The Diversity Dividend

[Note: This post combines three previous blog posts.]

One thing I have learned during my nine years on the Madison School Board is that white families’ attitudes toward race strongly shape their orientations toward our public schools.

The promise of our public schools has always encompassed an egalitarian ideal that our communities would be strengthened as students from all walks of life learn with and from each other. In 1857, D.Y. Kilgore, the first superintendent of Madison schools, approvingly quoted a Massachusetts educator’s description of public schools as “common in the best sense of the word, common to all classes, nurseries for a truly republican feeling, public sanctuaries where the children of the commonwealth fraternally meet and where the spirit of caste and of party can find no admittance.”

Those words were written about a century before Brown v. Board of Education, at a time when the “public sanctuaries” Kilgore celebrated were not equally accessible to students of color.   It has proven a tougher sell to promote and celebrate students of all races coming together for learning, in resistance to the social currents that tend to pull white families into their own enclaves and that have fed a national trend toward more segregated classrooms.

Advocates for public schools in diverse communities like Madison are called upon to make the case that white students benefit from attending school with students of color, just as students of color benefit from sharing classrooms with white students. Fortunately, this turns out to be true.

The point has won recognition at the college and university level, primarily as a result of legal battles over admission policies. Last summer, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the United States Supreme Court affirmed previous rulings and held that colleges have a compelling interest in promoting the racial diversity of their student bodies.  The first part of this post draws from the many briefs submitted in the Fisher case to describe the dividends that students can also derive from attending diverse schools at the K-12 level.

Despite the Supreme Court’s endorsement of diversity in college classrooms, the Court has become hostile to race-conscious strategies to address school segregation at the K-12 level. This turnabout from the Court’s earlier support of desegregation efforts has contributed to the growing homogeneity of classrooms throughout the country, a development explored in the second part of this post.

Our state policymakers are indifferent to benefits of diversity in K-12 schools.  What’s worse, the usual tools employed to assess the relative quality of K-12 schools in a predominantly white state like Wisconsin have the perverse effect of penalizing diversity.

This ill-serves our Madison public schools.  In typical quality comparisons, our schools suffer in comparison to our Dane County neighbors because our classrooms display a level of racial diversity that pays dividends for our students in critical but less quantifiable skills and aptitudes, but not for our schools in standardized test score averages.  The third part of this post examines these issues.

Our evaluations and assessment tools should be better aligned with our national priorities. There is a relatively simple way of measuring the degree of diversity in schools and school districts – a Diversity Index – that I describe and calculate for a number of Wisconsin school districts in the fourth part of this post. The post concludes with the recommendation that this type of measure be incorporated into the state’s school report cards and other assessments of school quality. Continue reading

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The Diversity Dividend in K-12 Schools: Part 3, Let’s Keep Score

The first part of this post drew from amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court to explain how truly diverse classrooms benefit students’ academic achievement, interpersonal skills, workplace preparation, and civic engagement.

The second part of the post looked at the national trend toward increasing segregation in our K-12 schools. The post explored how that trend was reinforced by misguided methods of rating schools that end up placing more value on high percentages of white students in the rated schools than on how much students are learning.

This final part of the post offers the following modest corrective to the tendency to undervalue diversity in school ratings. Along with its 100-point-scale “Report Card” score for Wisconsin school districts that it prepares each year, the Department of Public Instruction should also prepare a Diversity Index calculated on a similar 100-point scale.

Before delving into the Diversity Index, several points are worth noting. First, the negative diversity effect on school comparisons discussed in the second part of this post derives less from racism than from the unavoidable tendency to base comparisons on whatever it is that can be measured and quantified. Standardized test results provide the handiest and easiest basis for school comparisons and so it is inevitable that they will be used that way.

Second, standardized tests are not inherently bad. The basic skills they measure are critically important to school success. Year-to-year comparisons of test results can provide valuable insights for teachers and schools. So can school-to-school comparisons, so long as the schools are otherwise comparable.

Third, as noted in the second part of this post, on an aggregate basis, students of color tend to score lower than white students on standardized tests. An exploration of the reasons for this – and there are many – is well beyond the scope of this post. This aggregate effect says next to nothing about the skills and potential of individual students, but its impact must be acknowledged in order to unpack the misleading tendencies of school rating systems that are primarily based on an undifferentiated analysis of standardized test scores.

Fourth, the impressive data marshaled in the many Fisher amicus briefs leave no doubt about the non-quantifiable benefits of diverse classrooms. More encompassing and accurate methods of school evaluation and comparison should take diversity data into account. The goal should be to make smart use of that information to supplement quantitative methods of comparing schools in order to provide a more comprehensive assessment of school quality.

Fifth, we do not have ready means to measure the growth in interpersonal skills, workplace preparation and civic engagement that we know exposure to more diverse learning environments provides to students. In recognition of this gap, it makes sense to rely on diversity data itself as a proxy for the beneficial outcomes that diverse classrooms engender.

