recession repercussions

The Great Recession decimated the economy. It also hurt student learning, according to pioneering new study

PHOTO: John/Creative Commons

As the Great Recession was sending economic shockwaves through the country, it was also hurting student learning, according to a new study.

Using a huge data set that included over 95 percent of the country’s public school students, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that each year students spent in school during the recession hurt their reading and math test scores.

The effects were modest in size — roughly equal to the impact of increasing class sizes by three to five students — but they applied to a vast number of students.

Crucially, the downturn didn’t affect all students equally: Test scores generally declined the most in districts serving more disadvantaged students. More affluent districts, with many white students or few students with disabilities, for example, often went unharmed.

“The adverse effects of the recession were concentrated among school districts serving higher concentrations of low-income and minority students,” write researchers Matthew Steinberg and Kenneth Shores. “The Great Recession exacerbated the inequality of student achievement outcomes.”

Older students seem to have been affected the most, which is surprising in light of previous studies showing that young students are more susceptible to economic trauma.

The new research, which has not been formally peer reviewed, appears to be the first to examine how the economic downturn affected student learning.

To understand the cause and effect, the study compares changes in achievement among groups of students in districts most adversely affected by the recession to students in districts that were relatively unaffected by the downturn. They look specifically at the effects of being in school during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years.

The study cannot conclusively identify why the recession influenced learning. But achievement dropped more in schools that had to lay off a large number of staff and had their funding slashed — a finding consistent with a string of recent research showing that spending more on schools benefits students.

The research does not look at the post-Recession effects, when many districts and states made their deepest cuts to school spending.

Students may also have been been affected by changes outside of school, such as a parent losing their job. Past research has linked family income to student achievement.

The paper suggests the recession may have long-term economic consequences for affected students.

The study does not quantify the extent to which the federal stimulus cushioned the blow of the downturn on students. (Steinberg said this is the subject of planned follow-up research.) But it does note that the funding was not targeted at the districts that needed it most.

“The provision of federal fiscal stimulus was not based on where the recession was most severe or where the effects of the recession on student achievement were most pronounced,” the paper says, and, it argues, policymakers and school leaders should take note.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”