In the Nation's Interest

Big Changes for K12 Education, and….What Employers Spend on Training

The big news in K12 education is that reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a.k.a. “No Child Left Behind” – may finally be moving, only 8 years behind schedule.  Changes to the law governing the federal role in education will impact K12 education for years to come.  Plus there’s no shortage of other thought-provoking news and research, including K12 spending figures and a report on employers’ investments in workforce training.  So let me offer a smorgasbord of interesting tidbits that recently crossed my desk… that is, computer screen.

Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Reauthorization: A Reduced Federal Role

ESEA governs the federal role and spending on K12 education.  The current version of ESEA – known as “No Child Left Behind” or NCLB – passed over 13 years ago in 2001.  Due for reauthorization since 2007, ESEA was just too controversial to make it out of a divided Congress.  Now with Republicans controlling both chambers, it appears that ESEA reauthorization is poised to move.

On the House side, the Republican bill, the Student Success Act, just passed out of committee this Wednesday, February 11 on a party-line vote with relatively minor amendments. It goes to the House floor the week of February 24. On the Senate side, Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, has also released his draft bill, with the aim of getting it out of committee by the end of February.

These are big complicated bills, with lots of moving parts – 597 pages for the House version.  Here are some highlights of the proposed changes.

Defining the federal role in education – suffice it to say that Republicans have not been happy with the expanded federal role in education embodied in both No Child Left Behind (which, let’s recall, was championed by a Republican president) and more recently by the Obama administration’s Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.  Expect reauthorization to curtail that role. 

Testing, testing, testing – No Child Left Behind required states to test students annually in grades 3-8 in reading and math and once in grades 10-12, plus at least once in elementary, middle, and high school in science.  Test results have to be reported for racial and demographic subgroups.  These testing requirements are unpopular in some quarters, to say the least.  One issue was the tests’ high stakes: schools that failed to reach an ever-rising bar for the proportion of students deemed “proficient” were designated “in need of improvement” (a.k.a., failing) and faced sanctions.  Second, many parents and teachers complained that too much time was spent on testing and test prep.

So one big question in reauthorization has been, annual testing: in or out?  The House bill retains the current schedule of testing every year in grades 3-8, while the Senate bill currently gives states two options – maintaining the current annual tests or opting out.  Most of those with opinions on the subject favor retaining annual testing, and it seems that is swaying Sen. Alexander, as long as the high-stakes aspects of the tests are dropped (see below).  (Interestingly, the National Education Association, one of the teachers’ unions, is a primary proponent of grade-span testing, which would make teacher evaluations based on student achievement, much harder if not impossible.  Coincidence?)

What’s the right answer on this one?  Pretty clearly annual testing is necessary if we want to calculate student learning growth from year to year, which is the appropriate metric for school and teacher performance.  Testing students only once in elementary, middle, and high school would make assessing student learning growth much less meaningful and accurate.  Annual testing in math and literacy can be accomplished in as little as three to four hours per year.  A recent Ohio study found that students spend only 1 to 3 percent of their time – 19.8 hours annually – in standardized testing, with less than half due to the federal requirements.  This seems like an entirely reasonable amount of time to devote to testing that allows us to gauge student, school, and teacher performance.

Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) – gone
NCLB mandated that 100% of students must reach proficiency on state reading and math tests by 2014, and that states create a time table for increasing the percentage of students reaching proficiency each year.  (What a great way to insure that we achieve success: legislate that we will!)  Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP measured whether schools were reaching these increasingly stringent goals for proficiency.  Schools that failed to make AYP were subject to sanctions including being named as “in need of improvement.”  Schools that failed to make AYP for enough years were required to restructure.

Back when NCLB passed in 2001, everyone expected that it would be reauthorized well before the AYP requirements began to really bite.  But of course that’s not what happened.  The state tests became increasingly high stakes, and more schools were identified as “failing.”  Ultimately the U.S. Department of Education offered states waivers to the NCLB requirements, tied to Obama administration requirements for schools.  Congress, especially Republicans, saw this as federal and executive branch overreach.
For all these reasons, AYP is popular with no one, and it is absent from current bills to replace NCLB.

