Ep. 216: Big Ideas – “An Appraisal Market for K-12 Education” with Lindsey Burke

October 22, 2020

Lindsey Burke joins us to discuss An Appraisal Market for K-12 Education, her recently-authored report for the American Enterprise Institute.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice. This is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m excited to be joined yet again by Dr. Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in education at the Heritage Foundation, who is the author of a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute titled, An Appraisal Market for K-12 Education, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Lindsey, welcome back to the podcast.

Lindsey Burke: Thank you for having me.

Jason Bedrick: To kick us off, what are appraisal markets and what problem are they trying to solve?

Lindsey Burke: Yeah. In general, if we take a step back, 30,000 foot step back, from the K-12 education space and just think broadly about appraisal markets and the appraisal process, we find this type of process in everyday life all over the place. If you buy a home, you get your home appraised or the seller gets the home appraised in order to provide the buyer with information about how much the home actually costs. If you buy expensive jewelry, you might get that jewelry appraised before you make the purchase. We see it in things like horse purchases.

There’s an equine appraisal market. There’s an Appraisal Association of America. We get appraisals for antiques. We get appraisals for all kinds of things in our day to day lives in order to have high quality information about the value of a given product. What is lacking, and what I argue in this piece, is that we don’t have a similar type of appraisal market in the K-12 education space. It is an expensive market. It’s on par. If you look at what we spend in the aggregate, right, to get a child from kindergarten all the way through graduation, easily $180,000 plus to get that child through graduation. That would rank for most parents up there with home purchases or car purchases. It’s an extremely expensive market and yet it lacks this very vital information that would be quite useful for families, particularly as they’re engaging in the school selection process.

Jason Bedrick: All right, but don’t we already have some groups out there that are doing this sort of thing? I mean, we’ve got great schools. There’s niche.com and even in, let’s say, public schools. We’ve got standardized testing, so doesn’t that count?

Lindsey Burke: It does to some extent, right? If you look at a website like niche.com or like GreatSchools, these are excellent sites. They provide great information to families when they’re looking at selecting into a school, emphasis on the school. What’s lacking, I think, for most families for the most part is a more granular level of information at a more rapid pace than families currently receive it.

Right now, if a school tests a student as a part of some sort of state assessment requirement or other annual assessments that they do, it’s just that, right? It’s annual. The information, when parents do receive it, might not be nuanced enough to make decisions about how they need to course correct for what their child’s learning or not learning. It often comes very late, right? You might get it the next year even, the next fall when your kid enrolls in the next grade level. It’s not always super useful information.
What an appraisal marketing K-12 education could do is it would enable policymakers to equip families with a portion of their resources who want to talk about the policy solution and to then be able to pay external auditors, external assessors, if you will, that they have chosen that align with what they want their children to learn to get that immediate feedback on where their child is within a given subject, even maybe a discreet area within a given subject. It would provide lower level, more specific, granular level of information that would be actionable for families.

Jason Bedrick: All right. The standardized tests in grade schools in niche.com, they’re going to tell you what a particular school or education provider is doing on average.

Lindsey Burke: Right.

Jason Bedrick: Even the standardized tests are usually summative or sometimes we’ll have one at the beginning of the year and one at the end of the year so you can track growth, but what you’re talking about is something that’s a little bit more ongoing. It’s fine-tuned. It’s a particular student at a particular moment in time with advice for areas where he or she could be improving, right, and how to get there. Are there any companies out there that are already providing something like this?

Lindsey Burke: There are companies that are out there that are doing something very similar and that parents can pay out of pocket to access. There are companies. There’s one called DreamBox, which provides the type of formative assessments that you’re talking about as well as some summative assessments for kids who are elementary school-aged through middle school. It’s available to parents. It’s reasonable. It’s about $100 per year for families.

There are other companies out there like Lexia that provide adaptive literacy assessments and math assessments, other diagnostic tools that are out there, even things like Regents Exams, right? They provide some level of information, but it’s still maybe a level too high, right, to be super actionable for families. There are some companies that are out there that provide those immediate assessments. BJU Press, Bayside School Services, so some of these companies in the classical content space, some companies that serve homeschooling families really well, but this is something that could be much, much more readily available to families. It’s a market that could be much more robust if we freed up some of the existing resources that we already spend.

Look, this isn’t something that is theoretical. Arizona does this in a way, right? If are a student who is eligible and you enroll in Arizona’s Education Savings Account Program, that’s one of the allowable expenses of your ESA. You can use a portion of that money to pay for individual assessments. That’s great, but that is an exception in ed policy at the moment and not the rule. We should make that the rule. We should free up these resources and allow families to get actionable diagnostic information quickly.

Jason Bedrick: When you say it’s the exception, not the rule, it raises two questions in my mind. The first one is to what extent is it the exception? Do we know how many families are actually using these services?

