This post does not concern student assignment. It concerns instead recent efforts by the Board’s Economically Disadvantaged Student Performance Task Force to assess “equality” (i.e. sameness) and “equity” (i.e. fairness) in the allocation of school resources. Those efforts are set to resume at the Task Force’s next meeting Thursday at 4:30p.m. at Timber Drive Elementary School in Garner.
I’m concerned by these efforts because they have focused more on attacking the efforts of earlier Boards and current school personnel than on student performance. The last meeting, for example, focused on inequalities in educationally immaterial amounts of money in individual school accounts that are used for largely nonacademic purposes. While there was an effort to attack certain schools now out of favor, like Enloe, even the attackers found it hard to articulate what these funding discrepancies showed and why, if at all, they were important.
The next meeting, apparently, will focus on the fairness of personnel and dollar allotments. Some Task Force members will likely spend lots of time trying to show that magnet schools cost more and/or accomplish less per unit of poverty than nonmagnet or high poverty schools. See Shila Nordone’s comments following the WakeEd blog entry linked above.
This sort of evaluation is unfair and methodologically flawed. School personnel and funds are currently allocated according to publicly available criteria. These criteria have been discussed in the Student Assignment Committee. They are based in large part on formulas the State uses to provide resources to our schools. If the existing distribution of resources is compared to some other set of criteria that is presumed, without justification, to represent “fairness,” then at least some existing allocations will be found “inequitable.” But this is silly, unless finding them defective is the goal rather than devising a better allocation process.
Furthermore, evaluating these allotments is not simple. Which ones do you consider in a “fairness analysis”? The personnel and dollar allotments are shown on the spreadsheets linked to this sentence. There are 44 categories of personnel allotments and 32 categories of dollar allotments. Consideration of simple metrics like overall allotments of “months of employment” (MOE) or total dollars will deceive, because all categories of allotments are not of equal educational relevance. Some MOE are for teachers; others are for custodians. Some are long-term commitments; others are one-time allotments. Further, all schools must have some personnel, like principals. Is a 300-child elementary school disproportionately funded because it gets twelve months of principal time just like one with 1,000 children? It may look that way on paper.
Dollar allotments raise similar questions. Included in the per school totals, for example, are transient grants and allotments related to tuition-based programs like before school care that raise revenue, are sometimes school-run and sometimes not, and are not really connected to academics. Are these allotments relevant? What about the large allotments at a few schools related to construction projects?
If the goal is to improve the performance of economically disadvantaged students, it would be logical to decide on the proper allocation of meaningful, effective resources first, then develop a plan to transition from the old allocation to a new one. This is less fun than critique, because it would require the Board to take resources from those who have them and give them to others. It would also require the Board to answer the hard questions identified above before it started looking for unfairness rather than after it has pronounced the system unjust: What are the resources whose distribution we care about? What allocation of those resources will actually improve student performance?
The latter question is a doozy. In Shila’s comments to the blog post mentioned above, for example, she advocates for “needs based” funding. She suggests that undefined and unquantified additional resources should accompany schools with higher poverty. While many would agree that high poverty schools need more per-pupil funding, they might not agree with the diversion of their particular resources to fund high poverty schools elsewhere. They are even more likely to revolt when they hear how much they will lose. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, for example, some schools have received three times the per-pupil funding of others. This appears to be a far bigger spread than we have here in Wake. Will this change? If so, by how much, and from whom will the money come? Furthermore, what will be done with the money once it is moved? Research casts doubt on the effectiveness of many efforts to devote extra resources to poor schools, Title I being one example and class size improvements another. Before the Board takes money from one place to provide it to another, it would pay to understand what will be done with it and why it will work.
To see why it is important to figure this out before you evaluate fairness, consider this example. In Table 1, schools at each level (elementary, middle, and high school) are ranked according to resources allotted per child. In Table 2, schools at each level are ranked by FRL percentage. Because current allotments are not based on a formula that allocates equal dollars to every child or a formula that allocates a fixed percentage of additional funds to schools based on their FRL percentage, neither table is well ordered. But it would be silly to call the current allocations unfair unless you had an idea what each school should receive.
In Table 3, by contrast, schools at each level are ranked against an “ideal” allotment that allots each child receiving a free or reduced lunch twice the resources of one who is not, so that a school with 100% poor children would receive twice the funding of a school with none. It then shows in the PPD Variance column who gets too much and who gets too little when compared to the agreed upon formulation.
Notice the difference. While the formula used in Table 3 is arbitrary, Table 3 at least makes clear who would gain and who would lose under a particular “need based” allotment formulation, while Tables 1 and 2 obscure this fact and permit accusations of unfairness where none may exist (because a school may be out of its place in line but still under- or overfunded).
If the ED Task Force should not be evaluating “equality and equity,” what should it be doing? For one thing, the Task Force could return its focus to effectiveness, and quickly. In the near future, WCPSS will likely have to lay off several hundred teachers. While it might be necessary to obtain special dispensation from the state, it would be smart to consider effectiveness in prioritizing layoffs and not just seniority. Teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes, more than any other factor within our schools’ control, so smart choices here could make a big difference. In the longer term, devising effective program changes and finding the funds to implement them is likely to produce better results than quibbling about surplus and shortage.
Second, the Task Force could revisit the wisdom of creating a bunch of new high poverty schools. Some of its members are currently promoting this new regime on the theory that some of our high poverty schools are doing a better job of educating poor kids than some of their lower poverty counterparts. But these folks are smart enough to understand that particular instances of superior performance like these, even if widespread, do not undermine the broad research consensus that in general, high poverty, racially isolated schools exert negative influence on the achievement of all groups and are hard to get right.
I guess this post was about assignment, after all.