By Michael J. Petrilli
It might be the most common mistake in education writing and policy analysis today: declaring that a majority of public school students in the U.S. hail from “low income” families—or, even worse, that half of public school kids are “poor.” Let’s put a stake through the heart of these claims because they are simply not true—and paint a distorted picture of the challenges America’s schools are up against.
The problem starts with the use of the free-and-reduced-price lunch program (FRL) as a marker of economic disadvantage. Generally, students living at 130 percent of the poverty level or below are eligible for free lunches; those at 185 percent or below can get a reduced price lunch. This was always a crude and imperfect indicator, but as Matt Chingos explained last year, for two reasons it’s now completely divorced from reality.
First, Congress expanded “direct certification,” under which students are deemed FRL eligible because they receive other forms of public support, such as food stamps. Second, Congress expanded “community eligibility,” which allows schools with at least 40 percent of students identified as eligible for FRL through direct-certification-type means to provide free lunches to all of their students and eliminate paper applications going forward. These changes are undeniably good for expanding kids’ access to free school lunches. But they may mark the beginning of the end of FRL’s moonlighting for researchers and policymakers as a socioeconomic indicator.
As a result, as Chingos showed in figure 1 below, in recent years the percentage of FRL students rose steadily even as the proportion of kids who are actually low-income has fallen.
Figure 1. Measures of economic disadvantage of American students and children, 1989–2013
SOURCE: Matthew M. Chingos, “No more free lunch for education policymakers and researchers,”Brookings (June 2016).
As of 2013, then, about 40 percent of American school-kids were low-income—defined as coming from families earning 200 percent or less of the poverty level. Given the strengthening economy, the number is probably closer to 35 percent by now. And 35 percent is less than fifty.
That alone should keep writers and editors from printing the claim that half of American students are low-income. But there’s more to the story, and it’s especially important for folks writing about schools at the state or local level, and for policymakers, too. It’s about the vast differences in the cost of living across the United States—differences that are not accounted for in the official poverty measure or in the FRL program.
It’s not hard to understand why this is a problem: A dollar goes a lot farther in some parts of the country than others. In low-cost communities FRL statistics will overinflate the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged; in high-cost communities they will understate reality.
Let’s take a look at how this plays out. The Census Bureau publishes an index that tries to capture cost-of-living differences by metro and non-metro areas nationwide. (This examines differences in housing costs, which are the major drivers of differences in cost-of-living.) The median community in the U.S. with respect to housing costs is Modesto, California, with Fort Walton Beach, Florida; Reno, Nevada; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Madison, Wisconsin; and Houston, Texas, very close as well. The cheapest is rural Alabama, with rural Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee in the same ballpark. In rural communities in these Southern states, housing costs a third less than the national median. The most expensive area, not surprisingly, is Silicon Valley, with San Francisco and Honolulu close behind. In those areas, housing costs are almost double the national median.
These differences have a big impact on families’ standard of living. Simply put, you can live pretty well in rural Alabama on what looks to be a fairly small income because housing is so cheap. (Of course, lots of other things are cheaper, too.) And the opposite is the case in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. Yet none of that is taken into consideration in our official poverty measures or in the FRL program.
Consider Alabama. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 58 percent of its students were FRL eligible as of 2013–14, meaning they were living at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. For a two-parent family with two children, that was about $44,000. But if we adjusted for cost of living differences, a family in rural Alabama would need to earn about $38,000 or less to be at or below 185 percent of poverty. A family above that amount surely isn’t rich, but they also aren’t “economically disadvantaged.” They are what we used to call middle class.
All of this needs to be on the minds of reporters, analysts, and policymakers. It could be that some schools or districts or states look like they are “beating the odds”—but only because their students aren’t as needy as we’ve been led to believe. Or we might discover some schools or districts or states that deserve more credit for their student achievement results, considering their rates of true disadvantage.
I would urge those writing about low-cost areas in particular to be careful about buying the argument that a huge proportion of local students are poor. The best approach might be common sense. Sure, $40,000 is low-income in San Francisco or New York City. But in rural Alabama? Probably not.
This has big implications for policy too, of course. If we don’t pay attention to differences in cost of living, we may end up funding low-cost areas too generously, and high-cost areas too stingily. In fact, that’s precisely what this study by Bruce Baker and colleagues says the Title I formula is doing—sending too much money to rural states and too little to urban ones.
Those are big challenges to fix. What’s easy, though, is for us writers to stop using FRL incorrectly. Now you know, so no more false claims about America’s low-income student majority!
