The West Ed Report: A Review, Part I | Beaufort County Now

On January 21, Eric Davis, chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education distributed a memo to selected organizations titled “Invitation to Submit Recommended Priorities in Response to WestEd Report (WER) in Leandro.” civitas, west ed, report, review, board of education, february 25, 2020
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The West Ed Report: A Review, Part I

Publisher's note: This post, by Bob Luebke, was originally published in Civitas's online edition.

    On January 21, Eric Davis, chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education distributed a memo to selected organizations titled "Invitation to Submit Recommended Priorities in Response to WestEd Report (WER) in Leandro." The memo invites organizations to submit for consideration and review a policy paper that "reacts to the WestEd Report and outlines the key systemic changes and actions you believe are necessary to ensure better educational outcomes for all students."

    Civitas didn't receive an invitation to respond to the WestEd Report, neither did we receive a response to our email inquiring about whether additional comments would be accepted by the State Board of Education. Why the State Board of Education is limiting comments to only invited commenters is a question only they can answer. Nevertheless, because the Leandro decision and WestEd Report concern all public schools in North Carolina, we believe public comment and discussion should be encouraged.

    In light of these developments, The West Ed Report: A Review is provided n two parts. Part I will address aspects of WER Civitas can support and identify the some of the report's shortcomings. Part II continues a discussion of WestEd's shortcomings, discusses some of the constitutional questions raised by the report and consent order and lastly offers recommendations to improve the current process.

    In December 2019, Judge David Lee released a consultant's report tasked with identifying how North Carolina could best comply with the constitutional requirement that all children have the opportunity for a sound, basic education. The report offers 300 pages of recommendations on how to improve North Carolina public schools through better staffing, more resources and better accountability systems. As with most reports, there were things we liked, and things we didn't. Let's start with the plus side.

    WER: Recommendations we can support WER's focus on finding how North Carolina can be compliant with the Leandro requirement to provide an "opportunity for a sound, basic education" is an important and timely question worthy of serious discussion. Though I differ with the author's response, I do agree the question needs to be asked. The WER framework focuses on teachers, principals and resources. The report also recommends revising the state funding model and advocating a student-based funding model.

    I couldn't agree more. It's a task that is long overdue. More needs to be learned about whether we need all thirty plus formulas and how they react with one another. A similar review was begun by the legislature about a decade ago. A consultant's report was well-received by both parties, but then the state (along with the nation) slid into a massive recession and the topic was essentially dropped.

    A second point of agreement is the report's emphasis on teacher advancement. WER recognizes teachers need better opportunities to advance professionally short of having to move into administration. In 2016, the General Assembly passed a pilot program involving about 10 school districts to do just that. The program was called the NC Advanced Teaching Roles Initiative. The legislation established a school leadership re-design model to create higher compensation for teaching roles that provide advancement opportunities, better professional development and greater support for student achievement - all while staying in the classroom.

    Finally, I'm in full agreement with WER's focus on the need for qualified and well-prepared principals as well as the need to encourage the number of pathways candidates can choose for principal preparation programs. Civitas fully supports WER's emphasis on giving principals more autonomy and flexibility in directing personnel. The overwhelming majority of most school budgets are spent on salaries and benefits. In order to be effective, principals need more ability to control and influence personnel issues like pay and benefits.


WER: The Problems: A Flawed Process for Developing Recommendations

Narrow Perspective

    I take issue with many of the WER recommendations, in large part, because the process that developed those recommendations was flawed. WER's recommendations concern the largest public expenditure in North Carolina, K-12 public schools ($9.4 billion) and impact about 1.5 million students with over 173,000 staff.

    WER was drafted by consultants from WestEd, the Learning Policy Institute and the Friday Institute. Regrettably, the report fails to reflect the diversity of perspectives inherent in the policymaking process. WER recommends an additional $8 billion in spending for North Carolina schools over the next eight years. Yet surprisingly, no Republican was contacted during the time the report was written. In a recent Carolina Journal article, Loren Horsch of Senator Phil Berger's Office and Joseph Kyzer from the House Speaker Tim Moore's office point out that the failure to consult Republicans impacted the report.

