Thursday, November 05, 2009

Texas schools are better than you think (but still have a long way to go)

For a while I've been wanting to do a post on this McKinsey report titled "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools" (main report, supporting charts).

First, the (very) bad news:

This report examines the dimensions of four distinct gaps in education: (1) between the United States and other nations, (2) between black and Latino students and white students, (3) between students of different income levels, and (4) between similar students schooled in different systems or regions.

The report finds that the underutilization of human potential as reflected in the achievement gap is extremely costly. Existing gaps impose the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession—one substantially larger than the deep recession the country is currently experiencing. For individuals, avoidable shortfalls in academic achievement impose heavy and often tragic consequences via lower earnings, poor health, and higher rates of incarceration.

But within the report is small silver lining for Texas:
...differences in public policies, systemwide strategies, school site leadership, teaching practice, and perhaps other systemic investments can fundamentally influence student achievement. California and Texas, for example, are two large states with similar demographics. Yet as shown in Exhibit 7, Texas students are, on average, one to two years of learning ahead of California students of the same age, even though Texas has less income per capita and spends less per pupil than California. (details on p.58/57 chart here)
...the best-performing state for low-income blacks (Texas). (#2 for low-income whites behind MA, based on 4th-grade math)
So much for the argument that more money is the answer to improving public schools.

Some other nuggets from the slide pack of supporting charts:
  • Houston is near the top of metros for math performance of low-income black fourth-graders, and well above the national average (p.57 of pdf, labeled p.56).
  • On the downside, HISD is five points behind the Texas state average (p.65/64).
  • Texas is the #2 state for black graduation rates behind AZ. 68% is still way too low, but it is only 8% behind whites, one of the smallest gaps among states. Surprisingly, some of the largest gaps are found in most progressive/liberal/blue states. (p.66/65)
  • "California has the most students of any state and has a relatively high income level but low achievement level. Texas is the second most populous state with a medium income level and relatively high achievement levels." (p.114/113)
  • Schools and districts have a lot to learn from each other, especially from the best ones: "Across Texas districts, test passing can vary by 25 percentage points. Within Texas districts, school achievement levels can vary by 20-30 percentile." (these are adjusted for demographic differences) (p.55/54)
What might account for Texas' advantages? The report doesn't really say, but we can speculate.
  • Stronger private charter schools providing public school competition? (KIPP, YES)
  • Weaker teachers' unions make it easier to implement reforms and remove bad teachers?
  • Texas culture/work ethic?
  • A weaker welfare/safety net incentivizes student performance and parental support?
  • Being a right-to-work/weak-union state might also incentivize student performance and parental support: education is the path to a better job rather than dropping out and getting a comfortably-paid blue-collar union job. Unskilled labor does not pay well in Texas, and that's a pretty strong incentive to learn skills.
Your own thoughts/reasons are welcome in the comments.

For more on this, and how far Houston and Texas still have to go, I highly recommend checking out and supporting local Houston nonprofit 'Children at Risk'.

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At 10:49 PM, November 05, 2009, Blogger FIREhat said...

I think you're dead-on with all your reasoning and all those examples tie back in to this being a weak labor state.

It should come as no surprise, however, that more spending per pupil does not equal better results.

At 7:45 AM, November 06, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

More money in education has never helped improved the quality of education. It just gets redirected to wasteful spending.

You want to improve education? Get rid all unwarranted classes that don't deal with basics. Get rid of tenure and require testing of teachers. Dismantle the teacher unions that do everything to destroy the quality of education by protecting bad teachers. And remove directives from the federal government about what should be taught.

At 8:06 PM, November 06, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Texas ranks behind New Jersey and Massachusetts among all ethnic groups, and behind New York among most. And New York City ranks near the top among urban school district. So maybe teachers' unions aren't as bad as you think they are.

At 4:38 PM, November 09, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

What does ethnic groups have to do with this? Aren't they all STUDENTS?

Why do people have to be separated and labeled? Breaking out ethnic groups is like saying they are lesser than the majority group.

As far as unions being a problem, my mother is a retired teacher who fought throughout her career against her own union she was forced to join. Time and again she was appalled at how the children were always put second to the needs of the teachers. Unions routinely fight against real reforms that would make schools and teachers accountable. Across the US, the most promising direction for reforming education is vouchers. The beauty of the system is that no extra taxpayer money is spent. The money is attached to the student with the parent choosing the place for the them to attend. Teacher unions are afraid of this because there is a very good chance that these students will go to private schools (non-unionized teachers) and get a much higher quality education. My mother realize the crap bubbling up in our local public schools and paid out of pocket for my siblings and me to attend a private school. My parents were by no means rich (lower middle class)and scraped money together to get us in the private schools.

At 9:16 PM, November 09, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

In a gentrifying Queens neighborhood, white parents recently proposed to organize a separate school for their children in the same building as the existing school, whose population is primarily black. On Long Island, when there were proposals to merge a black middle-class city's school district with the surrounding white districts, the white reaction was so vitriolic you'd think they were proposing to sterilize whites.

The reason people are labeled by ethnic group is that white parents will do almost anything to avoid placing their children in a school that's majority black or Hispanic.

At 10:07 PM, November 09, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

I just found this chart of school performance by state. Texas ranks just below average in academic achievement, below all Northeastern states except Rhode Island.

At 8:22 AM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, and DC. And CA is still a basket case. Of course, this is still blended overall achievement not taking into account demographics (i.e. states with small minority populations rank higher). The whole point of the report was to analyze the gaps between different races and income-groups. TX does well on closing the gap, but still has a long way to go overall.

At 1:35 PM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Many of the successful states are diverse, or have poor inner cities to deal with: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Colorado. So do the mid-level states, which are just ahead of Texas, including New York, Michigan, Maryland, and North Carolina.

Besides, advocates of school integration and greater teacher power will tell you that the worst problems of segregation are in the North. Jonathan Kozol's writings on school funding disparities make it clear that the worst segregation is in New York, Chicago, Washington, and the other Northern cities.

In those areas, teacher salaries in the suburbs are close to twice those in the city proper, while living costs are lower. And yet, the people who complain about the futility of throwing money on schools never tell White Plains and Manhasset to stop spending $25,000 per student. They only tell New York to stop spending $17,000. Generally, the fights there are not between higher spending and lower spending, as in California. They're between teacher advocates, who want more power for veteran teachers, and reformers, who want more power for principals.

At 2:53 PM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm not saying they don't have any diversity, just not as much as Texas, which is one of the first majority-minority states (along with CA, and I think NY is close). It's all relative.

The segregation you describe is probably why they ranked less well in the gap study.

At 4:12 PM, November 10, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Yes, the segregation is a big factor behind New York's so-so ranking. On the other hand, its black-white gap is about average, and is about the same as Texas's.

The Latino-white gap is different - there, Texas is doing better (though it's not much better than New Jersey). I'm not sure why - are Texas Hispanics unusually likely to be middle-class? Florida Hispanics are, and indeed Florida's otherwise-crappy system ranks toward the top in Latino performance. New Jersey Hispanics are not far behind.

Mind you, California performed close to the top among all groups until the 1970s...


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