Are US school districts spending wisely?

The Center for American Progress has released a new report that examines the productivity of US school districts, and the conclusion is that productivity could be improved.

The authors used the results of 2010-11 state reading and maths assessments in elementary, middle, and high schools. They also used three productivity ratings that looked at the academic achievement of districts for each dollar spent, taking into account factors such as cost-of-living differences and concentrations of pupils with English as an Additional Language or with special educational needs.

The report argues that low educational productivity remains a pressing issue, with billions of dollars lost in low-capacity districts. Problems include inconsistent spending priorities (eg, some districts in Texas spend more than 10% of their unadjusted per-pupil operating expenditures on athletics); only a few states taking a weighted approach and distributing money to schools based on pupil need; funding disparity between different school districts within states; and inconsistent budget practices between different states.

The authors conclude that school productivity has not become part of the reform conversation, despite education leaders facing increasingly challenging budget choices. They recommend that:

  • States should build capacity for productivity gains through targeted grants, assistance teams, and performance metrics;
  • Education leaders should improve accounting procedures to make them more transparent and actionable, and create a multi-state initiative that will focus on building more robust education budgets;
  • Educators should come together to improve the quality of fiscal data across states; and
  • States and districts should encourage smarter, fairer approaches to school funding, such as pupil-based funding policies.

Source: Return on Educational Investment: 2014. A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity (2014) Center of American Progress.

Poorer high achievers falling short of potential

New research conducted by the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions tracked the performance of high-achieving pupils from deprived backgrounds through the education system, and compared their trajectories with their more advantaged peers.

The authors found that children from poorer backgrounds who are high achieving at age 7 are more likely to fall off a high achievement trajectory than children from richer backgrounds. High-achieving children from the most deprived families perform worse than lower-achieving pupils from the least deprived families by Key Stage 4 (KS4). Conversely, lower-achieving affluent children catch up with higher-achieving deprived children between KS2 and KS4.

The research focused on children born in 1991–92. Of these, 2.8% of pupils (921 out of 33,039) who claimed free school meals (FSM) throughout secondary school went to an “elite” university, compared with 9.9% of pupils (40,165 out of 406,596) who never claimed FSM in secondary school. These differences can largely be explained by the higher levels of achievement of pupils from more affluent backgrounds.

The authors conclude that the period between KS2 and KS4 seems a crucial time to ensure that higher-achieving pupils from poor backgrounds remain on a high achievement trajectory, and that this is potentially important for policy makers interested in increasing participation at high-status universities among young people from more deprived backgrounds.

Source: High-attaining Children from Disadvantaged Backgrounds (2014), Social Mobility and Child Poverty Comission.

What are the effects of increased learning time?

The US Institute of Education Sciences has released a new report that examines the effects of increased learning time on pupils’ academic and non-academic outcomes. A meta-analysis was conducted on the topic in which over 7,000 studies were screened, but only 30 met the research team’s standards for rigorous research (including meeting evidence standards established by the What Works Clearinghouse). A review of those 30 studies found that increased learning time does not always produce positive results. However, some forms of teaching tailored to the needs of specific types of pupils were found to improve their circumstances. Specific findings included:

  • Increased learning time promoted pupil achievement in maths and literacy when it was led by a certified teacher using a traditional teaching style (ie, the teacher is responsible for the progression of activities and pupils follow directions to complete tasks).
  • Increased learning time improved literacy outcomes for pupils performing below standards.
  • Increased learning time improved the social-emotional skills of pupils with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Source: The Effects of Increased Learning Time on Student Academic and Nonacademic Outcomes: Findings from a Meta-Analytic Review (2014), Institute of Education Sciences.

School leader programme shows positive effects

This report from the RAND Corporation presents findings from a formative and summative evaluation of New Leaders, a programme that recruits and trains head teachers to serve in urban schools in the US. The study took place from 2006 to 2013 and examined the programme’s implementation and effects in ten districts.

