"High Achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation." - Charles Kettering

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Semi-Recent (2005) Economic Impact Study of 4K in Wisconsin: Why Educators Shouldn't Be Entrusted to Perform Complex Statistical Analyses

Click on the link below to see a 2005 report distributed by 4K(now), a self-describing entity that promotes the value of universal 4K. I read the entire study and, most of you won't be surprised to hear, I have a few issues with their scientific method regarding their conclusions. But the approach was sound and included a "conservative" and a "realistic" estimate. It also broke down Milwaukee vs. the rest of Wisconsin, which was informative since Milwaukee has offered 4K for over 20 years now. The "rest of Wisconsin" Model was additional spending required to make 4K universal in 2004-2005, so I extrapolate that the Milwaukee only model refers to the balance of the Milwaukee Public Schools that do not offer 4K. Anyway, they focused entirely on the benefits to public schools in the analysis. It was a cost-benefit analysis without all the added hoo-doo regarding down the road social benefits such as reduced crime, reduced incarceration, reduced welfare, increased taxes collected, etc. The study begins with the cost to provide 4K to the group of kids that don't get it now. Credit goes to the authors for recognizing that not all people are interested in sending their kid to 4K, and they estimate non-participants at 29% of the 89,000+ four years olds in 2004. They also subtract the kids going to private school or being homeschooled to arrive at a public school 4K cohort of 78,500 kids. They provide three different models called actual, guaranteed high quality and comparable to Head Start. The actual model in WI at the time provided $3518 per kid in 4K. The guaranteed high quality model costs more at $4,468 and quality comparable to Head Start costs nearly twice what Wisconsin paid at the time, or $6,445. The total expenditure ranged from 112.93 million dollars to 206.9 million dollars, depending on quality of program offered. Remember this is ADDITIONAL spending and there was no treatment that increased the current spending to the "guaranteed high quality" model  or Head start model to serve the thousands of kids already in 4K across the state. Wisconsin is currently ranked 5/10 in providing quality preschool programming. This was their "Cost" section of the model.

The study continued with the current cost to provide education to the current breakdown of students over the course of their K-12 experience. It had a 14.4% Special Education rate in Wisconsin (as a whole), 83.3% regular ed, no repeated grades and 2.3% regular ed with one repeated grade. At the time (lo those many years ago), it cost an average of $9,919 to educate a regular ed kid per year and $18,846 for a special ed student. Performing math only education gurus can reproduce, they came up with a total cost to educate a cohort of 78,500 incoming kindergartners with the average distribution given above throughout the course of their K-12 educational careers. As 2004 dollars begin to lose oomph over the years, they assessed a 3.5% annual "discount" on the cost to educate, so $9919 in 2004 has the buying power of $9571 in year 2, etc. etc for 12 years. Yes you heard me, they only did calculations for 12 years. Which is fine and dandy, except kids are in school for 13 years. Furthermore, I did all the calculations by hand and even calculating for 12 years, their number comes up 3.9% low. I added a thirteenth iteration to calculate a full 13 years the K-12 system keeps our kids and the value reported in the paper is 9.8% underestimated. Since I didn't want to do this obtuse calculation for every group (and I am inept at writing programs for such things), I presumed a consistent underestimation and came up with a much higher expenditures across the board, as you might suspect. They did all this in order to come up with a model that estimates cost savings to the DPI over the course of a cohort's education, presuming the percent of regular ed kids goes up and special ed kids goes down. As I said before, their hearts are in the right place, but their math is not sound. Ironically, the higher costs result in higher savings over the 13 years of schooling if their assumptions are accurate that special ed need will decrease.

I went through a complete analysis using their methodologies and did not question their cost savings for teacher satisfaction, retention, savings on subs etc. The cost I came up with included increasing the cost to provide Head Start quality 4K to the current kids since they only estimated based on kids new to the system, but if you pay out $6445 for the new kids, you have to go back and recalculate how much more that will cost to provide higher quality programming for the current group of 4 year olds, which turns out to be another $46.98 million added to the estimated $209.90 million for a total new annual expenditure of $256.88 million. These are "additional costs." This would be added on top of the $56.47 million outlaid in 2003 for 4K in Wisconsin (16,051 kids  X $3518/kid). So the actual cost of providing universal 4K in 2004 would have been $313.35 million. If you are doing a cost benefit analysis, you have to include all the costs, not just the new ones.  The cost to provide 4K for each cohort, after taking into account the benefits the public schools estimate from kids being exposed to a consistent preschool experience, was $82.4 million for Model 1 and $167.75 million for the more conservative Model 2. Model 1 predicts that over the course of this cohort's schooling, a benefit/cost ratio of 73.7% will be reached, meaning that 73.7% of the investment in 4K for all will be paid for with future system benefits like lower special ed participation and higher teacher satisfaction. Model 2 predicts a 45.6% benefit/cost ratio. These final values are similar to the ones in the study, but are more realistic in their assumptions.

