August 21st, 2018

A SECOND OPINION, The Kansas Policy Institute


In an early ‘70s Columbo episode, the iconic detective was convinced that a recorded phone conversation was the key to proving Columbo’s suspect was indeed the murderer. He listened to the tape again and again, hoping to hear a background noise that didn’t belong, thus proving the suspect (in this case Robert Culp, who played a great bad guy) was lying about where he made the phone call. It finally dawned on Columbo that he had the wrong approach – the evidence wasn’t a sound that shouldn’t have been on the tape, it was a sound that should have been part of the recording but wasn’t, given where the suspect claimed to have made the call. That same idea occurred to me when reading the latest Tallman Education Report (I admit to watching too many old re-runs).

The results of a report entitled College Opportunity at Risk: An Assessment of the States, produced by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, was the subject of Mark Tallman’s latest KASB blog. The researchers ranked the fifty states along four categories that supposedly measure how effective states are providing the educational needs for students to prepare them for 21st century careers. Tallman summarized how Kansas compares and predictably Kansas ranks high in two categories and below average in two others. The categories – education performance, education equity, higher education funding and productivity, and state economy and finances – are not worth going into in detail in this forum, nor are the individual indicators within each of the categories.

Nevertheless, two things are of note. First, Kansas gets its highest rank in the education performance category, coming in at ninth, although that’s much more an indicator of participation than actual performance. Kansas ranks between 21st and 31st on four NAEP performance indicators and 42nd in students passing AP test scores. What makes the overall ranking so artificially elevated is that Kansas ranks high in graduation rates and participation past high school, including the 25-64 age group.  A closer look at these indicators reveals that Kansas does poorly when it comes to academic preparation, which is exactly what the focus of K-12 education should be.

Second, the states that have an overall rank above Kansas are a mix that spend both less and more per pupil. This is contrary to KASB’s position that states ranked higher than Kansas all spend more per pupil than Kansas. KASB’s stance, of course, is taken to continue the drumbeat for more money.

That’s what is missing from the blog – the KASB mantra that accompanies virtually every study/report: Overall Kansas is above average when compared to other states, but in order to keep up with the educational Joneses, more money is needed. But this time there was no outcry for more money to education – maybe they think the $500+ million added by the Legislature this year is enough (just kidding).

Being the Columbo wannabe that I am, I read it again and again (OK, only twice), trying to figure out what I was missing. Then it hit me: I was looking at it all wrong. Instead of trying to find the missing comment or conclusion in the blog that fits the KASB narrative…I should be looking at the report to see if something vital was omitted.

And there it is. Right in the executive summary of the study.

The authors state:

“In contrast to the public compacts that provided for the rapid expansion and development of institutional capacity after World War II, the new public compacts must focus on students…Public compacts focused on students will require a policy shift from an institutional-building agenda—building and expanding facilities and developing our faculties and programs of study—toward a focus on students, ensuring that increasing numbers of young and working-age adults enroll in education and training programs beyond high school and that students succeed in completing their certificate and degree programs in order to meet workforce and societal needs.” (emphasis not added)

The study isn’t at all about how the Tallman Education Report presents it. It’s a statement that public education must shift its collective focus from building and maintaining the institution to start focusing on the students. It should come as no surprise that wasn’t in the blog. A student-focused model to education would be an existential threat to organizations like KASB, which serves first to support, protect and expand the institutions that run public education.

KPI has always stood firm on the conviction that education should be all about the student and not the institution. It’s refreshing, and actually profound, for an Ivy League university (and the graduate education school at that!) to publish a report taking the same position.

Oh, and just one more thing…doesn’t that sound like a ringing endorsement of school choice?

Jury farrar tile