Scores Rise When Teachers, Principals Lead (1st of 4 parts)
Indiana Writers Group column for Oct. 17 and thereafter
by Lisa Snell
“Beating the Odds,” a May 2007 report by the Council of the Great City Schools, details how urban school districts have closed their achievement gaps in the past six years. Unfortunately, the report notes that in Indianapolis the most disadvantaged students have lost ground since 2001.
For example, the achievement gap in reading on the I-Step for low-income eighth graders was 36 points in 2001; by 2006 it had grown to 45 points.
Overall, achievement gaps in Indiana are large. About 75 percent of white students passed the English portion of the I-Step exam in 2006, compared with 48 percent of black students and 51 percent of Hispanic students.
Some urban districts are making progress closing the achievement gap with the help of a school financing mechanism known as the “Weighted Student Formula.”
This approach distributes funding more equitably between schools and gives principals and parents more control over school resources.
School districts or state education departments use student characteristics to determine per-pupil funding levels and better match costs with actual student needs.
In each case, schools are given responsibility for managing their own budgets in key areas such as personnel, school maintenance, and learning materials.
In addition, the funding follows the child to each school and is based on the characteristics of the individual child.
In his 2007 State of the City address, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg called for the weighted-student-formula plan for all city schools.
One week later, Jim Gibbons, governor of Nevada, echoed Bloomberg’s proposal with his own plan. Oakland Unified has seen rapid improvements for disadvantaged students on multiple performance measures under its school empowerment plan.
In 2003-04, for instance, the city’s high schools offered 17 advanced placement classes; last year, the district offered 91.
Oakland students also are taking high-level math and science courses more frequently. About 800 high school students studied first-year physics last year — nearly triple the number taking the course in 2003-04.
Overall, Oakland had the highest gain of the 30 largest districts in California. Oakland high schools gained, on average, thirty points in one year on California’s 2006 Academic Performance Index.
Oakland has also shrunk the performance gap for low-income students in fourth grade reading who qualified for the free lunch program. They went from a 45 point gap to a 25 point gap; shrinking by 20 points between 2002 and 2006.
To test the Weighted Student Formula, Indiana wouldn’t need to do a statewide program. Instead, it could test the approach by offering school districts a financial incentive to pilot Weighted Student Formula within a school corporation.
This would be the best way to direct more of current resources to disadvantaged children, give school principals autonomy, and let parents choose which public school is best for their child.
Lisa Snell, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is director of education and child welfare policy at Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. Snell has led two recent legislative seminars on the Weighted Student Formula for Indiana legislators. A version of this essay appeared in the Aug. 26 Indianapolis Star.