February 2016

This week the Nebraska Legislature will tackle the Learning Community. The debate has been ongoing since the controversial policy became law nine years ago, with repeated calls to repeal the law altogether.  The law has withstood such criticism and remains in place today.

Addressing disparities in K-12 education, the purpose of the Learning Community, is essential. However, the achievement gap in Nebraska has only grown in the past two decades and is now among the largest in the nation.

Originally, the Learning Community’s plan included opening innovative schools, expanding school choice, and creating a common and more equitable financing structure between multiple school districts (the common levy). Yet, since its implementation, not one new and innovative school has opened and choice has been rolled back (and was critically flawed from the start, often giving preference to privileged students over lower income students).

The Learning Community still requires a unique taxing structure, the purpose being to direct funds towards high poverty districts, but those districts are not required to direct those funds to high poverty schools. For example, the 2013 OPS needs analysis showed that OPS spent more at Alice Buffett Middle School in West Omaha than it did at middle schools with much higher free and reduced lunch rates in North and South Omaha. Meanwhile, districts like Douglas County West struggle to maintain basic building maintenance needs.

The Learning Community resulted from a threat of litigation against the state by OPS’ former superintendent, John Mackiel.  He argued that Nebraska was failing to meet its constitutional requirement to provide students with a K-12 education.  Today, attention has shifted away from implementing K-12 reforms and instead focused on expanding early childhood education and social services to families. While early childhood education is important and needed, the state has no constitutional duty to provide it. And the Department of Health and Human Services may be a more appropriate entity to address social services.

Like many conversations about K-12 education quality, funding and spending dominate the debate.  This arguably distracts policymakers from needed conversations regarding other policies proven to address inequity and the achievement gap. And, in the ten years spent debating the Learning Community in the legislature, little focus has been on outcomes.

Meanwhile, many states have adopted reforms to address the achievement gap and improve overall K-12 education quality.  Expanding school choice, raising standards, focusing on teacher quality, and increasing transparency and accountability are examples of reforms proven to close the achievement gap and improve K-12 education overall.

Students in Nebraska have one opportunity to receive a high quality K-12 education. Today’s high school seniors were in kindergarten when the debate ignited that ultimately led to the creation of the Learning Community. We must ask whether the policy is meeting its purpose or whether we should direct attention towards policies with a growing track record of closing the achievement gap and improving K-12 education for all students.

Third grade is a critical point in time when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn.  Without achieving reading proficiency by this time, a student is nearly guaranteed to fall behind each year in every subject.  Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure every child in Nebraska has access to a high quality education that prepares him or her to succeed in third grade and beyond.

We must also work to ensure that our standards are rigorous: performance data must reflect meaningful student subject matter mastery.  If 100% of our students are proficient, but the standards are 40% less rigorous than other states, we are not accurately portraying proficiency and, more importantly, are under-preparing students for future success.

With an eye on ensuring rigorous standards, we should identify and celebrate success.  Below is a list of elementary schools in Nebraska where 100% of third graders met or exceeded Nebraska’s reading proficiency standards last year, with 50% or more exceeding those standards (according to data provided by the Nebraska Department of Education).  As a comparison, statewide, 49% of third graders met and 33% exceeded reading standards in the 2014-15 school year.

District School % Meeting Standards % Exceeding Standards
WESTSIDE COMMUNITY SCHOOLS SUNSET HILLS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 24 76
FULLERTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS FULLERTON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 29 71
CENTURA PUBLIC SCHOOLS CENTURA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 31 69
ARNOLD PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARNOLD ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 33 67
CREIGHTON COMMUNITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS CREIGHTON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 33 67
ELKHORN PUBLIC SCHOOLS WEST BAY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 33 67
MEDICINE VALLEY PUBLIC SCHOOLS MEDICINE VALLEY ELEMENTARY 33 67
ELM CREEK PUBLIC SCHOOLS ELM CREEK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 35 65
ADAMS CENTRAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS EAST ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 37 63
AMHERST PUBLIC SCHOOLS AMHERST ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 39 61
DILLER-ODELL PUBLIC SCHOOLS DILLER-ODELL ELEM SCHOOL 41 59
LINCOLN PUBLIC SCHOOLS EASTRIDGE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 41 59
SOUTHWEST PUBLIC SCHOOLS SOUTHWEST ELEMENTARY-INDIANOLA 42 58
WALLACE PUBLIC SCH DIST 65 R WALLACE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 43 57
NORFOLK PUBLIC SCHOOLS LINCOLN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 44 56
EUSTIS-FARNAM PUBLIC SCHOOLS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL AT EUSTIS 46 54
SCRIBNER-SNYDER COMMUNITY SCHS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL AT SCRIBNER 46 54
FREEMAN PUBLIC SCHOOLS FREEMAN ELEMENTARY-ADAMS 50 50

