Saturday, March 30, 2019

On Economies of Scale

"What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one.  Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core."  Hannah Arendt
In a recent op-ed published by our local newspaper, a community member suggests, "It’s time for a bigger conversation in Marin about education and about what’s hiding under the guise of the “local control” argument that has brought us 19 school districts..."  The writer goes on to urge the community to engage in, "...a bigger conversation about the impacts we could have by combining forces to address the diverse needs of all kids in this county."
According to Ed-Data, in 2017-18 Marin County's seventeen school districts, County Office and one State-approved charter school, served approximately 33,741 students.  That same year, in California overall there were 944 elementary, high school and unified school districts (Ed-Data, 2018).  The op-ed writer theorizes that by "combining forces" (e.g. consolidating districts) the talent pool for Superintendents and Board governance teams will produce leadership that is more effective and skilled at addressing the "diverse needs of all kids."

For the time being, let's ignore that the writer of this op-ed has been an outspoken supporter of a local charter school and that charters in California have ballooned in their numbers to 1,248 (Ed-Data, 2017).  Let's also ignore (for now) the fact that these 1,248 additional autonomous entities create massive redundancy, significant cost burdens, endless distractions and are governed by self-appointed private citizens whose expenditures of our taxpayer dollars are accountable to no one.  On every level this op-ed is a full-scale hypocrisy, but its premise is worth addressing.

The essential question being asked is whether the consolidation of public educational entities in California would result in more skilled district leadership and therefore greater success for the overall population of diverse learners?  How do we answer this question?  

Time for a "data dive."

In 2014-15 the State of California began to annually assess students' proficiency in meeting the new Common Core State Standards for English-language arts (ELA) and mathematics.  The tool used, known as the "California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress" or "CAASPP," is taken each year by students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11.  A key metric is the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards and thanks to technology, it is relatively easy to dis-aggregate out the data by a variety of factors.  For example, we can analyze CAASPP data by ethnicity and then observe trends in students' proficiency for up to four school years (2014-15 to 2017-18).  We can also compare performance by ethnicity, thereby determining for example, the difference or "gap" that may exist in proficiency between student groups.  If we then look at these gaps over time, we can see the degree to which progress is made in closing the gap.  

If we assume that the answer to the essential question above is "yes," then we'd reasonably expect to see progress made over time toward closure of the proficiency gaps between student groups.  This should, if the op-ed writer's premise is correct, be particularly apparent for school districts run by what we assume to be highly talented and skilled leaders.

Let's begin our data dive at the top.

By all accounts, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the largest "combined force" in California's public education history.  In 1961, two separate Los Angeles school districts merged to become the nation's second largest public school system, currently operating 1,007 schools and 279 charters (Ed-Data, 2017 and 2018).  Since 2000, LAUSD has had nine Superintendents, including a former admiral, former governor, several career educators and currently, a billionaire businessman.  LAUSD must certainly draw its leaders from a very select and exclusive talent pool, and because it takes so much time, expense and political capital to be elected to the LAUSD Board of Trustees, that pool must be pretty exclusive, too.

How does LAUSD, the granddaddy of "combined forces" do in terms of bridging the proficiency gap for its diverse population of students?  In the immortal words of Richard Dawson, "Survey says ... keep working on it."  

For English-language arts (ELA), the 2014-15 gap between the percentage of White and African American students meeting or exceeding standards, was 37%.  In other words, 37% more White students were at or above standards in ELA, than African American students.  Four years later in 2017-18, the gap was 35.65%.  In four full school years, the proficiency gap between White and African American students in ELA, narrowed by 1.35%.  The gap closure between White and Latino students fared a bit better, narrowing by 3.25% over the four year period.  Even so, LAUSD's White students performed at or above standards in ELA, by 30.75% over their fellow Latino students.

