Fun With Numbers

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Education

I forgot to mention that Monday was International Dyscalculia Day, meant to achieve recognition of dyscalculia, a learning disorder related to arithmetic. I don’t have all of the symptoms, but I do have several of them. Perhaps mine is a mild case. But the truth is I do struggle with third grade-level arithmetic, and as far as I’m concerned Calculus was a Roman emperor.

So with that in mind, perhaps y’all can help me out with this — Awhile back, Paul Krugman wrote a column in which he pointed out that states governed with an anti-tax, “deficit hawk” philosophy have a pattern of providing a substandard public school education for its children. He called out Texas in particular —

The high school graduation rate, at just 61.3 percent, puts Texas 43rd out of 50 in state rankings. Nationally, the state ranks fifth in child poverty; it leads in the percentage of children without health insurance. And only 78 percent of Texas children are in excellent or very good health, significantly below the national average. The high school graduation rate, at just 61.3 percent, puts Texas 43rd out of 50 in state rankings. Nationally, the state ranks fifth in child poverty; it leads in the percentage of children without health insurance. And only 78 percent of Texas children are in excellent or very good health, significantly below the national average.

Along with this, the Economist via Scott Lemieux posted some figures showing that students from the five states that have completely eliminated teacher collective bargaining rights — South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia — tend to have very below-average standardized test results. Scott withdrew these numbers, however, because he decided they were faulty, and are also based on very old data. Here is the original data, if you want to look.

Anyway, a rightie blogger, Iowahawk, called bullshit on Krugman’s column and on the figures Scott cited and then withdrew. Iowahawk argues that the reason Texas looks bad compared to Wisconsin is that Wisconsin has a much smaller percentage of racial minority students than does Texas, and if you compare student test scores by race, you see that Texas beats Wisconsin. In other words, Texas white kids outscore Wisconsin white kids, and the only reason the Wisconsin school system ranks higher than Texas’s is that Wisconsin has a much higher percentage of white kids. And yeah, there’s more than a whiff of racism here, but data is data.

Iowahawk is getting his data from the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the Department of Education. The center has data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which appears to be a standardized test administered to 4th and 8th grade students nationwide. And I’m going to assume he is accurately representing the figures he got from NCES.

If you go to this page you can get simple graphics for each state showing how the state’s test scores compare to the national average. The states all along the southern border, including California, are below average, except for Texas, which is just exactly average. So, compared to neighboring states, Texas does pretty well. (Note — here and throughout, I’m only looking at 4th grade scores, because I’m short of time to go into this further. But I think the 4th grade scores give us a good general comparison.)

States above the Mason Dixon line tend to have above-average test scores, with a few exceptions — Oregon, Illinois, and Michigan are struggling. And note that Oregon is slightly “whiter” than Wisconsin — the racial demographics are very similar — but the most recent test scores are closer to those of Texas, around average.

I assume the southernmost states have a much higher percentage of English as a Second Language (ESL) students than the northern states, and I assume that could have some impact on standardized test scores, although I don’t know that for a fact.

My quibbles — First off, the data I would like to see, and which the NCES does not appear to provide, would compare groups by income level, not race. I postulate there is at least as strong a correlation, if not stronger, between income disparity and test disparity than you would find for race. The racial disparity you see in some states would be a reflection of the income disparity.

And repeat after me: Correlation is not proof of causation.

I suspect also that Texas has a higher percentage of what might be called the “upper income” middle class — not rich, but comfortable — compared to next door neighbor states — Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico — all of which fare worse compared to national test results than Texas.

Texas public school spending per pupil statewide is not that high compared to other states, but I’d bet there is a big difference in per pupil spending between wealthy suburbs and the colonias along the Mexican border. And I postulate that the suburbs of Dallas and Houston have a high enough tax basis to support pretty decent public schools — about half of the money that pays for pubic schools in Texas comes from local sources, which would be property taxes and, I assume, school bonds.