 

Thank you to the many educators who contribute to such student success and continue to do so year after year.

When used to assess what’s working, what’s not, and how to replicate the former and prevent the latter, data can be a very powerful tool. That’s why Educate Nebraska is committed to using reliable data to inform and improve K-12 education policies and practices for the benefit of students.

Data can also be misused to mislead the public. When done to influence K-12 education policy, student interests often become secondary. When it comes to student performance data, both positive and negative, it’s important to be transparent.  Otherwise, we risk missed opportunities to improve student outcomes.

Two claims made recently by those opposed to student-centered reforms use distorted data to influence K-12 education policy.  We address each claim below:

CLAIM: Nebraska’s per pupil spending pales in comparison to most states.  

REALITY: Nebraska spends more per student than the national average.  

Opponents to reform frequently cite Nebraska’s ranking near last in terms of state funding for K-12 education.  In doing so, they neglect to mention that Nebraska spends significantly more local dollars (mostly in the form of property taxes) than the national average. In terms of student impact, where the funding comes from (state or local revenue) does not matter.

When looking at total per-pupil spending, Nebraska ranks #18 in the nation.

When adjusted for regional cost differences, Nebraska ranks #13 in the nation.

If funding correlated directly to improved student outcomes, Nebraska student performance would have increased above and beyond the national average over the last two decades.  Instead, funding increased while student outcomes failed to keep pace with the national rate of improvement.

Nebraska should focus on what improves student outcomes and fund accordingly. High quality teacher and principal preparation and support, extended school days and years, high academic standards, and instilling high expectations are proven practices to improve student outcomes. Increasing funding without changing practice is unlikely to impact performance.

CLAIM: Students in Nebraska perform near the top in the nation on the ACT.  

REALITY: Nebraska students perform in the middle of the pack on the ACT, when considering total student participation and varying student demographics.

Nebraska performs the best in the nation on the ACT when looking only at states where more than 80% of high school graduates took the exam (in 2015).  However, only seventeen states fall into that category and of those seventeen, 100% of eligible students took the exam in thirteen states.  When a higher percentage of eligible students take the exam, scores are more likely to go down because students who would otherwise not be encouraged to consider college take the exam.

There were only four states in which less than 100% but more than 79% of students took the exam: Nebraska (88%), Arkansas (93%), Hawaii (93%) and Oklahoma (80%).

In considering the ACT scores, one must also weigh student demographics.  Low income students and students of color, on average, perform worse on the ACT than their wealthier white peers.

Of the four states mentioned above, Nebraska has the lowest percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch (44%), compared to Hawaii (49%), Arkansas (61%) and Oklahoma (61%). Nebraska also has the largest percentage of white students (71%), compared to Hawaii (14%), Oklahoma (54%), and Arkansas (64%).  When looking only at black student scores, Nebraska only performs better than Arkansas. When looking only at Latino scores, Nebraska only performs better than Hawaii.

The following states perform better than Nebraska on the ACT and have a student participation rate of above 70%, in order of highest to lowest performing: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Kansas, South Dakota, and Missouri.

When considering student performance on the ACT, it’s difficult to make an apples to apples comparison.  However, the data does not suggest that Nebraska student performance on the ACT ranks at or near the very top in the nation. Improving the quality of K-12 education in Nebraska will lead to improved performance on the ACT.