Teacher evaluation – also not appearing
NCLB actually does not require teacher evaluation.  It does mandate that all teachers be “highly qualified,” defined as having a bachelor’s degree, being fully state-certified, and proving that they know each subject they teach.  Middle and high school teachers could prove they were “highly qualified” through a college major in the subject, passing a state test, or a graduate degree, among other routes.  Note that this is an input or process approach to insuring teacher quality.

In contrast, starting in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education required states wishing to obtain a waiver from NCLB requirements to develop teacher and principal evaluation systems that included student growth on state tests as a significant factor.  This is much more an outcome approach to assessing quality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, tying teacher evaluations to students’ performance on state tests has been quite controversial.  Even if one supports the idea in theory (and not all do), there still reside multiple devils in the details of how to implement such systems.

Which leads to the question of how any ESEA reauthorization will handle teacher quality and evaluation.  The short answer is that Congress appears to be opting to leave this hot-button issue to the states to decide: the “highly qualified” teacher requirement is gone from the draft bills, and teacher evaluation is not required, though states may use their federal teaching-quality funds for this if they so desire.

Standards and the Common Core – making a cameo appearance
NCLB’s requirements focused much more on standardized state tests in grades 3-8 and high school than on state standards per se – although in effect the testing mandate required states to develop or revise their K12 standards as the basis for the tests.  (If anything, NCLB gave states a perverse incentive to lower their standards in order to make it easier for more students to reach “proficiency.”)

Later, in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s requirements for states to obtain a waiver from NCLB included the requirement that the state adopt “college and career ready standards.”  At that point, before the Common Core became politically controversial, some states adopted the Common Core as the simplest way to check the box on their waiver application and/or their application for federal Race to the Top funding, which also required college and career ready standards.

Now, of course, Common Core has become a political hot potato among Republicans, especially those eyeing the 2016 presidential race.  So even though neither NCLB nor the U.S. Department of Education ever required the Common Core standards, the House bill specifically prohibits the Secretary of Education from doing so (although states could adopt the standards if they wished).  One might wonder why such a prohibition is necessary… if it weren’t the beginning of the next election cycle.

Per-student K12 Expenditures – What $20,000 Buys You

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) recently released data on per-student expenditures by school district across the United States for 2011-12.  (Although the NCES data is highly accurate, it tends to be reported with a lag…)  Median per-pupil expenditures by district were $9,937 in 2011-12, which actually was a decline of 2.5 percent from the previous year.  (By 2011-12, the federal ARRA stimulus spending for schools was mostly gone.  Tight budgets forced states to reduce education funding, and the stagnant real estate market limited local property tax revenues for schools.)

Although the median expenditure figure of $9,937 is most representative of national spending, it masks much variation.  At the high end, New York City spent $20,226 per pupil in 2011-12 and Boston spent $19,720.  Among the 100 largest school districts, the Alpine School District in Utah spent the least, at $5,412 per student.

What did that pay for?  On average almost two thirds (65.2 percent) went to instruction and just under a third (30.6 percent) went to support services.

And if you’re interested in how that compares internationally, OECD, using a somewhat different definition of per-student spending, showed the United States spending about $3,000 more per student than the OECD average for primary and secondary education in 2011.  Only Luxembourg, Switzerland, Norway, and Austria spent more per student.

Employers’ Spending on Training Exceeds College Spending

I was surprised recently to learn that employers’ spending on informal and formal training exceeds spending on education at two- and four-year colleges, according to a new report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.  Of the $1.1 trillion that the United States spends annually on formal and informal workforce education and training, $590 billion (54 percent) is spent by employers on informal ($413 billion) and formal training ($177 billion) for their employees.  This compares to $407 billion spent by two- and four-year colleges for formal education of students.

And when it comes to formal training, contrary to what you may have guessed, employers invest more in their more highly educated workers.  Fifty-eight percent of employers’ formal training dollars go to employees with a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to only 17 percent for workers with a high school diploma or less.  Check out the report for additional interesting findings.