(Yes, California has wealth, too, and worse test scores than Texas. But California shot itself in the foot by drastically limiting property taxes awhile back. Before Proposition 13, California had the best public schools in the nation. Now a much higher percentage of pubic school costs are paid by the state, which doesn’t help the state budget any.)

Anyway, it might be illuminating to line up data from Texas and Wisconsin that compared test results of students from families with the same level of income. I postulate you would see that Wisconsin is providing a better education to its lower-income residents, a large part of which are rural whites.

And for what it’s worth — Wisconsin has a slightly higher median household income than Texas — $52,094 to $50,043, or ranked 21 and 27, respectively, among the states. Texas has a much bigger percentage of population below the poverty level, however — 15.8% compared to Wisconsin’s 10.4%; the two states ranking 8 and 38 in poverty level. My theory is that Texas has lots of impoverished communities with substandard schools, dragging down the statewide assessment scores.

Conservatives like to claim that there’s no correlation between per pupil spending and educational results, but lets take a look at that. This chart ranks per-pupil spending per state, and there’s a big difference between the top spending state and the bottom. The guy who compiled the chart wants to make the case that spending doesn’t matter, because, he says, there’s no correlation between per pupil spending and SAT scores.

However, I’ve seen an argument that the SAT scores are not necessarily a good indicator of a school system’s performance, since not everyone takes the SAT. And, interestingly, studies have found a strong correlation between family income levels and SAT test results; the higher the family income, the higher the test scores.

I wish I had the time to line up the per-pupil spending chart with the test data from NCES, because I suspect there is at least some correlation there. The states with the highest per-pupil spending — Vermont, Wyoming, New Jersey, New York, and Maine — all have above average results, especially Vermont and New Jersey. And New Jersey has lots of those ethnic minorities that allegedly pull down scores. As I remember, some school districts in New Jersey have very high percentages of ESL students, but I don’t know how the state overall would compare to Texas.

The states with the lowest per-pupil spending — California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah — are less impressive. Utah — a much “whiter” state than Texas, note — is around average — slightly below average in reading, just a hair above average in science and mathematics. Wikipedia says Utah is 95.20% white, so if race were such a strong factor in test scores, you’d think Utah would be above average. It ain’t.

Nevada — also a “whiter” state than Texas, although not as much as Utah — is way below average in everything.

And unrelated to income, there’s another aspect of Texas that you have to factor in, which is the infamous Texas TAKS system. The biggest reason textbook publishers for years have had to create “Texas edition” textbooks is that Texas has its own assessment system, and lessons plans and textbooks must “teach to the test.” The teacher’s editions of Texas textbooks — which I have helped to produce — are filled with standardized test directions that don’t appear in the national editions. So one would expect Texas students to have an edge with assessment tests. Whether than translates into a better overall education is a point to be debated.

Getting back to the argument of whether teacher’s unions help or hinder education — three of the the five “no arbitration whatsoever” states — South and North Carolina and Georgia — have mostly below average standardized test scores (North Carolina has above average reading scores though). Texas, as I’ve said, is average. Virginia, however, is above average. Again, one suspects median income has something to do with that — Virginia ranks eighth among all states in median household income.

So what are we learning here? First, racial demographics by themselves are no excuse for poor public schools. We can find nearly all-white states with below average schools and racially mixed states with above average schools.

I postulate there is some correlation between per-pupil spending and NAEP scores, although I don’t have time to run through all the numbers. There does appear to be a strong correlation between median household income and NAEP scores, but again, I don’t have time to work that out for every state.

And does any of this show what effect teacher’s unions have on education? I don’t think so. That’s not to say there isn’t an impact, but you can’t see it by looking at the state-level data. There are too many other variables from one state to another.

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7 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Rob Miller  •  Mar 3, 2011 @5:54 pm

    Talk about quibbles!