Don’t be misled by the provocative title and subtitle of John Merrow's new book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, which might lead one to expect in these pages a back-to-the-future, Diane Ravitch–like defense of the education status quo—and which likely account for the book’s fawning jacket blurbs by Jonathan Kozol and by Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association, among others. Delve in and you find that Merrow, a veteran education journalist and PBS NewsHour habitué, is not exactly that sort of anti-reformer. Rather, he’s a sort of discombobulated radical who seeks many worthy changes in the American K–12 enterprise but whose “plan,” for all its dozen steps, isn’t likely to result in the overhaul he wants.
No devotee of the status quo, Merrow rightly reveres E. D. Hirsch and wants more schools to adopt a knowledge-rich curriculum. When it comes to making kids more independent and giving them “freedom to fail,” he even begins to resemble U.S. Senator Ben Sasse. His precepts also comport overall with those of Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of New York City’s Success Academy charter schools. He seeks a total reconstruction of teacher preparation and compensation, even of teachers union practices. (According to Merrow, “[B]ook-length union contracts that spell out every move have no places in this new approach.” One wonders if Eskelsen García read that part.) He favors personalized learning and intelligent deployment of technology in the classroom. He wants more top-notch schools of choice and doesn’t look to Uncle Sam to solve the K–12 system’s problems. (He especially loathes Donald Trump and warns that if we fail to revitalize our schools we’ll end up electing more such people, which “will be the end of the American experiment.”)
Yes, we find stuff between these covers that deserves plaudits. Much of the rest, however, is—in today’s vernacular—problematic.
The problem starts with the author’s tendency toward narcissism. The book is partly a memoir, and some of its anecdotes are moving, evocative, even gripping. Merrow has indeed had a heckuva career. But there are memoirs that place oneself in context and memoirs that celebrate the self. This one tends toward the latter, with the author emerging not as a journalist-observer at major education events of the past 40 years but more as a key mover in far more of those events than he actually influenced.
The book also grinds multiple axes and settles a lot of scores, in a few cases—bizarrely—with people who also get thanked in the acknowledgments, that being a vast list extending from the leftist journalist I. F. Stone to the (conservative) Hume Foundation’s Gisèle Huff. (I get a mention, too.)
Eli Broad and Bill Gates are both slammed and thanked. “Transparently ambitious” Bill Bennett is only slammed, even as Merrow takes credit for supplying Bennett’s well-known reference to the education system’s “bureaucratic blob.” Michelle Rhee is slammed over and over again, as she personifies the kind of test-score-driven, top-down, technocratic reform that Merrow abhors. Also repeatedly lambasted—here the author does resemble those who blurbed his book—are standardized testing, profiteering by entrepreneurs and would-be change agents, and those who lack sufficient admiration for teachers.
The author’s borrowing of the widely recognized twelve-step model to end an addiction may be clever book marketing, but he never makes quite clear just what it is that we must cure our addiction to, beyond declaring that “we as a nation are ‘hooked’ on what we hope will be quick fixes for deep systemic problems.” As noted above, and to Merrow’s credit, that’s no plea to keep things as they are or revert to the way they once were. But it’s hard to picture how the education revolution he appears to seek can come about if we forgo all of the reforms that he lumps together as “quick fixes.” Indeed, he acknowledges that “hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of children have benefited from efforts to improve schools [Merrow’s emphasis].” But “school reform’s record is not great.” It hasn’t closed achievement gaps, “done much for teachers,” or halted resegregation.
Of course it hasn’t! Even the most ardent and dogged reformer has limited leverage on the behemoth of public education. Merrow knows that perfectly well, but he’s deeply ambivalent about even trying to effect change from outside the system. He makes the startling claim that “incremental and sporadic school reform . . . has damaged the life chances of many young people.” This dire sequence started, he says, with A Nation at Risk, the 1983 Reagan administration report that launched America on “experiments” such as “open classrooms, national goals, merit pay, vouchers, charter schools, smaller classes, alternative certification for teachers, student portfolios, and online learning, to name just a handful.”
It’s not obvious what those reforms have in common, but to Merrow they seem to share three evils. Many of them he sees as emanating from greedy “corporate” sources. Many he sees as fixated on test scores. Most significantly, in his eyes they’re episodic, transitory, and superficial rather than addressed to the system’s fundamental failings.