Finally – and here comes the partial remedy – it is not hard to develop a metric that represents the level of diversity in schools and school districts.

In antitrust law, the relative concentration of any particular market for products or services is measured by what’s called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, or HHI. The index is calculated by determining the market percentage shares of the participants in the market, squaring those percentages, and adding up the total. So, for example, if a market is entirely monopolized by one firm, its HHI would be 10,000. If the market features two firms, each with a 50% share, the HHI would be 5000. If there are six market participants with shares of 40, 20, 15, 10, 10 and 5, the HHI for the market is 2450.

A similar calculation can be applied to measure the diversity of any school district or school. DPI measures race or ethnicity in five principal categories: Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, and Two or More Races. An HHI figure can be calculated by adding up the squares of the percentages of a school districts’ students that fall into each category. (DPI also includes American Indian and Pacific Isle in its race/ethnicity categories, but the percentages are so small that they can be disregarded for these purposes.) The lower the HHI, the greater the school’s diversity.

In the interest of consistency, it makes sense to convert HHI figures for school or school district diversity to the same kind of 0 to 100 score that is used in DPI’s school report cards. We can call it a Diversity Index. A Diversity Index can be calculated, first, by subtracting a school diversity HHI from 10,000 and, second, dividing the result by 100. The highest possible score under this formula is 80, since the lowest possible school diversity HHI is 2000 (the result when exactly 20% of a school’s students fall into each of the five primary DPI racial/ethnic categories). The results can be grossed up to the traditional 0-to-100 scale by multiplying by 1.25 the figure derived by subtracting the HHI number from 10,000 before dividing by 100.

Here are Diversity Index scores for large urban school districts in Wisconsin – based on DPI data for the 2015-16 school year, calculated as described above, and arranged from highest to lowest:

Diversity Index for Urban Wisconsin School Districts

 

Here are Diversity Index scores for the principal school districts in Dane County, again from highest to lowest.

Wizard data-15

I have not calculated the Diversity Index for each school district in Wisconsin, so I cannot say for sure that Madison is the most diverse school district in the state. But it does seem likely.

Students in diverse classrooms develop skills and traits that serve them and us well, though in ways that elude measurement through standardized tests. The Diversity Index provides clear, meaningful and helpful information about the degree of diversity in Wisconsin’s school districts.

DPI should include Diversity Index scores with its school and school district report cards. Inclusion of the Index in the report cards will not remedy the report cards’ shortcomings. But it will help to put them in context in a way that will make the report cards more informative for those interested in accurate and comprehensive comparisons of school quality.

Issuing Diversity Index scores for Wisconsin school districts will also send the message that genuine classroom diversity is beneficial and undervalued, indicate that the relative degree of diversity in our schools is important enough to measure, and a represent a step toward acknowledging the broader public purpose of our public schools.

Diversity Index Chart-2

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Fact-Checking School Board Campaign Claims About the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School Proposal.

In the heat of the current School Board campaigns, there has been a lot of misinformation about the School Board’s 6-1 vote in January to approve the application of the Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA) to become a charter school within the Madison school district.

Below are ten points of clarification about the IMA proposal — mostly facts but with some opinions mixed in.

This explanation is prompted in part by the following statement attributed to the Kate Toews for School Board campaign:

IMA (Isthmus Montessori Academy) is an existing private school and the district recommended against taking it on as a charter at every single opportunity because it doesn’t meet academic, demographic, or budget standards. The current district estimates show that $375,000 will be cost reduced from Lakeview, Gompers, Emerson, Mendota, Hawthorne, and Sandburg when it opens. Turning private schools into public ones is not innovation, and is not what charters were intended to be.

Continue reading

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The Diversity Dividend in K-12 Schools: Part 2, Drifting Toward Homogeneity.

The first part of this post drew from the many amicus briefs submitted in connection with Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that reaffirmed colleges’ compelling interest in promoting the racial diversity of their student bodies. As the amicus briefs explain, truly diverse classrooms benefit students’ academic achievement, social and interpersonal skills, workplace preparation, and civic engagement.

This second part of the post looks at the forces pushing in the other direction.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s about-face on the constitutionality of race-conscious approaches to promoting integration has removed the principal counterweight to the centrifugal forces that push white families toward predominantly white schools. Even as courts, scholars, colleges of all stripes, and Fortune 500 companies have been celebrating the many benefits of diverse classrooms, the trend in K-12 education is clearly towards more segregation. This trend is misleadingly reinforced by school rating systems that systematically undervalue the benefits students derive from truly diverse classrooms and systematically overrate predominantly white schools.

The Flow and Ebb of the Supreme Court’s Concern with Segregated Schools.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments,” as it famously rejected the doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson and ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” In a follow-up decision, the court ordered states to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.”

