.)

I share the data and the thoughts above to make two points: (1) I agree that additional education spending does not correlate with success and (2) I agree that the Florida model has real merit.

But reformers in other states, even ones with a sharp eye on keeping costs down, would do well to look at Massachusetts as much and, frankly, even more than Florida. The blue-state salary increases and health care cost inflation are options the 30 states with Republican governors (25 where the state legislatures are also controlled by Republicans) need not sign up for.

Arguing that these increases in education spending in Massachusetts are what drove the state’s rise in student performance may serve as a nice talking point for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, but it has the unfortunate characteristic of being untrue.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.