That’s where things get seriously confusing. In Merrow’s mind, the system’s “fundamental design flaw” entails funding and governance, curriculum and instruction, labor and management, as well as key features of the teaching profession, beginning with how future teachers get trained. He’s right about those problems, yet these are among the systemic failings that the reformers he disses have struggled to do something about.
They’ve struggled precisely because the public-education system is so resistant to change. Charters and vouchers, for example, have not succeeded in extending school choice to many more millions of kids because the structural rigidities, ingrained practices, and adult interest groups that dominate the system haven’t let that happen. Curriculum isn’t what it ought to be partly because, as Merrow argues, our fixation on reading and math achievement has squeezed it, but also because it’s been decentralized to individual districts and schools and because (as Hirsch has explained so often and well) the belief structure of most educators resists well-sequenced, knowledge-centric curricula.
School governance is where Merrow makes my head spin fastest. In several spots, he fends off the federal government, declares his wariness of state-launched reforms, and uses populist language to affirm his faith in the capacity of localities to set matters right: “[W]e have to do the work....DIY America!...Perhaps the best way for a school district to start is with a few pilot schools....”
Elsewhere, however, he condemns the inequalities that arise from local control (and funding), and seems oblivious to the many ways that state laws and federal regulations both do good (as in spreading money around, ensuring that disabled kids aren’t neglected or civil rights violated) and the ways they block localities from doing things differently (for example, teacher certification practices and last-in, first-out human resources mandates).
Merrow’s been around long enough to understand how tangled this all is and how we have constructed a system that blocks change from every direction. In my experience, it’s a system that bends—and then not nearly enough—only when powerful force is applied from outside. As soon as that force eases, the system resumes its previous shape. Yet Merrow doesn’t like outsiders meddling with the system. Though step ten says “Embrace ‘outsiders’ (enthusiastically),” he means parents and taxpayers with no kids in school, that is, people he hopes will be “supportive,” not policymakers and advocates who will press for changes worthy of support. Ultimately, Merrow seems to yearn for some sort of spontaneous combustion, some way in which an outraged populace will combine with empowered educators to burn down the system as we know it and replace it with the kind that he tries to outline, mainly in steps six through eleven.
The alternative arrangement he envisages seems to have something in common with a well-run system of top-notch charter schools, and I don’t disagree that such a replacement would likely serve kids better. But trying to follow his multi-step manual for how to build it recalls many fumbled efforts to assemble furniture at home, only to discover that the accompanying instructions were obviously written in a foreign language, then badly translated, and accompanied by inscrutable diagrams, and then to discover, way too late in the process, that some key parts were missing from the box.
It’d be nice to think that a thirteenth step might set matters right, but the book’s problems are deeper. Merrow’s brain contains a rosy vision of a different future, but his heart is with educators, whom he sees as beleaguered and beset, and his stomach turns whenever anybody else tries to turn this immense vessel onto a different course.
Editor’s note: A slightly different version of this article was originally published by Education Next.
Last week, the US Supreme Court announced that it would hear Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). While it is among the biggest cases on the court’s docket next year, it certainly holds the biggest stakes when it comes to public education. The case deals with mandatory union agency fees, which plaintiff Mark Janus, a child support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, argues violate his First Amendment rights to free speech and free association.
Illinois state law “compels state employees to pay agency fees to an exclusive representative for speaking and contracting with the state over governmental policies.” In short, non-union employees must pay unions, as the exclusive employee representatives in collective bargaining, to negotiate contracts on their behalf. Janus has long been critical of both the union and forced association through agency fees. He wrote last year in the Chicago Tribune, “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of association. I don’t want to be associated with a union that claims to represent my interests and me when it really doesn’t.”
Janus targets a forty-year-old precedent set by Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which permits allowing agency fees as a means to avoid a “free rider” problem: non-union members benefiting from union representation in contract negotiations, but not paying for that service. Abood allows agency fees, so long as the fees are limited to the portion of membership dues used solely for collective bargaining, and are separated from funds used for political purposes. Critics argue that agency fees make financially supporting a union, and its politics by extension, a precondition of public employment.
Janus follows Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a 2016 US Supreme Court case that almost brought an end to agency fees. Friedrichs, a public school teacher forced to pay agency fees to the California Teachers Association (CTA), brought suit using a First Amendment argument similar to Janus’s, also targeting Abood. Friedrich’s case made it to the Supreme Court, where a majority of justices seemed ready to rule in her favor and against the constitutionality of agency fees. But things changed when Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly a month after oral arguments. That March, an equally divided eight-member court deadlocked on Friedrich’s case, leaving Abood intact.