    First of all, I live in California, and the reason for the poor performance of the public schools there has nothing to do with property taxes. It has to do with the fact that the Teacher’s Unions protects incompetent and borderline illiterate teachers unable to pass a basic C-Best exam so simple my 14-year-old would be embarrassed not to ace it. it has to do with the fact that admin is top heavy compared to teachers in the classrooms. And it has to do with the fact that millions have been wasted on things like bi-lingual textbooks that ended up not being able to be used and because of boondoggles like the radon-infested Belmont Learning Center site.

    Most of all, it’s because the public schools are saddled with illegal aliens who are barely literate in their own language, let alone English. The drop out rate for Latinos in the LAUSD is, what, 40%?

    That’s what brings scores down.

    Second, there is absolutely NO correlation between academic success and spending per pupil. My children’s private school spends only about 2/3 of what the LAUSD spends per pupil, and the test scores and academic content are so advanced over even the LAUSD’s best schools it’s pathetic.

    Race and economic status ain’t it either. A lot of it has to do with the fact that some cultures value education and learning more than others.

    In Barbados, schools operate with a fraction of the budget public schools here in the US have, yet their kids take the American SAT scores (many Bajans work in tech fields here in the US) and beat average scores in many US jurisdictions.

    In China, kids likewise do quite well with a fairly minimal budget.

    The best idea? V-o-u-c-h-e-r-s. End the public school’s monopoly and allow working parents the freedom to do what the elites and even most public school teachers do – send their kids to private schools.

    When people are able to vote with their feet , when there’s some competition and the guv’mint dollars for the head count starts diminishing, watch how fast the public schools improve, fiscally and educationally.

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Mar 3, 2011 @6:05 pm

    “…the only reason the Wisconsin school system ranks higher than Texas’s is that Wisconsin has a much higher percentage of white kids.”

    And isn’t this what it’s all about?
    We should really only be teaching white children, since they’re the only ones seemingly capable of learning. Why bother with teaching the unteachable, and educating the uneducable.
    Those black and brown children just throw off the statistics. If you took them out of the Bell Curve, that line would go up, up, UP!
    Teachers are too consumed with trying to teach everyone, and should instead concentrate on the children of those who really pay the taxes – the white people! (And the Japanese ones, who Teddy Roosevelt considered Aryan, and maybe that extension goes to almost all Asian students as well, who are, well, just a yellower shade of white, but who are mostly great students, so we’ll count them as white, not shite).

    Slightly OT, but hysterical – In Texas, the legislature wants to pass a bill where hiring illegal aliend is punishable by 2 years in prison, and a $10,000 dollar fine – unless you hire them TO WORK IN THE HOUSEHOLD!

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
    OMG, I think I wet myself, and am about to pass out!
    OK, deep breath’s.

    “Riddle’s chief of staff said the provision was necessary to help protect Texas’ “economic engine.”

    That’s some “economic engine” you’ve got there in your car.

    Illegal spark plugs and other parts.

    But they’re all ok, if they’re there to help keep the drivers car clean.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
    OMG, I think I wet myself, and am about to pass out!

    THUNK!!!

  3. maha  •  Mar 3, 2011 @7:21 pm

    First of all, I live in California, and the reason for the poor performance of the public schools there has nothing to do with property taxes. It has to do with the fact that the Teacher’s Unions protects incompetent and borderline illiterate teachers unable to pass a basic C-Best exam so simple my 14-year-old would be embarrassed not to ace it. it has to do with the fact that admin is top heavy compared to teachers in the classrooms. And it has to do with the fact that millions have been wasted on things like bi-lingual textbooks that ended up not being able to be used and because of boondoggles like the radon-infested Belmont Learning Center site.

    The fact remains that before Prop 13, California had the best school system in the nation. Now, it’s close to the bottom.

    I have already conceded that a high percentage of ESL students can be a factor in dragging down school results. I have looked and looked for some data sheet showing the percentage of English language learners in public school by state, and I have given up. For some reason, that data doesn’t seem to be on the Web anywhere. But according to the NEA, 60 percent of the nation’s English language learners in public schools are in six states — Arizona, California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois.

