In Kansas, public school establishment attacks high standards

When a Kansas public policy think tank placed ads in Kansas newspapers calling attention to the performance of Kansas schools, the public school establishment didn’t like it. The defense of the Kansas school status quo, especially that coming from Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker, ought to cause Kansans to examine the motives of the public school spending establishment and their ability to be truthful about Kansas schools.

As an example, an ad placed by the Kansas Policy Institute in the Topeka Capital-Journal had a table of figures with the heading “2011 State Assessment Results: Percent of 11th Grade Students who Read Grade-Appropriate Material with Full Comprehension; Are Usually Accurate on All Grade-Level Math Tasks.” For the Topeka school district, the number given for reading was 36 percent, and for math, 26 percent.

The publicity given to these low numbers raised the hackles of the Kansas public school spending establishment. Here’s the nut of the disagreement:

When Kansas schoolchildren are tested using the Kansas state tests, results are categorized into one of five categories: Exemplary, exceeds standards, meets standards, approaches standard, and academic warning. Each of these categories has a definition. In its ads, KPI chose to present the number of students who fall into the two highest categories. The Kansas school bureaucracy argues that KPI should have also included students in the third category.

So what do these performance categories mean? “Exemplary,” according to Kansas State Department of Education documents, means just that: “A student scoring at the exemplary level always performs consistently and accurately when working on all grade-level mathematical tasks.”

“Exceeds standards,” for eleventh grade math, means: “A student scoring at the exceeds standard level usually performs consistently and accurately when working on all grade-level mathematical tasks.” In further detail, the standard uses these phrases: “The student demonstrates well-developed content knowledge and application skills … The student is accurate … The student usually uses multiple problem-solving techniques to accurately solve …”

“Meets standards,” again for eleventh grade math, means: “A student scoring at the meets standard level usually performs consistently and accurately when working on most grade-level mathematical tasks.” More detail includes “The student demonstrates sufficient content knowledge and application skills … The student usually understands and uses … The student is usually accurate when … The student uses some problem-solving techniques to accurately solve …”

What we’ve learned is that the Kansas public school establishment wants Kansans to be proud of the number of students who are sufficient, who usually understand, and are able to use some problem-solving techniques.

KPI, on the other hand, wants to call attention to the much smaller number of students whose knowledge is well-developed, who are accurate, and usually uses multiple problem-solving techniques. This level of achievement sounds like what parents want for their children.

If we’re concerned about our national security, we need more students to be in the two highest categories of achievement. That’s right — a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations concludes that U.S. schools are so bad that they pose a threat to national security.

For calling on Kansans to insist on high standards for their public schools, KPI has been attacked by the public school establishment, most notably from the teachers union president and other union officials.

It’s one thing for union officials to defend the current system of public education. Their job is to deflect attention from the truth in order too defend a system that is run for the benefit of adults, not children and taxpayers.

But you’d expect more from the Kansas Commissioner of Education, wouldn’t you?

Not if the commissioner is Diane DeBacker. She took to the editorial page of the Wichita Eagle to defend the status quo in Kansas public education. Her defense centers primarily around the “process.” There are experts in education, she says, who create the system of assessments and determine the level of performance that we ought to be satisfied with for Kansas schoolchildren.

The problem is that nearly everyone who looks at U.S. and Kansas schools who is not part of the public school establishment finds that schools are not performing well. Can everyone but education school establishment experts be wrong?

That’s what Debacker wants us to believe.

DeBacker writes that she is proud of student achievement in Kansas: “Since 2001, the percentage of students statewide who perform in the top three levels on state reading assessments has jumped from about 60 percent to more than 87 percent. In math, the jump has been from just more than 54 percent to nearly 85 percent.”

This rise in performance, however, is only on tests that the Kansas education establishment controls. On every measure of student performance that I know of that is independent, this rising trend in student achievement does not appear. In some measures, for some recent years, the performance of Kansas students has declined.

Instead of facing this reality, the Kansas public school spending establishment would rather attack the integrity of the Kansas Policy Institute. This is on top of constant advocacy — including multiple lawsuits — for more spending on public schools. This establishment also beats back any attempts to introduce competition and accountability to Kansas public schools through school choice programs.

Again, this is to be expected from union officials and other partisans. Their job is to direct as much spending as possible into Kansas public schools while shielding schools from meaningful accountability. If Kansans became aware of the true performance of their public schools and how much they cost, these officials wouldn’t be doing their jobs.

But DeBacker, the Commissioner of Education, ought to hold herself and her profession to a different standard. For defending the current system against those who tell the truth and advocate for higher standards, she should apologize, to students first and Kansans second.

This article originally appeared at Voice for Liberty in Wichita.