Guest Commentary

Kansas should look to Florida on how to reform public education

A false impression of student achievement is one of the greatest barriers to improving public education. Unfortunately, the new school funding bill won’t help as long as some in the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly continue to hold to the false premise that more money equates better outcomes for our students. The true crisis is the misleading data that continues to permeate the narrative on education.

Data like the Wichita Chung Report, which hides the truth about USD 259 academic outcomes. Regarding the Chung Report, first, the education section is produced by local residents and not James Chung himself. Second, ignoring the realities of student achievement is not unique to the Chung Report but more the norm — and another major factor in the persistently low achievement of many students in Wichita and across the state.

The Chung education articles imply all that’s really needed is more funding, additional volunteers for literacy programs and community ‘support’ of the district. Put differently, just keep doing what’s been done for decades and this time, Einstein’s definition of insanity will be disproved.

One article repeats the Kansas Association of School Boards claim that Kansas has the 10th best achievement in the nation, but that’s simply never been true. Kansas rankings on ACT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are consistently in the mid-teens to low 30s. The only hint of actual achievement for USD 259 is a mention of the district’s grade on Niche.com, a site that grades districts across the nation with a proprietary method. A recent Chung article said USD 259 received a C+ and commented, “A C+ score isn’t great — and maybe it isn’t totally warranted.”

Indeed, a C+ is not warranted. Results of the 2018 Kansas State Assessment test show 72% of low income students in the 10th grade are below grade level in math and 54% are below grade level in English language arts. Among their more affluent peers, 44% are below grade level in math and 26 percent in ELA. Only 20% of all students (both income categories) are on track for college and career in ELA and just 12 percent in Math.

State assessment scores are routinely presented with hard-to-understand labels like ‘approaching standard’ or ‘Level 3’. Kansas Policy Institute solves this problem by translating scores into easily understood labels – A, B, C, D and F – using Department of Education definitions and cut scores.

Of the nearly 1,300 schools in Kansas, 11% received a B, 54% earned a C, 30% got Ds and 4% had Fs. No school received an A based on state assessment scores. In USD 259, only one school — Bostic Traditional Magnet Elementary — earned a B; 42% got Cs, 46% got Ds and 11% had Fs. Among USD 259 high schools (only 10th graders are tested), there were two Cs, six Ds and three Fs. The methodology and complete results are at KansasPolicy.org.

The state of Florida was in similarly bad straits 20 years ago and implemented a broad spectrum of changes focused on accountability, transparency, choice and competition. And it’s working. On the most recent NAEP test, Florida did better than Kansas on six of the eight main measurements (reading and math, 4th and 8th grade, low income students and non-low income students); Kansas did better on one measurement and there was one tie. And Florida accomplished this while spending much less per pupil than Kansas.

Kansas can significantly improve student achievement but not until the seriousness of the problem is acknowledged and addressed with substantive Florida-like reforms.

Dave Trabert is president of the Kansas Policy Institute.
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