A year-and-a-half later, following the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, the prospects look good for Janus, and, as they did leading up to Friedrichs, pretty bleak for agency fees and the union strength that depends on them. The immediate consequence of a Janus victory would be that public sector unions could no longer force nonmembers to pay agency fees. This would cause unions’ revenues to drop in the twenty states that allow agency fees. But that’s only the beginning. Taking away these fees would dramatically increase the real cost of union members’ dues. As I explained in the context of Friedrichs, in California, the real cost now is about $350, the difference between $1,000 in dues and the $650 fees. Without fees, the choice would be between $0 and $1,000, so the cost would rise to $1,000. This increase would encourage uncommitted members to leave and discourage new teachers from joining. Without agency fees, union membership would decline in states that now allow agency fees, and they would have far less political power.
The dramatic changes in costs would have outsized impacts on union membership and power. We have seen this play out before. In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 10, which did away with agency fees. The state’s largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), saw a dramatic decrease in membership over a short period of time: falling from about 98,000 members in 2011 to about 40,000 in 2015. But, as the graph below shows, membership declines are only part of this story. WEAC’s annual expenditures on lobbying ranged from half to one-and-a-half million dollars from 2005 to 2010, peaking at $2.25 million during its fight to stop Act 10 in 2011. After 2011, WEAC’s lobbying outlays have remained under $150,000, and hours spent lobbying dropped dramatically as well.
It’s unclear how much of this drop should be attributed solely to the elimination of agency fees, as Act 10 included other measures to curb union power, but the overlap between the states that allow agency fees and union power is evident across the country.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a study in 2012 that makes a state-by-state comparison of the strength of teachers unions. Measuring Union strength through numerous variables, they sorted the states into five categories, from strongest to weakest, each containing about ten states. All ten of the strongest, and eight out of ten of the strong states, allow unions to collect agency fees from nonmembers. The number of states allowing agency fees continues to decline with weaker union strength. Fewer than half of states with average union strength, four out of ten weak union states, and only one out of ten of the weakest union states, allow unions to collect agency fees.
If the judicial scales tip in favor of Janus—and it looks like they will—unions will enter a new era, and for them it looks pretty dreary. Losing agency fees would shrink teachers unions’ membership and clip unions’ political and economic wings not only in the twenty remaining states with agency fees, but also in the national headquarters that depend on these states for a disproportionate share of their membership and funds.
Could this be the end of unions? Probably not, but to maintain their power and influence, teachers unions will need to refocus on working on behalf of their members, in order to make a clear value proposition to teachers. Their chief challenge will be making the case to teachers that union membership—and dues—are worth the full cost of membership. Eliminating agency fees will almost certainly shrink unions, but it could also make them more energized, since remaining members would be the truly committed. What will happen to public schools after the most powerful force in the politics of education has its wings clipped? It looks like we are about to find out.
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on the AEIdeas blog.
Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and the deputy director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in K–12 education.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, special guest Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss the Volunteer State’s plan to improve student outcomes under ESSA. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines whether No Child Left Behind affected students’ socioemotional outcomes.
Amber’s Research Minute
Camille R. Whitney and Christopher A. Candelaria, “The Effects of No Child Left Behind on Children’s Socioemotional Outcomes,” AERA Open (September 2017).
A new study examines the effects of No Child Left Behind on children’s socioemotional outcomes. Prior studies have found that consequential accountability systems like NCLB have yielded positive gains in achievement; others have shown that they narrow the curriculum by focusing on tested subjects. But very few have looked at the potential impact of the legislation on socioemotional or “non-cognitive” outcomes.
The authors use student-reported survey data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-Kindergarten Cohort of 1998–99 (also called ECLS-K), which is nationally representative. Data used for the study were collected in the spring of students’ third and fifth grade years—the same time of year that students typically take standardized tests. Note that NCLB legislation was signed in January 2002 in the middle of the third-grade year for the sample. During spring of that year, students took tests that established baseline scores for judging school performance in subsequent years. Schools could fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in 2002–03 (students’ fourth grade year); thus, by the time that they were surveyed during the fifth grade year in spring 2004, NCLB consequences were widely in effect. Authors use a “differences in differences” strategy where they compare states that already had consequential accountability plans in place before NCLB took root to states that did not, borrowing from earlier studies by Tom Dee, et al. and Eric Hanushek, et al. It assumes that schools in states without prior consequential accountability systems experienced a much greater increase in test pressure after NCLB took place (aka the treatment states); states with prior consequential accountability systems were the comparison group. The assumption, as the authors explain, is that “changes in the comparison states serve as a counterfactual for the changes that we would have observed in treatment states in the absence of NCLB since these changes should be caused by non-NCLB factors such as other school reforms or shifts in the economy.”
