Before Kansas spends money it does not have to get educational results it cannot obtain, legislators would do well to recruit Holton native and Lawrence resident Bill James.
As baseball fans know, James all but reinvented the sport by analyzing its statistics. Some years ago he introduced logic into the game through a concept he called “Sabermetrics.” Adopted by Oakland manager Billy Bean, the resulting strategy led Oakland to the pennant and Bean to immortality via the book and movie Moneyball.
Kansas educators need James’s help. They do tons of testing and essentially ignore the implication of the statistics they produce. Although the Kansas Policy Institute has done excellent work surfacing these numbers, the state educational establishment has shown no interest in commissioning the kind of contrarian analysis on them that a Bill James might run.
Kansas low-income students, for instance, are the subject of much hand wringing among legislators and Supreme Court justices. Yet they outperform the national average in all four categories tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
The margins are not huge, but they are consistent. In fourth and eight grade reading and fourth and eight-grade math, low-income schoolchildren do better than their peers nationwide. They do not do as well as schoolchildren who are not low income, but the differential between low income and non-low income students in Kansas is slightly lower than it is in the nation as a whole.
There are policy implication in these numbers. Legislators and judges seem hell bent on narrowing the difference between the two groups and siphoning whatever money they can extract from taxpayers. In so doing, they have set goals for themselves that are unrealistic and unattainable.
If Kansas history is predictive, additional money will make a negligible difference. Kansas started using NAEP assessments 20 years ago. Controlling for inflation, real per-pupil spending has increased 44 percent since 1998. During that same period, NAEP reading scores increased less than 1 percent. Math scores, first tested in 2000, have increased less than 2 percent.
Unlike Lake Wobegon where all schoolchildren are famously above average, Kansas schoolchildren are spectacularly average. Those students designated “not low-income,” for instance, vary from the national average no more than 2 percent in any of the four rated variables. If 57 percent of Kansas fourth graders rate “proficient” in math so do 57 percent of fourth graders nationwide. On reading for this cohort, 50 percent of fourth graders rate proficient. The national average is 52 percent.
In eighth grade, Kansas students perform relatively less well in both reading and math than they do in the fourth grade. Again, Kansas numbers are almost identical to national numbers. The schoolchildren may change every year in Kansas, but their test scores over time remain stubbornly the same.
Kansas could use a Bill James or someone much like him. Right now educators are spending money very nearly blindly, and the outlook in this Mudville, as one might expect, is not brilliant at all.