This is the first analysis I've seen that has focused on the cost to the school system. It's important to make this distinction because all the other societal benefits quoted in the High Scopes study are not really pertinent to universal 4K as the subjects are all economically disadvantaged in that analysis, began preschool at age 3 and the sample size was very small. The authors in the study below try to address these concerns in the body of their paper and make allowances for these differences in their statistical analysis, as they specify in the body of the paper.

The bottom line is that an investment is still required and the system benefits are accrued over 13 years while the costs are annual. I am not a statistician, so I cannot presume to understand how they account for that issue. It doesn't seem right to divide the benefits by 13 because of the change in value of 2004 dollars. But taking that approach, Model 1 benefits averaged over 13 years comes up with an annualized benefit of only $17.8 million, Model 2 is $11.2 million. This reduces the benefit/cost ratio significantly. Annual Model 1 now predicts a benefit/cost ratio of  5.7% and Model 2 only 3.6%. It seems to place the net cost to provide universal 4K at 295.55 million dollars a year for Model 1, or 3.7% of the 7.9 billion dollars in state and local funding for education in 2004 and 302.15 million dollars for Model 2 (3.8% of the total funding). In light of the fact that each grade level cohort should in theory have gotten (1/13)X100 % of total funding, or 7.7% of the education dollar, preschool funding at half that value, or 3.8%, shows the calculations I have done are fairly accurate (4K is only a half day, and entitled to only half the funding).

I am still not of the opinion that the taxpayers should pay for universal preschool because targeted programs are where you get the most bang for the buck. I don't think people who have children should relinquish their responsibilities to provide the best they can for their kids. If you can pay for preschool, then do it and quit feeling entitled to every program and perk the district has to offer. I recently made a little list for myself of what my parents paid for vs. what the Wisconsin public schools now provide "free." That list includes but is not limited to:
  • Private Music Lessons, a required part of a student's choir and band grade in High School. My folks started me in private music lessons when I was 5.
  • Full day kindergarten so people don't have to pay for half day care for their 5 year olds. Everybody went to half day kindergarten in those days.
  • Preschool in the majority of districts, with wrap around care in some cases and/or transportation to and from 4K and day care. People paid to send their kid to preschool in the olden days and currently have several district area preschools to choose from.
Now, many of you might think I'm just a cheap old curmudgeon. That may well be true, but if my kid is passionate about music, I'll find a private instructor for him or her myself, not expect the music teachers to do it so the school can rationalize full pay for teachers who instruct fewer blocks than their peers. The thing is that $50K here and $20K there eventually add up to a deficit budget, even though each individual expense is "pittance, in view of the whole 20 million dollar or so budget." That is public school thinking and what has gotten them into the pickle in which they find themselves.

This entitlement attitude has also resulted in the strained dynamic that exists between educators who think they know what's best for your kids and the responsible parents who do know what's best for their kids. I have had to pound several tables in pursuit of the education that is best for all three of my kids in the last 14 years. I have been and probably continue to be considered an interfering "helicopter" parent all the way from the instructors to the administrators. Those same folks know that I will back them up when my kids need a reminder on what is acceptable behavior. But without my insistence that they challenge my kids to perform at their highest capability, I sincerely doubt what the quality of their education would have been. I have seen my middle kid work her behind off for the first 2 years of high school to make up for the fact that the teachers didn't think she was capable of the higher level math sequence. Or in their words, "signalling her out for the Math track as well as the English track will just make her more conspicuous, which you shouldn't do to a middle school student." Institutionalized low expectations and herd mentality was not the way to convince me of the error of my ways. I just went back to my old ways for our third kid because I was concerned that the HS would go back to the 8 period day and he would be screwed out of making up the math deficit by taking two maths a year. And math is his passion, from which I fully expect an engineering career of some kind. He's been this way since he was 2, when he learned to add and subtract. He was taking apart household appliances by the time he was five, when I learned to buy broken down stuff at garage sales for him to tinker with. And you don't want to "put too much pressure on him?" Good grief people, get a grip. They are not hot house flowers that will wilt under the heat.

So now I feel even more prepared to participate in the 4K committee to inject what I consider the voice of reason. The reason they cannot target populations in need to provide 4K in the public schools is because all programs must be available for all kids. The problem lies in the inability of the current system to think outside the paradigm and create a new one that truly will help students and teachers achieve the desired goal, graduates that are college and career ready. When they are ready to approach that with an open mind instead of a determination to get every last revenue dollar available, true progress can be made.


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