“Efficiency” as a Constitutional Mandate for Texas’s Educational System

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The Texas Constitution requires that the state “establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools,” as the “general diffusion of knowledge [is]…essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people.” Following this notion, The George W. Bush Institute’s Education Reform Initiative  recently released its first set of reports as part of its The Productivity for Results Series: “A Legal Lever for Enhancing Productivity.” The report was authored by an affiliate of The New Teacher Project (TNTP) – the non-profit organization founded by the controversial former Chancellor of Washington DC’s public schools Michelle Rhee; an unknown and apparently unaffiliated “education researcher” named Krishanu Sengupta; and Sandy Kress, the “key architect of No Child Left Behind [under the presidential leadership of George W. Bush] who later became a lobbyist for Pearson, the testing company” (see, for example, here).

Authors of this paper review the economic and education research (although if you look through the references the strong majority of pieces come from economics research, which makes sense as this is an economically driven venture) to identify characteristics that typify enterprises that are efficient. More specifically, the authors use the principles of x-efficiency set out in the work of the highly respected Henry Levin that require efficient organizations, in this case as (perhaps inappropriately) applied to schools, to have: 1) Clear objective outcomes with measurable outcomes; 2) Incentives that are linked to success on the objective function; 3) Efficient access to useful information for decisions; 4) Adaptability to meet changing conditions; and 5) Use of the most productive technology consistent with cost constraints.

The authors also advance another series of premises, as related to this view of x-efficiency and its application to education/schools in Texas: (1) that “if Texas is committed to diffusing knowledge efficiently, as mandated by the state constitution, it should ensure that the system for putting effective teachers in classrooms and effective materials in the hands of teachers and students is characterized by the principles that undergird an efficient enterprise, such as those of x-efficiency;” (2) this system must include value-added measurement systems (i.e., VAMs), as deemed throughout this paper as not only constitutional but also rational and in support of x-efficiency; (3) given “rational policies for teacher training, certification, evaluation, compensation, and dismissal are key to an efficient education system;” (4) “the extent to which teacher education programs prepare their teachers to achieve this goal should [also] be [an] important factor;”  (5) “teacher evaluation systems [should also] be properly linked to incentives…[because]…in x-efficient enterprises, incentives are linked to success in the objective function of the organization;” (6) which is contradictory with current, less x-efficient teacher compensation systems that link incentives to time on the job, or tenure, rather than to “the success of the organization’s function; (6), in the end, “x-efficient organizations have efficient access to useful information for decisions, and by not linking teacher evaluations to student achievement, [education] systems [such as the one in Texas will] fail to provide the necessary information to improve or dismiss teachers.”

The two districts highlighted as being most x-efficient in Texas, and in this report include, to no surprise: “Houston [which] adds a value-added system to reward teachers, with student performance data counting for half of a teacher’s overall rating. HISD compares students’ academic growth year to year, under a commonly used system called EVAAS.” We’ve discussed not only this system but also its use in Houston often on this blog (see, for example, here, here, and here). Teachers in Houston who consistently perform poorly can be fired for “insufficient student academic growth as reflected by value added scores…In 2009, before EVAAS became a factor in terminations, 36 of 12,000 teachers were fired for performance reasons, or .3%, a number so low the Superintendent [Terry Grier] himself called the dismissal system into question. From 2004-2009, the district
fired or did not renew 365 teachers, 140 for “performance reasons,” including poor discipline management, excessive absences, and a lack of student progress. In 2011, 221 teacher contracts were not renewed, multiple for “significant lack of student progress attributable to the educator,” as well as “insufficient student academic growth reflected by [SAS EVAAS] value-added scores….In the 2011-12 school year, 54% of the district’s low-performing teachers were dismissed.” That’s “progress,” right?!?

Anyhow, for those of you who have not heard, this same (controversial) Superintendent, who pushed this system throughout his district is retiring (see, for example, here).

The other district of (dis)honorable mention was Dallas Independent School district; it also uses a VAM called the Classroom Effectiveness Index (CIE), although I know less about this system as I have never examined or researched it myself, nor have I read really anything about it. But in 2012, the district’s Board “decided not to renew 259 contracts due to poor performance, five times more than the previous year.” The “progress” such x-efficiency brings…

What is still worrisome to the authors, though, is that “[w]hile some districts appear to be increasing their efforts to eliminate ineffective teachers, the percentage of teachers dismissed for any reason, let alone poor performance, remains well under one percent in the state’s largest districts.” Related, and I preface this one noting that this next argument is one of the most over-cited and hyper-utilized by organizations backing “initiatives” or “reforms” such as these, that this “falls well below the five to eight percent that Hanushek calculates would elevate achievement to internationally competitive levels” “Calculations by Eric Hanushek of Stanford University show that removing the bottom five percent of teachers in the United States and replacing them with teachers of average effectiveness would raise student achievement in the U.S. 0.4 standard deviations, to the level of student achievement in Canada. Replacing the bottom eight percent would raise student achievement to the level of Finland, a top performing country on international assessments.” As Linda Darling-Hammond, also of Stanford would argue, we cannot simply “fire our way to Finland.” Sorry Eric! But this is based on econometric predictions, and no evidence exists whatsoever that this is in fact a valid inference. Nontheless, it is cited over and over again by the same/similar folks (such as the authors of this piece) to justify their currently trendy educational reforms.

The major point here, though, is that “if Texas wanted to remove (or improve) the bottom five to eight percent of its teachers, the current evaluation system would not be able to identify them;” hence, the state desperately needs a VAM-based system to do this. Again,  no research to counter this or really any claim is included in this piece; only the primarily economics-based literatures were selected in support.

In the end, though, the authors conclude that “While the Texas Constitution has established a clear objective function for the state school system and assessments are in place to measure the outcome, it does not appear that the Texas education system shares the other four characteristics of x-efficient enterprises as identified by Levin. Given the constitutional mandate for efficiency and the difficult economic climate, it may be a good time for the state to remedy this situation…[Likewise] the adversity and incentives may now be in place for Texas to focus on improving the x-efficiency of its school system.”

As I know and very much respect Henry Levin (see, for example, an interview I conducted with him a few years ago, with the shorter version here and the longer version here), I’d be curious to know what his response might be to the authors’ use of his x-efficiency framework to frame such neo-conservative (and again trendy) initiatives and reforms. Perhaps I will email him…

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