Saturday, July 18, 2015

PA: Monster Equity Plan Study Report Thingy (Part I)

This summer, all states were supposed to get their education equity affairs in order. I'm sitting in Pennsylvania, so their plan was of the most interest to me, which is my bad fortune because Pennsylvania's plan (Pennsylvania's State Plan for Ensuring Equitable Access to Excellent Educators) is over 200 pages long. Also, the title suggests that maybe we are all being trolled. It is possible that I'm not going to get through the whole thing, but I'd still like to mine some highlights. Which will still be a bunch verbage. I will not think less of you for deciding this is a post you can just go ahead and skip this whole wonkfest.

I'm going to break this into two posts. In Part One, we'll look at what PA thinks its equity problems are. In Part Two, we'll take a look at what it thinks the solutions are.

Theory of Action 

Pennsylvania's Theory of Action to Ensure Equitable Access to Excellent Educators for All Children. Pennsylvania's theory of action is built around strategically improving the management of Pennsylvania's human capital in our schools-- especially in the poorest and highest minority schools-- to enable them to recruit, hire, retain, and support a pool of highly effective, qualified, fully certified teachers, principals, and other school staff. Pennsylvania's activities are organized around four strategies: human capital management; ongoing professional learning; teacher and principal preparation; and fiscal equity...

Oh, yeah. This is going to be some choice bureaucratic word salad. There's a chart next which shows the four strategies as little bubbles circling the main idea, connected by two-headed arrows. Very evocative.

The Gaps

PA lists eight gaps. Or they say they're listing eight, but they want to include a ninth. And then there's a chart that shows six. My trolling theory is gathering strength.

The listed gaps are: students in poor schools are not growing scores on state tests, lack of quality professional development stuff, new teachers and principals aren't prepared for poor/minority schools, fiscal equity, and missing data. There's another list which adds these items to the first list: Philly schools are loaded with unqualified teachers, as are many poor/minority schools, there's high turnover, and all sorts of people in all sorts of jobs in poor/minority schools don't have proper certifications.

Background and context

PA's kind of a mess, data wise. Our VAM system (we call it PVAAS) requires three years of data to work, which we don't have yet. Also, any kind of plan would require financial stuff, but it's only June and our state leaders are locked in their annual competition with all past legislatures to see which group of bold PA leaders can bring in the latest budget. It's only July. That's not going to get fixed any time soon.

Stakeholders and Meetings

A list of groups that, apparently, were part of this adventure. It includes several school districts, poor and not, rural and urban (in PA, while we are famous for Philly-style poverty, the state has some hugely rural areas that are also pretty poor). One poor charter school and one rich one. Some teacher prep programs, including Grove City College which is interesting to me because GCC regularly sends us student teachers; GCC turns out students who know their content, but in many cases have never set foot in a public school ever. There are some professional organizations (including PSEA and PFT) and a state charter group as well. One more sign that the government is committed to continuing the failed charter experiment as if there's no reason to reconsider. Add on the Human Rights Commission, the YMCA, and the PTA, among others, and you have your stakeholders group.

These guys started meeting in-- April!!?? They cranked this report out in less than two months??!! Well, that's almost.... unbelievable.

Some Data and Interesting Point #1

The group started breaking down schools, dividing them by poverty level and by minority population (separately for public and charter achools). In search of staffing issues, they went in search of Emergency 01 certs, certifications that the state gives you when you swear up and down you can't hire a real chemistry teacher, so can we please just stick this nice lady certified to teach Home Ec in there? I am surprised to see that the number of such certificates issued has been dropping steadily for fifteen years. Oh, wait-- no I'm not. The Highly Qualified Teacher requirement of NCLB really strangled the emergency cert.

But here's our first interesting data point. The groups leading in using the most emergency certs? The highest number of emergency certs were found in the poorest public schools and the wealthiest charter schools.

Spanish, high school English, high school math, and special ed were the most common areas for emergency certs. Suggesting that the subjects getting hardest hit by high-stakes testing are also the first to feel the coming teacher shortage. Well, not Spanish. It's just hard to find people who want to teach Spanish. The champ? School nurses.

There's a more detailed charter, and PK-4 is also up there, though in all cases we're talking about numbers lower than 50 for the entire state. 21 principals had emergency certs.

When we break down teachers using the old high quality teacher standard, we find that rich schools have more HQT's than poor schools.

Interesting Point #2

When it comes to years of experience, wealthy schools have a greater percentage of newby (one year) teachers than poor schools. You can find the chart on page 30. Good luck.

I'm not sure what to make of some of these numbers. Our breakdown on schools by wealth left 697 in the top quartile and 701 buildings in the bottom. But this teacher chart says that the wealthy quartile has 33,544 teachers and the poorest quartile has 26,391. Which seems like its own kind of equity gap. Going to keep an eye peeled to see if this beast addresses that.


Hmm, said the committee, or staff, or someone. I wonder if there's a big pay differential between rich and poor districts. The short answer appears to be, no, not much difference if you look at wealthiness of the district, but when it comes to minority schools, we are making a modest attempt to entice teachers to work there. Starting salaries are pretty easy to suss out here, but the other data is fuddling because we're using averages of all more-than-one-year teachers' salaries which would be heavily effected by how old and experienced the staff is. This next charter may be a bit more helpful.

You can see that wealthy districts are recruiting hard with starting money. We should note that nothing here tells us how quickly teachers arrive at the top of the scale, which has a huge effect on career earnings. This data also doesn't include benefits and health insurance, which can have huge financial impact as well.  But now look what happens if we break it down by minority population.

