School budget cuts not such big news
[This is my Local Living section column for March 11, 2010.]
You saw the headline on the front of our Metro section recently: “Deep budget cuts approved for Prince George’s schools.” The news from Northern Virginia was much the same: “Fairfax County schools chief proposes dramatic budget cuts” and “Proposed Arlington schools budget cuts back in many areas.”
I have been reading stories like this in the Post for nearly 40 years. They have become a ritual. We think that readers want to know what is being done with their tax dollars in their local jurisdictions’ most important government service, education, and how much more they might have to pay next year.
All that is fine. I just wish the stories did not convey such a strong impression of telling us how schoolchildren are doing, or will be doing, because the stories give few or no clues to that important matter.
There does not appear to be any significant correlation between annual changes in the amount of the school budget and annual changes in student achievement, but readers still get upset. My colleague columnist Petula Dvorak reported that one Fairfax parent proclaimed, “If this happens, we’ll be just like the other school districts.”
In a blog post several weeks ago, I called this “the most exaggerated quote of the month.” I noted that in my annual Challenge Index rating of local high schools, Fairfax had an average college-course test participation rate of 2.917 per graduating senior, about six times the national average. “Its average SAT scores are about 300 points above the national average,” I said. “Its college going rates are similarly in the stratosphere. None of that is going to change, despite the budget cuts.”
Many readers took offense at my dismissal of their fears. “I am truly sick of your sanctimonious attitude,” said one. Another said, “This is Fairfax, yes we may be spoiled, but gosh darn it our kids deserve it.”
This year, as in previous difficult budget years, school boards are saving money by raising class size, about two students per class in Prince George’s County and about one per class in Arlington County and Fairfax. Other districts are making similar adjustments. Our stories rarely point out (because it would be taking sides in the political battles over the budget) that research shows no significant impact from such small changes. (It might make more sense for Prince George's to raise class sizes a bit more instead of firing its 120 full-time parent liaisons, whose good work was recently revealed in a piece by my colleagues N.C. Aizenman and Michael Birnbaum.)
Stories about rising or falling state test scores in these jurisdictions are more important in my view, but we often don’t give them much attention because the one-year changes are often small and inconclusive. If our stories instead focused on three- or four-year ups or downs, we would be saying more about teaching and learning, but that would not be fulfilling our promise of giving the latest news.
What most influences learning at school is not budget changes but the quality of principals and teachers. We don’t know how to measure those factors well on an annual basis. Perhaps we would be better off revealing the best and worse examples of change in individual schools, where the most important work in education occurs.
In Prince George’s, for instance, Largo and Surrattsville high schools showed significant gains in college-level test participation last year and some increase in the percentage of students passing those tests. At South Lakes High in Fairfax, the college-level test participation rate rose an impressive 53 percent in one year, with the percentage of seniors passing the tests also going up. The same factors increased strongly at Washington-Lee High in Arlington.
My editors aren’t going to give much space to such granular reporting. They think readers want the big picture. Given the way my scolding of Fairfax parents was received, they are probably right.
But I think we ought to take comfort in the fact that these budget reversals have never, in the four decades I have been watching them, had much impact on what is happening to our kids. That is up to their teachers, and us.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| March 10, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories: Local Living | Tags: Prince George's County high school gains, annual cuts don't affect achievement, class size, school budget cuts
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