How Do You Measure "Success" In K-12 Education?

In the field of K-12 education, two models for improving school performance have been competing now for several decades.  The forces of progressivism advance a model of government-monopoly public schools, always unionized (which most importantly means that no teacher can ever be fired), and with standardized curricula.  When many of these schools perform poorly, and their students prove unprepared for further education or for life in general, the proposed solutions are always one form or another of "give us more taxpayer money" -- smaller class sizes, higher teacher salaries, special attention (from more union members) for struggling students, new pre-K and after-school programs (run by union members) and maybe new programs like dance or singing or robotics or something (all of course run by union members).  The alternative model, generally advanced by conservatives and Republicans, looks to dramatic increases in accountability on all fronts -- competing schools (often non-unionized "charters"), serious testing, rigorous teacher evaluations, the potential to fire poor-performing teachers, and closure and replacement of poor-performing schools.

I would say that the evidence was in at least 20 years ago that the "more money for failing unionized schools" program would always fail.  But you must remember that the number one source of funding for the Democratic Party is the teachers unions.  So of course in every place where Democrats are in charge, the "more money for failing unionized schools" program is almost certain to be tried and then, when that fails, tried yet again.  Hey, we just weren't given enough money last time around!  This time it's sure to work!

If you're willing to look around, you can almost always find some fresh reports of yet another attempt at fixing unionized schools by throwing more money at them, and failure of same.  The end of last week, for example, brought a report from outgoing Education Department personnel on results of the Obama administration's highly-touted program called School Improvement Grants.  The Washington Post in an article on January 19 described that program as "the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools."  According to the article, the program spent some $7 billion in the period 2010-2015, with the money distributed to states for them to spend on their worst-performing schools in order to "turn them around."  Individual schools could get up to $2 million, and the goal was to "turn around" as many as 1000 schools per year.  Well, we're at the end of the Obama administration.  How did it go?:

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.  Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

You do have to hate when that happens.  Meanwhile, back here in New York City, during the mayoralty of Mike Bloomberg (2002 - 2013), there was a somewhat different strategy.  The big idea that Bloomberg's people had was to identify failing schools and "close" them.  I put the word "close" in quotes, because they would then open what they called "another school" in the same space.  The new school would have a new principal, new teachers, and often a new theme (like, this is a "performing arts" high school, or this one is a "math and science" high school).  Of course, to a large degree they were just shuffling the same staff from one place to another, but at least there was a sense that things were getting shaken up a little.  The Bloomberg team also greatly expanded the number of charter schools.

But then in came new Democratic Mayor de Blasio in 2014, with the teachers union as his biggest backer.  Of course he was a sworn enemy of charters, and of course he also came up with a big proposal fairly described as "more money for failing unionized schools."  His name for his new program (this time it is going to work!) is Renewal Schools.  The program started in 2015.  How has it gone?  From the New York Post on December 15, 2016

Nearly half of the de Blasio administration’s Renewal high schools did worse at preparing their students for college last year than they did the previous year, a pro-charter group charged.  Families for Excellent Schools said it reviewed public data from the 34 high schools that the mayor’s Education Department identified as the most failing and targeted for improvement in 2014.  Of that group, 15 of the schools declined in terms of college preparedness last year.

And "Renewal Schools" is just a relatively small group of the worst schools.  Meanwhile, New York City overall K-12 education spending continues to soar.  The New York City Education Department budget for FY 2017 is $29.2 billion.  For about 1.1 million students, that's around $26,500 per student!  (National average per student spending is less than half of that at around $12,000.)

So what do we taxpayers get for all of that money thrown at our unionized schools?  For one thing, we get a big article in yesterday's New York Times with the headline "With Many Schools Thriving Nearby, Those in Harlem Are Left to Fail."   The article discusses New York's Community School District 3, which covers two neighborhoods that demographically are very distinct:  the Upper West Side (very wealthy, heavily Jewish) and Central Harlem (poor and lower middle class, although recently gentrifying, heavily African American).  The summary:

Some of the best public elementary schools in New York City are in Community School District 3, on Manhattan’s West Side. At those schools, the vast majority of children pass the annual state tests, gifted and talented programs buzz with activity, and special programs attract promising young musicians or families who want a progressive approach to education.

But none of those schools are in Harlem.  In District 3’s Harlem schools, there are no gifted and talented programs. Of the six elementary schools there where students take the state tests, only one comes close to the citywide passing rates of 38 percent in reading and 36 percent in math. At one school, only 6 percent of third- through eighth-grade students passed the most recent math tests.  The children in the Harlem schools are mostly black and Hispanic and low-income, while the majority of children in the district’s other elementary schools are white or Asian, and either middle class or wealthy.

OK, but what does it mean when you say that the schools in Harlem are "left behind"?  In New York Times-speak, saying that something has been "left behind" is always to be taken as code for "they need more government money."  But New York City spends over $26K per year per student, and the authorities can't possibly be spending less money per student on the Harlem schools than those on the West Side.  Certainly, you won't find any statistics about that in this article.  Indeed the school most discussed in the article is P.S. 149 in Harlem, a school so bad that the chairwoman of the Community Education Council zoning committee won't send her own daughter there.  It turns out that P.S. 149 is part of the Renewal Schools program -- meaning that it is the target of particularly high levels of spending.  The results?:

[District Superintendent Ilene Altschul] noted steps that some of the schools were taking to improve their performance, including the hiring of an academic coach to work with teachers at the STEM Institute and the hiring of a math consultant and a new writing curriculum at P.S. 149. She noted that P.S. 149 had also recently added programs in dance, singing, soccer, in-line skating and robotics.  But more than two years after its academic struggles earned it a place in the Renewal program, P.S. 149 has not yet made clear progress on the goals set for it by the city.

It just all depends on how you measure "success" in K-12 education.  For example, you may think it's a problem that the Feds spent $7 billion on School Improvement Grants without improving student performance in any noticeable way.  But for the teachers union, that $7 billion translated into about $5 billion for union members' salaries, and therefore about $70 million in union revenues.  And for the Democratic Party, it then turned into maybe $30 million in political contributions.  Here in New York City at the Renewal schools, each new unionized teacher of "dance, singing, soccer, in-line skating and robotics" means something around $500 - 1000 per year for the Democratic Party.  It sure seems like "success" to them!