In mathematics the gap (37%) did not close at all for White students compared to African American students.  For White students compared to Latino students, the gap went from 33% in 2014-15 to 32.05% in 2017-18, a narrowing of just under one percent.

That's a lot of numbers to digest, I know, but in terms of theoretical "cream of the crop" leaders and governance teams successfully addressing the needs of all kids, I think it is safe to say LAUSD has yet to bridge the performance divide between its diverse groups of students.

Maybe LAUSD isn't a good example. After all, the residents of Los Angeles have been trying to break-up its "combined forces" for decades, claiming it is too large to adequately serve the needs of its diverse student population. Perhaps instead we should analyze a smaller district; one that is more the size of what Marin County would be if it were a single district.  

To test the above premise with a district whose student population is closer to that of Marin County, we can go down the list of California school districts, by enrollment, and find Moreno Valley Unified School District located in Riverside County.  Moreno Valley USD has one Superintendent and one Board, serving some 33,134 students - almost equal to the total number of TK-12 students in Marin's 19 duplicated educational systems.

Using the same gap analysis as above, we learn that for English-Language arts, Moreno Valley barely narrowed the White/Aftican American gap (-0.16%) and White/Latino gap (-4.83%) over the same four year period.  In mathematics the gap between White and African American students widened (+1.49%) and narrowed between White and Latino students  (-2.58%).  Moreno Valley USD has managed to narrow some of its students' performance gaps a bit over the past four years, but like LAUSD, this is still very much a work in progress when in comes to making significant gains over time.  

My purpose with all this is not to pick on LAUSD, Moreno Valley USD or any other school district.  The fact is, our esteemed colleagues in these districts are doing all they can, in the face of massive challenges, to close performance gaps that have existed between our diverse student populations for as long as this data has been collected.  It is very complex work and in Marin County we have fared no better.  In fact, our only gap closure over the past four years is in mathematics, where the gap between Marin's White and African American students narrowed by 4.42%. Clearly, we don't have the gap-bridging secret any more than anyone else.

We could do this type of analysis all day long and the results would be more of the same. The notion that larger districts attract better leadership/governance talent and therefore do better at serving students' diverse needs, is flawed.  Equally flawed is the naive assumption that smaller districts don't have strong, effective and talented leadership/governance teams.  Hyperbolic rants in local newspapers, anger-filled on-line posts, phony pledges and anonymous cut-and-paste blogs, will never change the underlying data or help us more quickly bridge our students' performance gaps.

Had the op-ed writer's premise been about consolidation as a means of conserving our State's finite fiscal and human resources, this blog post might have gone in an entirely different direction.  Logically, it makes perfect sense that by "combining forces" and reducing the total number of educational entities throughout the State, costly duplications could be minimized and potentially vast economies of scale could be achieved.  Yet as I pointed out when this long post began, the proliferation of charter schools in California has more than doubled the number of autonomous educational entities in our State and moved the needle far in the opposite direction from "combining forces."  California is now bloated with educational entities it is incapable of supporting and charters, whose regulation and oversight is poor at best, stand as a prime example.  And speaking of talent pools, who is leading and governing all of these charter operations, many of which are tiny in size?   If the leadership talent pool is shallow for Marin's 17 districts, what has the addition of another 1,248 under-regulated entities accomplished?  

Yes, op-ed writer, hypocrisy aside let's all please explore the possible benefits of "combining forces" by consolidating the number of autonomous educational entities to a more manageable, affordable, legitimate and efficacious number.  This will, however, mean having real conversations about what education is and isn't.  It will mean talking about what's hiding under the guise of the "choice" argument that has brought us 1,248 charters.  It will mean that not everyone who imagines they have built a "better system" just because they want it to be true, will be granted permission to hijack everyone else's time and resources in pursuit of their false fantasy. And it will mean having the political courage to once and for all bury the rubber stamp that has repeatedly distorted, undermined, corrupted, over-committed and under-delivered on California's once-proud and solemn promise to provide its children with true public education.