Lindsey Burke: Yeah. That’s a good question. When I say the exception, I mean it’s a policy exception. There are certainly thousands of families across the country who are paying largely out of pocket for existing diagnostic tools to assess their students. Even if you go to a learning center like Kumon Learning or some of these other centers that have been around for decades now, they’re going to provide you with some diagnostic information before they began providing tutoring services to your child. That’s certainly widespread. What is the exception is parents having the flexibility with their taxpayer funded education dollars that are earmarked for their child, or should be earmarked for their child. That’s the exception, being able to tap into those resources like they allow in Arizona, like they allow in Florida, and to be able to pay for some of these external audits.

Jason Bedrick: That leads to the second part of my question. It’s the exception, not the rule. Why not make it the rule in the sense of, instead of having a market and all these different firms and they’re providing their own, “This firm may do assessments this way. This other one may do it another way.” We in the policy world like apples to apples comparisons. Instead of advocating for a market in appraisals, why not advocate that the government actually just step it up and do these sorts of formative assessments in every single school in real time on a monthly basis or something like that? Why not go in that direction instead of going in the direction of a market?

Lindsey Burke: Well, first, I would say there are governments, right, state governments, federal government even, local governments. They’ve been doing this, right, forever where they have been assessing students with assessments that are largely not valuable to parents. Parents recognize this. If you look at all the survey work that’s out there, they put things like state assessments of a school at the very bottom of information that they use to determine how well a school is fitting the needs of their child, but second and much more importantly is that every parent has different hopes and dreams and aspirations for what their child will learn.

You are going to need different types of assessments to determine whether or not the education that they are accessing is ultimately putting them on a path to fulfill those aspirations. Every child’s different, right? They’re kids, not apples. Yes, apples to apples comparisons are useful for researchers. We all use the National Assessment of Educational Progress to get good information on how California is doing relative to Florida, but for a parent, it’s going to be that immediate feedback from a teacher, from an external auditor, from these assessments that we’re thinking through that are diagnostic in nature, and that reflect what they want their children to learn, and the curriculum they’ve opted into.

What is beautiful right now is we have so many different school models, particularly for being optimistic about pandemic life. We have so many different school models that are proliferating. They all have different goals for their schools. We can look at pods right now. Pods are now forming around what are being called single subject pods. Let’s say that you are a family. You are participating in a single subject pod that is just focused on learning French. You’re going to want an external assessment that can assess whether or not your child was actually learning to speak friends, or if you’re doing a history pod in a single subject pod, you’re going to want some sort of external history audit.

We need a market that can be flexible, that can provide lots and lots of assessment options for families because there are lots and lots of visions out there for what constitutes a quality education that will set students up to be successful and to live the good life moving forward.

Jason Bedrick: All right. That’s great. In other words, we’ve got a diversity of education models and that requires a diversity of appraisers and approaches to appraising. Why, though, isn’t this more widely used? I mean, we do have a diversity of models out there and you’ve got parents that want this information. Why isn’t there a more robust appraisal market in K-12 education already?

Lindsey Burke: Yeah. Well, it’s because right now there is an entity that looks quite like a monopoly called public education that is out there is that has crowded out a lot of innovation. I would say that that also applies to innovation and assessments of district run school system, right? We have 90 percent of students in public schools. We have about 70 percent of students who are in assigned public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Those assigned public schools have assigned state assessments that, by the way, for years were much more heavily mandated from the federal level.

No Child Left Behind brought us federal testing mandates where the federal government said to states, “You have to test every child every year in grades three through eight, and then again in high school, and you have to do it in these core subjects. By the way, every kid has to be on course to meet adequate yearly progress by the 2013-14 school year,” which by the way, not a single state was on track to do. If states didn’t meet that requirement, there was going to be a cascade of sanctions that fell on them. That really drove, I use market, but it’s not a market, but that really drove the environment for assessment that it was mandated from the very top from the federal level. When states are providing these assessments and response to federal mandates, states are doing it on the taxpayer dime and crowding out what could potentially be more fruitful and useful assessment options in something like an appraisal market.

Jason Bedrick: For policymakers who would like to move in this direction and open up these appraisal markets, what would you recommend? What would be your advice?

Lindsey Burke: I think the main thing is just separating the money that families currently have spent, the taxpayer dollars that are currently spent, on their child in a district school from the assessment process. In other words, we want to separate the evaluation of education from the providers of that education. That makes sense, right?

This gets back to the idea generally of appraisals, if you’re providing a product, you don’t want the provider to be the same person that tells you whether or not it’s a good product. You want these external audits to exist, but right now that’s how our K-12 system works for the most part. The provision of education is delivered. The assessment of that education is assessed by the same people who are providing it. You could get, hypothetically, much more accurate, much more rigorous assessments if you separated that evaluation of education from the providers. You do that through policy, as you do with everything that we recommend, by freeing up the dollars to have parents control the money and by making one of the allowable uses of those dollars external audits assessments, however a parent wants to determine that their child is on track to meet the parents’ aspirations, and hopes, and dreams educationally for that child.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Dr. Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation. You can read her new report, An Appraisal Market for K-12 Education, at the American Enterprise Institute’s website. Lindsey, thanks so much for joining us.

Lindsey Burke: Thank you for having me.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas Series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.