Sixty-five percent of nothing is still nothing

Eye on Williamson beat me to the analysis of this article on the pointless sixtyfive percent rule, but there are a couple of things I’d like to add.

Standard & Poor’s analyzed data in Texas and eight other states considering instituting a 65 percent classroom spending requirement. It found no significant positive correlation between the percentage of funds that districts spend on instruction and the percentage of students who score proficient or higher on state reading and math tests.

“Interestingly, some of the highest-performing districts spend less than 65 percent, and some of the lowest-performing districts spend more than 65 percent. Student performance does not noticeably or consistently increase at 65 percent, or any other percentage spent on instruction,” concluded the report.

Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley is trying to decide how to define “classroom spending” for Perry’s rule. Districts will start phasing in the requirement during the 2006-07 school year.

Superintendents opposed to the 65 percent rule have focused on the Standard & Poor’s report as another argument against the initiative.

“There’s a danger inherent in adopting rules that sound good but have no statistical basis or significance,” said David Anthony, superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, which spends more than 65 percent on classroom instruction.

Neeley’s former school district, Galena Park, is an example of one that spent less than 65 percent in 2003 — the latest figures available from the Texas Education Agency — but was top-rated at the time.

“The 65 percent rule is an arbitrary figure. That percentage has no meaning on how effective a school district is,” said Mark Henry, current superintendent of Galena Park. “Some school districts have to spend more on social services and security and those items might not be figured into the 65 percent rule.”

“Arbitrary” is exactly right. What’s going to happen here is that any school that’s in danger of not meeting this bogus requirement is going to spend a lot of time and effort getting certain budget items designated as “classroom expenses” so that they can make it fit. Last I looked, accounting tricks didn’t have any effect on teaching and learning. And honestly, would anyone expect a big difference between a school that spends 64.8% on “classroom expenses” and a school that spends 65.2% on them?

What might possibly be useful is to compare the outliers, the schools that are more than two standard deviations away from whatever the mean value is, and see if there’s a statistically significant difference between their levels of performance on whatever standard you care to measure against. Maybe if there’s a gap between the 60 percenters and the 70 percenters, or the 55s and 75s, there’s an angle worth pursuing. I say “maybe” because there may be a legitimate reason why one school spends that much less on classroom instruction than another, such as a higher percentage of special-needs kids. It would all depend on how you define “classroom expenses”, of course. It’s my guess that even at the extremes, other factors such as the actual dollars spent per student and the students’ overall socioeconomic markers would have a much greater correlation to good test scores. But who knows? Show me I’m wrong and that there is something to this and I’ll change my mind. What are the odds Governor Perry will ever say that?

And secondly, a reminder of where this is all coming from:

The idea of spending 65 percent in the classroom has been embraced by the business community and is gaining steam nationwide. It is being pushed by Patrick Byrne, the president of online retailer Inc. of Salt Lake City.

Byrne’s money helped launch First Class Education, a nonprofit group that is spending millions of dollars to promote the issue through legislation and voter initiatives.

Tim Mooney, a spokesman for the group, said 65 percent spending mandates could be on the ballot in as many as 10 states this year.

“We anticipate this will be a multi-million dollar campaign nationally and perhaps a multi-million campaign in most of these states,” said Mooney.

He would not disclose any other donors of the group. Byrne also supports school vouchers, but Mooney said classroom spending is First Class Education’s only issue.

Business groups often support educational reforms as a way to avoid higher taxes to pay for schools.

It always comes down to whining about taxes, doesn’t it? Some yahoo in Utah gets a bright idea to create this arbitrary standard, and governors fall over themselves to adopt it. Hey, Patrick Byrne, four out of five school superintendants in Texas think you should spend 25% of your budget on research and development. What would you say if they got the governor of Utah to impose such a rule on you? Maybe someone should look into getting a shareholders referendum going on this.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, initiated the idea in Texas last spring when he added it to an education reform bill. The legislation failed.

Wentworth said San Antonio businessman Red McCombs, former owner of the Minnesota Vikings football team, suggested the requirement.

“It looked like a good idea from a policy standpoint,” said Wentworth. “I hear complaints from people about these Taj Mahal campuses and football stadiums. At the same time, superintendents say they don’t have enough money to pay teachers more.”

So who’s making those decisions to overspend on campuses and stadia, and why aren’t they being taken to task for it? Aren’t school board members accountable to the voters? Don’t school bonds have to be approved by the voters? Why is an arbitrary number handed down from on high the best way of dealing with that?

Sigh. More special sessions than you can count, and this is the only thing we have to show for them. Says a lot about our priorities.

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6 Responses to Sixty-five percent of nothing is still nothing

  1. sabestian says:

    Byrne is an idiot. How many corporate CEO’s can tell their shareholders after a very poor quarter, “My bad.” He thinks the world is out to get him. His latest comments were that he knows someone is going to put a dead body in his car so they can catch him with it. Even Mark Cuban thinks he is a fool, and that says a lot. And Byrne is the guy that Perry thinks has a great idea? That explains a lot about Perry.

    Take a look at this link:

  2. As my brother says, “Figures don’t lie – but liars can figure.”

    Anyone who has taken a basic statistics class would know to first group the schools according to size cohorts and/or total budget. A school who spends 65% of its $1,000,000 budget spends $650,000 – and increasing it 5% won’t even hire one teacher or buy one classroom new books. A school who spends 65% of its $100,000,000 budget spends %65,000,000 – and a 5% increase would do incredible things to their ability to improve classes.

    Remember, there’s lies, damned lies, and statistics.


  3. Trusting Rick Perry to reform education is like trusting Bin Laden to reform home land security.

  4. Eli Minoff says:

    Att: Mr. Charles Kuffner,

    I have picked up your name on the net and I would like to know if you can shed some light on the Kuffner family name.

    An senior executive in one of the German firms I represent here in Israel is called Juergen Kuffner. He was born and raised in what was then East Germany and having been raised in a communist system is an avowed atheist. During one of his visits not long ago I looked up the name Kuffner in the Israeli telephone directory and discovered quite a few local residents with the same family name. Since then we have in a very good humored way been seeking Jewish roots for the family name and we have found quite a few who in fact rose to prominence in Europe.

    I am wondering if you have ever studied your family tree and if you too have any Jewish roots and if so where were they ??

    I apologize for the intrusion upon your time and would appreciate your comments on the above.

    Best wishes,

    Eli Minoff
    Safed, Israel
    [email protected]

  5. kevin whited says:

    Eye on Williamson beat me to the analysis of this article on the pointless sixty-five percent rule

    There sure has been a lot of text generated about such a “pointless” rule. 😀

    Now, it may well be true that the “rule” will allow some pretty easy accounting tricks to get around it. But isn’t one side benefit that accounting and funding priorities will still get scrutiny they wouldn’t otherwise get, and more public debate?

    I get that most readers here don’t like the rule for various reasons, but isn’t that much at least true about it?

  6. Ellen says:

    “What might possibly be useful is to compare the outliers, the schools that are more than two standard deviations away from whatever the mean value is, and see if there’s a statistically significant difference between their levels of performance on whatever standard you care to measure against.”

    Good suggestion, Chuck, but given that most people have to think a minute to remember what a standard deviation is, this will never fly. Still, it might be time to place an emergency call to Steven Levitt…if anyone can make this palatable, he can.

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