IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Weighted Student Funding Is On The Rise. Here’s What We Are Learning.

Weighted student funding (WSF) is a funding method that aims to allocate funding based on individual student needs. While large districts are increasingly using WSF systems, little research exists to assess their effectiveness. In this guest blog, Dr. Marguerite Roza, Georgetown University, discusses her team’s ongoing IES-funded research study that seeks to document and understand WSF designs and features as implemented in the field, and to gauge the extent to which WSF designs are associated with reducing achievement gaps. The study’s initial findings chart the WSF landscape across 19 U.S. school districts that used WSF in 2017-18.

Over the last two decades, dozens of big districts (including those in New York City, Boston, Denver, Houston, and Chicago) have shifted to using a weighted student formula to distribute some portion of their total budget. Instead of distributing resources via uniform staffing formulas, these districts use a student-based formula to allocate some fixed sum of dollars to schools for each student based on need (for example, allocations are typically higher for students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency). The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) authorized a WSF pilot, allowing up to 50 districts to incorporate key federal program dollars into a district’s formula.

As WSF systems now serve millions of K–12 students—and the number of WSF districts continues to grow—our research begins to document the range of these WSF formulas and gather details around how they are being implemented in school systems around the nation.

Why do districts adopt WSF?

Our study of school board and budget documentation indicates that nearly all districts identify equity (89%) and flexibility for school principals (79%) as a key rationale, with nearly half also citing a goal of transparency (49%). Interestingly, not one of the 19 districts cite “choice” (whereby families choose their school) as a driving factor in the rationale for using WSF even though much of the literature links choice and WSF. Despite the goal of transparency, only a third of the districts actually post their formulas online (like this posting from Houston ISD)—a finding that surprised us and them.  In fact, after we shared the finding with our study districts, several updated their online budget materials to include their formulas. Whether districts are meeting their goals of equity and flexibility will be more fully investigated in Phase 2 of the project.

Is there a typical WSF model that districts are using?

No. We find that there is no standard WSF: Each district has developed a home-grown formula and differences are substantial. On one end of the spectrum, Prince George’s County deploys only 20% of its total budget via its WSF, while Orleans Parish deploys 89%. Most districts deploy some 30-50% of their annual funds via their WSF formula, indicating that they are adopting a hybrid approach. They deploy the rest of their funds via staff allocations, program allocations, or in whatever ways they did before moving to WSF.

 

 

Districts define their “base” allocations differently, and no two districts use the same student weights. Most commonly, districts use grade level as a student weight category, but they do not agree on which level of schooling warranted the highest weight. Seven districts give their highest grade-level weight to elementary grades, four give it to middle school grades, and four give the highest weight to high schoolers.

Two thirds of districts use weights for students identified as English Language Learners (ELL) and as having disabilities, while half use weights for poverty. Even the size of the weights differs, with ELL weights ranging from 10% to 70%. Several districts use tiered weights.

We also found a range of unique weights designed within the districts for categories of locally identified need (for example, Boston uses a weight for students with interrupted formal learning, and Houston uses a weight for students who are refugees).

What other trends exist in districts implementing WSF?

We found that non-formula features and exemptions reflect local context. Small school subsidies, magnet allocations, and foundation amounts are common examples of non-formula features that several districts use. Some districts exempt some schools from the formula, grant weights for school types (vs student types), or fund selected staffing positions outside the formula. Districts seem to be layering their WSF formulas on top of long-standing allocations, like subsidies for small schools. Clearly, it is difficult for most districts to deploy a strict formula, and these exemptions or adjustments have the effect of mitigating the formula’s effects on some schools.

We also found that nearly all districts continue to use average salaries in their budgeting, likely limiting their goals for equity. In this practice, schools are charged for their teaching staff based on district-wide average salaries, not the actual salaries of teachers in the building. Districts in Boston and Denver have experimented with the use of real salaries for a subset of their schools (allowing for roughly one-third of their schools to budget and account for spending based on actual salaries).  Both the formula exceptions and this continued reliance on average salaries may be limiting the extent to which WSF is making progress on equity. Analysis in Phase 2 of the project will quantify the effects of these formula adjustments on spending.

What kinds of budget flexibilities do principals have?