Subsequent desegregation efforts focused more on “deliberate” than “speed.” It was not until the Civil Rights Act in 1964 authorized Department of Justice lawyers to sue segregated school districts that appreciable progress began to be made. The Supreme Court’s high water mark in promoting desegregation came in a 1970 decision, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, where it unanimously upheld busing as a permissible means to promote school integration. Continue reading

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The Diversity Dividend in K-12 Schools, Part 1

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Last summer, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the United States Supreme Court affirmed previous rulings and held that colleges have a compelling interest in promoting the racial diversity of their student bodies.  The Court made clear that we have a federal policy in favor of diverse schools.  The policy gains added significance against the backdrop of the national trend toward more segregated classrooms.  This first part of a 3-part post describes the dividends that benefit students who attend diverse K-12 schools.

Despite the Supreme Court’s pronouncement and the persuasive weight of the scholarship on which it is based, our state policymakers are indifferent to benefits of diversity in K-12 schools.  What’s worse, the usual tools employed to assess the relative quality of K-12 schools in a predominantly white state like Wisconsin have the perverse effect of penalizing diversity.

This ill-serves our Madison public schools.  In typical quality comparisons, our schools suffer in comparison to our Dane County neighbors because our classrooms display a level of racial diversity that pays dividends for our students in critical but non-quantifiable skills and aptitudes, but not for our schools in standardized test score averages.  The second part of this post explores these issues.

Our evaluations and assessment tools should be better aligned with our national priorities. There is a relatively simple way of measuring the degree of diversity in schools and school districts – a Diversity Index – that I describe and calculate for a number of Wisconsin school districts in the third part of this post. This type of measure should be incorporated into the state’s school report cards and other assessments of school quality. Continue reading

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The Likely Impact of the IMA Charter School Proposal on MMSD Equalization Aid

On January 30, the Madison School Board will consider a proposal from Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA) to establish a new charter school within the Madison school district. As the name suggests, the school would offer a Montessori curriculum.

A key question is what would be the financial impact of the new charter on the school district. For several reasons, this is very hard to project.

The financial analysis that the MMSD administration prepared for the School Board’s benefit looks at whether the addition of the school would generate sufficient new revenue authority to cover its net costs to the school district. In other words, would we be able to raise property taxes enough to cover the cost? The answer: not for the first couple of years. This is because revenue limits are based on the number of students in a school district, and new students are phased in over three years for revenue limit purposes.

While this analysis is helpful, I think it may be more useful to look at the likely impact of a new charter school on the equalization aid we receive from the state. Will the additional costs of the new school be offset at all by an increase in equalization aid? If so, by how much?

It is hard to make projections of future equalization aid. The equalization aid formula is based on six variables. Three are calculated by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) on the basis of statewide factors as well as on the total amount available in equalization aid in a given year. The other three factors are specific to the school district: the total number of students (calculated per DPI rules), the total amount of property value in the school district, and the total amount of school district expenditures (again calculated per DPI rules). (I wrote an explanation of the equalization aid formula a few years ago that you can find here.) Continue reading

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Betsy DeVos, Our Public Schools, and the Misleading Metaphor of the Market

Fox News pundit John Stossel recently wrote a column that – wait for it! – praised Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education and mocked those who oppose her.

Like many before him, Stossel defends DeVos’ hostility to public schools by invoking the metaphor of free-market competition, which he sees as a bracing corrective to ineffective, wasteful, and teacher-union-dominated public schools.

Stossel writes:

My consumer reporting taught me that things only work well when they are subject to market competition. Services improve when people are free to shop around and when competitive pressure inspires suppliers to invent better ways of doing things.

DeVos understands that. That’s why she wants to allow parents to choose the schools their kids attend. Schools that do a better job will attract more students. Better schools will grow, while some inferior ones will close.

Inferior schools, like any failing business, should close. It’s a disservice to students to keep them open.

Metaphors can promote clarity when they provide perspective on one concept by drawing parallels to others. But they’re not always helpful. As Amos Tversky observed in Michael Lewis’ newest best-seller, “Because metaphors are vivid and memorable, and because they are not readily subjected to critical analysis, they can have considerable impact on human judgment even when they are inappropriate, useless, or misleading.” When the topic is the future of our public schools, the metaphor of the market is useless, misleading, and downright harmful.

Invisible Hands Don’t Care About Quality.

The metaphors of the market and Adam Smith’s invisible hand of competition explain how we’re better off when business winners and losers are determined by the cumulative impact of individual consumer choices rather than by government dictate.

But this is a very agnostic approach to market value. Since Stossel writes, “I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a bad restaurant while government debated how to improve it,” let’s take restaurants as an example.

So long as they avoid poisoning patrons, the value of restaurants inheres solely in the extent to which they win favor among those who are willing and able to spend money on their menu items. If they do, they succeed. If they don’t, they fail. As a social matter, we don’t care who the winners and losers are.   Continue reading

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