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    For example, the report calls for more incentives for principals to move to high-need schools. Kyzer and Horsch said principals can already receive a $30,000 bonus if they agree to teach in a low-performing school. Kyzer said the use of 2018 data on teacher pay resulted in a low ranking of 37th for NC teachers. Kyzer could have provided 2019 data to the report writers if they asked. That data moves teachers from 37th to 29th place in pay rankings.

    Republicans, who have majorities in both Houses of the General Assembly, are charged with funding K-12 public schools. Despite these facts, Republicans were left off focus groups and were not consulted or interviewed during the study. Considering 63 percent of school district funding comes from the state, wouldn't it make sense for the majority party in the legislature to have a voice?

    Republicans weren't the only ones to be slighted. No charter or school choice representatives had a voice in the writing of WER. Charter schools and the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program provide children trapped in failing or underperforming schools the chance to get a better education. Private schools and charter schools are proving a popular option for parents. Both types of schools educate children at a fraction of the costs of traditional public schools. Aren't these precisely the type of students who Leandro is supposed to help?

    Yet, WER ignores those options and the role they play. WER even recommends that all charter school funding come from the state. Such a change would fundamentally change how charter schools are perceived. Charter schools are local schools. However, centralizing the funding to the state changes the nature of charter schools. The change seems to be merely motivated out of convenience to school administrators, rather than any research that supports such a change in policy. Such omissions are troubling and reflect a concern with maintaining the existing educational establishment, while at the same time dismissing the growing numbers of parents who want more educational options for their children.


WER Ignores Research and Practice

    WER fails to fully incorporate available research and practice on education policy and student achievement. WER's framework is concerned fundamentally with inputs. There is no focus on outputs, or on how well North Carolina schools are doing in educating children. The WER framework falsely implies that student achievement is merely a function of tinkering with the right inputs and fails to acknowledge that there are schools that spend less and get more in the area of student achievement.

    Worse yet, the report fails to acknowledge that student achievement is a function of many factors including school culture, family environment and teacher quality

    WER recommends spending an additional $8 billion on schools in North Carolina. That's a lot of money. It's also a lot of faith in the assumption that the best way to improve student achievement is to boost spending. Many of the current recommendations, derive from the widely held assumption that greater financial resources lead to better student outcomes. A thorough review of the research shows the link between spending and student achievement to be at best, inconclusive. Stanford University Education professor Eric Hanushek, an expert on school finance and outcomes, argues that spending on inputs such as lower teacher ratios, a higher percentage of teachers with master's degrees, and lower class sizes has increased in the last five decades but not yielded any increases in student achievement. Moreover, considerable research points to the fact that how schools spend money is as important as the level of spending. Hanushek has spent his career showing that the relationship between funding and student achievement to be inconclusive and influenced by many factors. Indeed, the issuance of the Coleman Report in 1961 bolstered such reasoning when it found that educational outcomes to be more influenced by family background than by spending on teachers or smaller class sizes. This is not to say money is not important, or to deny the beneficial impacts it can have. However, marginal costs and benefits change with any population and they too need to be part of the discussion.

    Massive infusions of money don't always result in improvements in educational outcomes. The United States is one of the highest spenders in the world when it comes to spending per student. However, nations that spend much less per student are producing students who do better on international and standardized tests.

    A 2014 report by the CATO Institute reviewed forty years of spending and educational outcomes and found that while spending has increased significantly, educational outcomes have remained flat. Improvement depends on many factors. Low income districts may improve some with initial investments. However, will moderate or high-income districts show the same improvements? The law of diminishing returns begins to take effect in education with additional investment, as it does with the purchase of most productive inputs.

    Spending does not automatically translate into improved outcomes. The point here is how school districts spend money is as important as how much is spent. Learning if money is being spent on improving the quality of teaching or better books is helpful in assessing why and how student outcomes improved. There is much to be learned here. Why can some schools spend far less per student than others and have superior academic performance, while others spend more and students perform unsatisfactorily? Yet again, WER ignores all this. Student achievement is never a question that can be addressed merely by looking at inputs.

    Part II continues the critique of WER, addresses potential constitutional questions raised by WER and the consent order and provides recommendations to improve the policy making process and the current climate.

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