The study used an approach that isolated the effect of New Leaders head teachers themselves from other conditions in the districts that might also influence student performance. Data sources included analysis of student-achievement data for students led by New Leaders head teachers and comparable students in other schools, head teacher surveys, analysis of survey data linked to student-achievement data, analysis of head teacher tenure data, and nested case studies of first-year head teachers.

Researchers found that at the primary school level, spending at least three years in a school with a New Leaders-trained head teacher resulted in achievement gains of 0.7 to 1.3 percentile points. At the secondary school level, students in schools where the New Leaders head teachers had three or more years of experience saw gains in reading achievement of about 3 percentile points.

The authors note that the magnitudes of achievement effects varied substantially across districts, and they also varied across head teachers. Possible explanations for this included, for example, district-wide changes that give advantages to all head teachers, not just New Leaders head teachers.

Source: Preparing Principals to Raise Student Achievement: Implementation and Effects of the New Leaders Program in Ten Districts (2014), RAND Corportation.

Positive start for science teaching intervention

A new article in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching describes the first-year results from a new curricular and professional development intervention. The project was created as a collaboration between a US university and a large urban school district to implement a new fifth grade (Year 6) science curriculum. The aim was to maximize inquiry-based learning and understanding of science concepts by all students, but especially those with English as an Additional Language. The professional development involved teacher workshops (five days throughout the year) and in-school support from three members of the research team who visited treatment schools approximately every four to six weeks, for a total of four to six times.

The study evaluated the effectiveness of the intervention at improving teachers’ science content knowledge, and also evaluated the relationship between teachers’ science content knowledge and student achievement outcomes on a science test.

The study used a cluster randomized trial design involving 32 experimental schools and 32 control schools. A total of 223 teachers were included in the analysis. Their science content knowledge was measured by a science knowledge test, a questionnaire, and classroom observations. The results showed that the intervention had a significant effect on the treatment group teachers’ science knowledge test scores and questionnaire responses compared to the control group, but not on the classroom observation ratings.

Teachers’ scores on the science knowledge test were found to be the largest significant teacher-level predictor of student achievement outcomes regardless of participation in the intervention. A one-point improvement by a teacher on the science knowledge test was linked to an average 2.16 point improvement by their students on the science test.

Source: Effectiveness of a Curricular and Professional Development Intervention at Improving Elementary Teachers’ Science Content Knowledge and Student Achievement Outcomes: Year 1 Results (2014), Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51(5).

… so let them have a lie-in

This report from the University of Minnesota presents findings from a three-year study on high school (age 14-18) start times. It examined whether or not a delay in start times had an impact on students’ overall health and academic performance.

The study consisted of three parts:

  • Collecting survey data from over 9,000 students across eight high schools in five school districts. Students were individually surveyed about their daily activities, substance use, and sleep habits.
  • Collecting data on students’ academic performance, such as grades earned, attendance, timekeeping, and performance on state and national tests. The researchers also examined car crash data for the communities involved in the project.
  • An examination of the processes by which local school districts made the decision to change to a later start time.

Key findings included:

  • High schools that start at 8:30am or later allow for more than 60% of students to obtain at least eight hours of sleep per school night;
  • Teens getting less than eight hours of sleep reported significantly higher depression symptoms, greater use of caffeine, and are at greater risk for making poor choices for substance use;
  • Academic performance outcomes, including grades earned in core subject areas of mathematics, English, science, and social studies, plus performance on state and national achievement tests, attendance rates, and reduced tardiness, show significantly positive improvement with the start times of 8:35am or later; and
  • The number of car crashes for teen drivers from 16 to 18 years of age was significantly reduced (by 70%) when a school shifted start times from 7:35am to 8:55am.

Source: Examining the Impact of Later High School Start Times on the Health and Academic Performance of High School Students: A Multi-Site Study (2014), University of Minnesota.