So there's that.


How is PA doing with turnover. Again, let's go to the handy chart:

So poor, minority charters are churning like crazy.

Strategic Management of Human Capital

So here's the thing. They didn't have any hard data for things like school climate, and schools don't have to give human capital management data to the Department of Ed. So PDE rounded up a bunch of volunteer human resource people and administrators, and they just made a bunch of crap up. With charts and graphs. Color coded. In less than two months-- specifically the last two months of the school year. I'm going to skip this part. If you'd like more data, you can read the report, or you can read some tarot cards. I'm sure that would be equally helpful.

Educator Effectiveness

Does poverty affect value-added measures for teachers. Again, I'm going to assume that the time frame of this report means that they are just pulling things out of their butts here. Fortunately, somebody else has done this research, and we know the answer, which is that the state could skip the expense of the test and just generate test scores based on socio-economic factors and do as well.

This is worth paying attention to, because it's why the whole federal Let's Put a Great Teacher in Every Classroom program is high grade baloney-- as long as you determine a teacher's effectiveness by student test scores, every teacher you put in poor classroom in a poor school with poor students will turn out to be ineffective.

Expenditures per Pupil and Interesting Point #3

Pennsylvania has one of the highest spending gaps in the country because we have on of the worst school funding laws in the country. If you slice things up on a per pupil basis, we still look bad. Well, bad and racist-- the lowest funding in the state on a per pupil basis occurs in schools with more than 50% black student population. The writers of the report try to massage the data so that our spending gap doesn't look so bad, but they can't hide the worst data point-- while all other categories come in above national average per pupil average when adjusted for poverty blah blah blah, per pupil spending in mostly black schools is almost $800 below the national average. Might want to work on that.

Root Causes

The report will now devote a giant cartload of space to explaining why the various gaps exist in PA. I'm going to summarize, and this will still be lengthy. Are you still here? God bless you.

Philly has lousy unqualified teachers because...

Schools don't cultivate a talent pool. Schools don't have time to really think and focus and search for exactly what they want. Insufficient positive marketing and PR. Lack of effective screening, or training for management. Folks might think the schools are dangerous. And then there's this awesome gem:

Individual bias may preclude teachers from applying for vacancies in Pennsylvania's poorest and highest minority schools, especially since the school's workforce may look different than the local community.

I'm not sure, but I think they just said that middle class white kids don't want to be working in those poor black schools.

Poor minority schools have lousy unqualified teachers because...

Same as above, actually. Man, this report could have been a page shorter.

We don't have enough teachers in certain certificate areas or principals or school nurses because...

Several repeaters from above, actually. But also teacher schools just aren't producing the teachers. Nothing here about continued assault on teaching profession in ways that would make it unappealing to future might-have-been-teachers.

There is too much turnover because...

Because some administrators are lousy managers. Also, teachers don't get enough awesome professional development. And some of those same other things.

Teacher grad programs not producing enough super duper teachers in right fields because...

Human resource departments can't adequately predict future needs. Yeah, sure, that's it. Also, there aren't enough subs??!! Seriously? Once again, we will completely side step the ways in which state and federal education policy has made teaching increasingly less attractive, as well as the way that constant badgering of teachers by politicians and policymakers has reduced respect for the porofession.

We have school financial inequity because...

And here's the winner of the Opaque Criticism of Somebody Award. "Poor funding decisions have severe consequences, especially when fiscal resources are limited." You mean, like when the state reneges on its teacher pension payments and then announces a crisis a decade later? Or when the state insists on a crazy-pants blood-sucking funding system for charters?  Also, some districts are poor, and can't make up the difference when the state short changes them.

We have data gaps because...

Because the state's data systems are slow and stupid and unusable. Did they really say that? It might just have been me.

But now we've diagnosed the problems. Well, we've sort of diagnosed them. If you are still with me, you can head on over to Part Two and we'll look at the super-awesome solutions that PDE proposed to the feds and the surprise ending that comes with them.


  1. So new teachers are choosing wealthier districts; the wealthiest charter schools can't find qualified teachers; somewhat higher salaries in poorer districts are not convincing teachers to work there; and even the wealthiest charters have higher turnover than poor, high-minority district schools. Then a poorly-imagined exercise in pure speculation based on nothing to figure out why problems exist.

  2. This is some of the most witty, entertaining writing on education policy I have read. But could you please offer your positive solutions? Would you abolish current pay scales, certification laws, schools of education, tenure laws? Would you recommend funds to follow students, weighted for their learning challenges? Are you against school choice? Or not? Let's hear what you would do instead.

    1. There are close to 1300 posts on this blog. Many of them address your questions, though mostly they oppose your implied suggestions. But feel free to browse around the place.

  3. This is some of the most witty, entertaining writing on education policy I have read. But could you please offer your positive solutions? Would you abolish current pay scales, certification laws, schools of education, tenure laws? Would you recommend funds to follow students, weighted for their learning challenges? Are you against school choice? Or not? Let's hear what you would do instead.

    1. I would also suggest you read Dienne's comment to the next post down called Bottom 5%.

  4. This is some of the most witty, entertaining writing on education policy I have read. But could you please offer your positive solutions? Would you abolish current pay scales, certification laws, schools of education, tenure laws? Would you recommend funds to follow students, weighted for their learning challenges? Are you against school choice? Or not? Let's hear what you would do instead.

  5. Livfinne, this isn't the only post the Curmudge has ever written. His suggestions are available.