With WSF, districts give principals flexibility in staffing, stipends, and contracts, but not base compensation. In virtually all WSF districts, principals had at least some flexibility in choosing the number and type of staff in their buildings and in awarding stipends. Interestingly, most principals had power to issue contracts with their funds, and half could carry over funds from one year to the next.  Despite these flexibilities, base teacher compensation is generally off limits for principals and continues to be controlled centrally.

How difficult is it for districts to design and implement their own versions of WSF?

Changing district allocations is hard work. At each point in our study, we find districts building “homegrown” approaches to WSF that reflect their own spending history and local context. We could see this as a practical transition of sorts between old and new allocation strategies, where district leaders straddle both the desires to change allocations and the pressures to keep allocations the way they are.

What are the next steps in this research?

Future analysis in this project will explore the degree to which WSF is delivering on the goal of increasing equity and outcomes for poor and at-risk students. However, the homegrown nature of WSF makes it tough to generalize about the WSF model or its effects. Undoubtedly, the variation poses problems for research. Clearly there’s no way to analyze WSF as a single model. Also challenging is that districts use different definitions (even on formula items such as the “base” and what constitutes a student weight). Perhaps this is unsurprising as there is no common training on the WSF model, and no prevailing terminology or budgeting procedures for district leaders to use in their work.

We see our study as a first step in a broader research agenda that will explore the scope and range of implementation of WSF in U.S. school districts and offer deeper analysis of the extent to which WSF is helping systems meet commonly cited goals of greater equity, flexibility and transparency. Meantime, we hope WSF systems and those considering shifting to WSF will be able to learn from this work and what peer systems are doing, perhaps with the ultimate effect of creating a common vocabulary for this financial model. 

 

 

Career Technical Education is Growing; Research Must Follow

By Corinne Alfeld, Program Officer, NCER

February is Career Technical Education (CTE) month and there is certainly cause to celebrate for those who value CTE. After years of being marginalized in K-12 education and education research, CTE programs and offerings are growing across the country.   

Once known as “vocational-technical education,” CTE has undergone a transformation in the last decade that keeps pace with changes in workforce. High schools now offer elective CTE courses such as agricultural science, business entrepreneurship, computer graphic design, culinary arts, communications, health care, and mechatronics.  High school CTE courses have the ability to provide a context for students to explore possible careers, test their interests and abilities, apply academic knowledge and skills to real-world problems in a more project-based, hands-on way, and learn a useful skill. In other words, CTE can answer the question that many students ask: Why do I need to learn this?

Due in part to employer interest and involvement, CTE has become more of a focus for policymakers and education leaders as a way to ensure students are “college and career ready” when they graduate from high school. In 2015, the Association for Career and Technical Education documented 150 new and revised CTE laws or policies across 46 states. CTE programs are undergoing transformation with newfound vitality and momentum, with new delivery models, such as career academies, in which the entire curriculum is focused on one career area; programs of study that link high school and college courses with workplace experience; and regional CTE centers, which contain specialized equipment shared by multiple schools or districts and focus solely on CTE.

This means that CTE learning opportunities for students may range from a single introductory course in a traditional high school setting to a highly coordinated curricular experience of classroom- and work-based learning, culminating in a capstone project. 

As CTE becomes a larger part of the current education landscape, policymakers and practitioners need better evidence to guide their decision-making, especially given limited resources. For example, more research is needed on the following:

  • The relationships between specific career-focused school, program, or curricular features and student education outcomes;
  • Longitudinal pathways and outcomes for students enrolled in K-12 CTE programs (e.g., postsecondary education and employment);
  • Development of effective career-oriented programs or policies designed to support students’ career readiness outcomes;
  • Rigorous evaluation of existing career-focused schools or programs, including career technical programs of study, career academies, and other K-12 CTE delivery models;
  • Rigorous evaluation of state or district policies or reforms to support career technical education at the K-12 level, including the awarding of vocational diplomas, the use of career readiness measures, career academy models, awarding academic credit for CTE courses, and CTE teacher certification requirements; and
  • Development or improvement of measures of technical, occupational, and career readiness skills.

There are certainly challenges in studying CTE. In addition to the wide variety of CTE courses being offered, the range and quality of instructional CTE offerings can vary within and across schools. 