    So let’s look at New York. New York has lots of non-English speaking students, too, and you can bet the teachers are unionized, but its test scores are higher than the national average and way better than California’s.

    New York schools overall aren’t doing as well as neighboring states, but let’s look at them –New Jersey has teacher’s unions, and its test scores are outstanding. Way above national average. Same thing is true for Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Teachers are unionized, test scores are significantly above the national average. And as I’ve shown, not having teacher’s unions is no guarantee that a state will have better than average test scores.

    Sir, this is what we call “data.” Your opinions, personal perspectives, and anecdotes are mildly interesting, but they don’t prove anything. Show me data.

    Regarding spending per pupil between public and private schools — private schools can refuse special needs children, and public schools cannot. This skews the data, so it doesn’t really tell you what resources are spent on the average kid. So your numbers there are meaningless.

    FYI, Milwaukee has had voucher schools for more than 20 years now, and they’ve never been able to demonstrate that the voucher kids are better educated than non-voucher kids. For some reason lots of people can’t seem to let go of a belief that voucher schools would be better, but there’s no evidence — well, none that hasn’t been cherry picked to death — to show that they make any real difference (see Brookings Institute study for details; see also “Study finds little achievement difference between MPS, independent charters” and “Milwakee’s Failed Voucher Experiment Should Be Shut Down.” ). The studies did find that the Milwaukee voucher schools were getting about the same results as the public schools for less per pupil cost, but I doubt the voucher schools have to take special needs children, and as I said, that always skews the data. Also, the Brookings study concluded that the presence of voucher schools does absolutely nothing to improve the public schools. I think if an effect hasn’t shown up in 20 years, it’s probably not coming.

    You dismiss the factor of economic status out of hand, even though all the data I looked at pointed to median household income as the most significant factor in the neighborhood schools. I say again, show me data. Your opinions, which I have heard ad nauseum and ad infinitum, over and over for years and years, etc. — mean nothing. N – o – t – h – i – n – g. If you can’t present hard data of some sort to back up your assertions, please don’t bother asserting. Thanks much.

  4. Doug Hughes  •  Mar 3, 2011 @7:22 pm

    Wow,Rob! Do you take advanced classes in stupidity? Barbara gives a laundry list of statistical sources on education, and you can’t offer a single hard fact. Do you have a source for that crack about incompetent California teachers? My dad was a California high school teacher. I’ve been out of state for years, but last I heard, teachers were required to have college degrees. Moving on to the stereotypical crack about illegal aliens affecting scores. Doubt you have a source? No, Rush or Glenn are not a source of anything but manure. Barbara gave you hard factual sources.

    On the subject of vouchers, and the general debate of public vs private, impartial scoring does NOT show private schools to be superior. Yes, you can find sites that make the CLAIM, and some private schools deliver higher scores, particularly when they hand pick their students. The voucher system ensures a two-tiered system, with poor kids in an underfunded system, while the middle class and above takes the voucher, supplements it with what they can afford, and the public system crashes for lack of public funds.

    On the subject of public vs private school scores, Google it. This is a recent article – with stats done by scientists, not Baptists.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090226093423.htm

  5. joanr16  •  Mar 3, 2011 @11:22 pm

    My children’s private school

    No, really? I’m so surprised.

    The drop out rate…. That’s what brings scores down.

    What isn’t wrong with that sentence?

    And, as Doug points out, once again opinion = fact in the mind of a fool.

  6. Bill Bush  •  Mar 5, 2011 @10:24 am

    I used to coach SAT, a highly coachable test. Students with access to coaching improve scores. That ties to money and parent insistence. While doing that coaching, I recall reading that the SAT best predicted the student’s mother’s highest level of education and something about grades. A highly educated mother is pretty likely tied to a higher socio-economic status/income level. That ties to higher property values and more tax dollars to support education, I’d surmise.

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