They find that NCLB did not have a consistent effect on the ten socioemotional outcomes they examined, including things like academic anxiety, perceived competence in math and reading, and perceived interest in school subjects. Though they found both modest increases in academic anxiety and interest in math, they couldn’t rule out that these results may have occurred by chance, mostly because they ran numerous significance tests for each of the ten outcomes. Exploratory subgroup analyses also suggest that high-stakes testing produces an increase in academic anxiety for those in the top half of the income distribution (.07 SD) and that students in the bottom half of the distribution experience increases in their competence and interest in math (both about .09 SD). But again, given the drawbacks of the study’s design, we can’t put much trust in these findings. These drawbacks include relying solely on self-reported measures from elementary school students, rather than psychological tests or classroom observations; looking only at the early years of the effects of the policy; and missing standardized test data in both the treatment and comparison groups for several states during the study’s timeframe (i.e., when states were in the midst of the assessment ramp up).
Studying the impact of any intervention on non-cognitive outcomes is not easy, in part because we are still defining and attempting to measure such outcomes. Many smart people are laboring to carry this work forward. For now, this study’s authors warn that “states may not need to spend as much time trying to minimize potential negative consequences on these socioemotional outcomes…” Given where we are now, I’d say that’s a pretty safe bet.
SOURCE: Camille R. Whitney and Christopher A. Candelaria, “The Effects of No Child Left Behind on Children’s Socioemotional Outcomes,” AERA Open (July–September 2017).
Last month the Urban Institute added to the rapidly accumulating body of conflicting evidence about the impacts of private school choice on student achievement. While early studies showed positive effects on test scores, more recent evidence from Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio showed private school choice programs having neutral to negative effects. This report differs from most of its predecessors by measuring long-term outcomes, namely college enrollment and attainment. Urban’s investigation of the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarship program is the first study to look at these outcomes at the state level, and the results are encouraging.
While not a traditional voucher system, the FTC program allows Florida taxpayers to receive a 100 percent tax credit for donations to scholarship funding organizations, which provide tuition assistance for low-income students to attend private schools. Participants in the program must have family incomes of up to 260 percent of the US poverty threshold and receive scholarships worth up to $6000. Started during the 2002–03 school year, FTC is now the largest private school choice program in the country, with 100,000 current participants.
Analysts compare FTC participants to non-FTC students, controlling for test scores, age, gender, race or ethnicity, native/foreign-born status, and language spoken at home. Only students who were in grades three through ten the year before entering the program are included in the study so standardized test data was available for comparison. In order to see long-term effects, students are only included in the study if they were out of high school for at least two years in the final year of the study.
Analysts find that participants in the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program saw improved college enrollment compared to students who stayed in public schools. Overall, FTC students were 6 percentage points more likely to enroll in college at any level than non-FTC students. Notably, the longer participants were enrolled in private school, the larger the benefits; student participating in FTC for four or more years were 18 percentage points more likely to attend college than non-participants.
These impressive gains were almost entirely a result of increases in community college enrollment. Enrollments in four-year colleges were mostly unaffected for FTC participants. Degree attainment, both associate’s and bachelor’s, were also similar for FTC and non-FTC students. The only exception was for FTC students who entered private school in elementary or middle school and participated for four or more years. This group saw a 1.5 percentage point gain in four-year college enrollment and a 2 percentage point gain in associate degree attainment, underscoring the benefits of early and continued participation in Florida’s program.
A major limitation of the study is that it only measures in-state public college enrollment and graduation. Therefore, students who attended out-of-state and/or private colleges are not accounted for in the data. However, Urban Institute analysts state that this limitation means that their study likely understates the true impact of the program, since nationwide private school students are more likely than public school students to attend such schools.
Florida’s program serves a disproportionate number of low performing, poor and minority students who come from the worst performing schools in the state. More work needs to be done to ensure the state’s neediest students are not only enrolling in college but earning a degree, yet these results are promising. As more states, including Illinois, implement similar policies, Florida’s example stands out as a potential model to emulate.
SOURCE: Matthew M. Chingos and Daniel Kuehn, “The Effects of Statewide Private School Choice on College Enrollment and Graduation: Evidence from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program,” Urban Institute (September 2017).