Researchers must struggle with questions, such as what is the treatment? How does one account for self-selection bias? Who are the counterfactuals? What are reliable and valid (and meaningful) outcome measures? How soon can effects be seen? As CTE expands in our K-12 education system, the field is in need of creativity and perseverance from researchers to overcome these challenges and build a robust body of both descriptive and causal evidence on which education leaders and policymakers can make decisions.

If you have ideas for CTE research projects, NCER would love to hear from you. Please contact Research Scientist Dr. Corinne Alfeld (corinne.alfeld@ed.gov or 202-245-8203) to share your thoughts or ideas. 

The Month(s) in Review: September and October 2015

By Liz Albro, NCER Associate Commissioner of Teaching and Learning

New Evaluation of State Education Programs and Policies Awards Announced

Congratulations to the recipients of our Evaluation of State Education Programs and Policies awards. These projects examine a range of topics: low-performing schools, college- and career-readiness standards, and teacher effectiveness and evaluation.

Building Strength in Numbers: Friends of IES Briefings

The Friends of IES, a coalition of research organizations working to raise the visibility of IES-funded studies, asked three IES funded researchers to participate in briefings for Department of Education leadership and for the public on Capitol Hill. Sharing findings from their IES-funded studies, the researchers highlighted how providing high quality mathematics instruction to children as young as three-years-old, and providing systematic and sustained opportunities for those children to learn more mathematics in subsequent instructional years, can substantially narrow achievement gaps at the end of preschool and how those gains can persist over time. What to know more? Read our earlier blog post or the AERA news story for additional details.

Congratulations to Patricia Snyder on receiving the 2015 DEC Award for Mentoring

Congratulations to Patricia Snyder, recipient of the 2015 Division for Early Childhood (DEC) Award for Mentoring. DEC, a division of the Council for Exceptional Children, awards this honor to a member who has provided significant training and guidance to students and new practitioners in the field of early childhood special education. Snyder is a professor of special education and early childhood studies and the David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida. She is also the Principal Investigator (PI) and Training Program Director for a NCSER-funded postdoctoral training grant, Postdoctoral Research Training Fellowships in Early Intervention and Early Learning in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has also served as the PI and co-PI on several other NCSER-funded awards.

Thanks to all of our IES Postdoctoral Fellows: Past, Present and Future!

Did you know that the third week of September was National Postdoc Appreciation Week? While we tweeted our appreciation for the postdocs we support through our NCER and NCSER Postdoctoral Training Programs, we thought you might like to learn a bit more about what some of our postdocs are doing.

Publishing: Postdocs are busy publishing findings from their research. For example, David Braithwaite, a fellow in this Carnegie Mellon postdoctoral training program recently published Effects of Variation and Prior Knowledge on Abstract Concept Learning. Two postdoc fellows, Kimberly Nesbitt and Mary Fuhs, who were trained in this Vanderbilt postdoctoral training program, are co-authors on a recent publication exploring executive function skills and academic achievement in kindergarten.  Josh Polanin, another Vanderbilt postdoc, recently published two methodological papers: one on effect sizes, the other on using a meta-analytic technique to assess the relationship between treatment intensity and program effects.

Receiving Research Funding:  Previous postdoc fellows who trained at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have recently been awarded research funding. Erin Reid and her colleagues were recently awarded an NSF DRK-12 grant to adapt and study a teacher professional development (PD) intervention, called Collaborative Math (CM), for use in early childhood programs. Former fellow David Purpura was recently awarded a grant from the Kinley Trust to delineate the role of language in early mathematics performance. Dr.  Purpura is also co-PI on a 2015 IES grant, Evaluating the Efficacy of Learning Trajectories in Early Mathematics.

Congratulations and good luck to all of our recently complete postdocs! Sixteen fellows have completed this year with 10 completing in the past two months. These fellows bringing their expertise to the community as full-time faculty, directors of research programs, and research associates at universities, non-profits, government agencies, and other organizations.

What have the Research Centers Funded? Check Out Our New Summary Documents

NCSER has funded research in a variety of topics relevant to special education and early intervention since 2006. Recently, NCSER staff summarized the work on several topics, with more to come in the future.

Research supported by both Centers is also described in our Compendium of Mathematics and Science Research, which was released in October.

Updated IES Research in the News

Curious to know what other IES-funded research projects have gotten media attention? We recently updated our IES Research in the News page, so that’s your quickest way to find out!