Archive for May, 2009

Who Will Not Be Helped?

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

The 2008-2009 school year will be over in two weeks.  The students at the high-achieving school where I work provided the correct statistical numbers last year and the year before and back to the beginning of No Child Left Behind.

API-over 800 (excellent!) and AYP, percentages far above the benchmark needed to reach the goal of all students reading at grade level by 2014.  Way to go!

So far, none of the school’s planning days have been cut from the distasteful budget trimming that teachers will see next year, once the real loss of funds in California is determined.  In fact, the teachers at my school just completed a staff development day of curriculum planning for next year.  With all that diagnosis and change, however, some students still aren’t going to be helped.

I was thinking about this at lunch the other day when one teacher lamented that a talented student in her class moved (an unusual occurrence at my school) just before state testing began, joking that the undoubtedly high scores from that child would not be included in the statistical manipulation that leads to AYP percentages or API score for our school.  The study and practice that child absorbed, determined to do well, will show up somewhere, for some other school.

That humorous plaint, told to me time and again by teachers with far more experience than I have, brought to mind the boy who entered my class in February from another California school.  It was soon apparent that he could neither read on 4th grade level nor had he learned the math concepts for 4th grade.

In fact, on the records sent from his former school, the child had missed days and days of school, and his parent did not, and could not, support his school work.  He had trouble with kids on the playground as well as in the classroom, though he finally began to settle down.

In May he took the exam and then moved, nobody knows where, although the principal contacted the home and finally visited only to be met by the adult brother who did not know where the family went.

Here’s the child that is lost to the system.  Who knows if he will ever receive county family support services, school services, health services?  Here’s the child who is certainly hurt by the dire straits to be endured until the state resolves its fiscal problems.  Many of the 6.3 million school age children in California face these obstacles and they’re too young or isolated to even know what’s happening.

My school is lucky.  Few transient students enter and leave during the year.

But what about my boy?  I can’t imagine where he will end up.

Questions the Tests Don’t Answer

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Almost every teacher in the country will put his hands over his face at the mention of the assessments required by No Child Left Behind.  And he can come up with the reasons.

Written by a publishing company?  The summative test is made to cover the curriculum taught anywhere in the country, so the company can sell as many as possible.  No matter that the standards in one state aren’t the same as those in another.  (Another controversy to resolve.)

Tests written to satisfy the standards in one state?  Criterion referenced tests, as they are called, may test minor standards with large numbers of test items, built in to separate the proficient from the advanced, the ‘basic’ students from the proficient.  What does that tell anyone?  Perhaps which students have increased their understanding of the standards for a grade level, or maybe that they’ve mastered the tricks to test taking?

And what about the thousands of students with limited understanding of English?  They still have to pass the same test with the same required increase in points to reach the No Child Left Behind benchmarks each year as students who have been in the United States since birth.

Or students whose parents are working two jobs and don’t or can’t find the time to spend on take-home practice or reading or math or writing essays?  Or students with parents who had limited education themselves?  Many parents do manage and their children do well, but the achievement gap wouldn’t be like it is, if that kind of relentless, selfless support were achievable in all cases.

What about the often mentioned issue that the class spends so much time on preparation for the state test in reading and math that, except in schools with strong numbers of high-achievers, there is little time to spend on science and social studies, art and music?  There is a reason for all the emphasis on the 3 R’s.  Research has shown, on the SAT for example, constant practice can pull up performance scores, if that’s what is being asked for.

Well, why don’t they practice reading with the science text?  Great idea, except the test is focused on specific reading and language skills, not the science content which those texts, fabulous as they may be, cover for a grade level.

And what does the school find out from the API (California’s Academic Performance Index), a number that ranks a school among all 6000 elementary schools in the state?  Or from the AYP (United States Annual Yearly Progress), percentages that tell how far along a school is on the grid to become 100% proficient in reading and math by 2014?

It’s an indicator, but those numbers don’t help analyze the needs of the students who are not yet proficient reading and math learners.  So far in California, for example, only 40% of the elementary schools scored at least 800 (considered excellent) on the index, San Francisco Chronicle, “School Making Big Strides…”, May 22, 2009.

How does the teacher and school analyze the data and plan the reforms to improve learning for all students during a school year, not just for students almost ready to make the next leap?  That’s the important question to answer.

The Dreaded Pink Slip

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

Since the first of February this year, as the anxiety about the budget shortages in California rose to an uproar, teachers everywhere in the state, temporary status or not, worried and worried some more in the lunch room, on the playground, in the car, during dinner at home.

In my modest suburban district, fifteen teachers were advised about possible layoffs at staff meetings, which would mean that 400-450 students wouldn’t have a teacher in the Fall.  That’s a lot of students crammed into other classes (right now the ratio is 20 to 1 in the primary grades, 32 to 1 in the upper grades) in a district with only six elementary sites, about 450 students per site.  The teachers for an entire school-gone.

The human resource department in a California school district is mandated to inform employees who may be laid off by March 13 of the current year and, sure enough, as a new teacher I received by certified mail a formal letter on cream colored school district stationery detailing my preliminary layoff notice, i.e., the dreaded ‘pink slip,’ also known as the reduction in force (RIF) notice.

In the meantime, I lead my fourth graders in their study of the California Gold Rush.  They loved it.  We took a field trip to the nearest nature conservancy site, organized by volunteer docents who know as much about the flora and fauna of the area as the most experienced botanists and zoologists at the two major universities in the Bay Area.  In fact, many docents are probably retired professors.  The students have been learning to ‘be writers’ in order to pass the state writing exam that all fourth graders must take.  They geared up for the famous state exams that determine whether or not the school has made its NCLB benchmark.  All that and more, as any teacher knows, while I waited to hear if I was going to teach again in the Fall.

In the middle of April, just as I could no longer stand the suspense and sat at the computer to email the human resources supervisor, an email from him popped up.  Nothing has changed in the state budget mess, as anyone knows from the results of the special election, although the district administration may have received notice about the federal stimulus funds accorded to our modest district, but I was assigned to the same school for next year after all, as a second year employee.  What a relief.  Last night at Open House I could smile and enjoy the children and their parents, no anxiety to cloud the evening.

I’m happy that I won’t have to spend the summer at the local unemployment office-and, believe me, the unemployment office is happy they won’t have to look at me every week.

Budget crunch crushes education reform

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Why is money at the heart of any discussion about education?  Here in Colorado, with a drop out rate of about 25% (higher and lower, depending on the school) it’s because some people think the schools need more money to succeed.  Others think school budgets are bloated and more can be squeezed by efficiencies.  And others think that any dollar spent on public schools is a dollar on a bad poker hand.

These arguments come from a polarized electorate, frustrated that school reforms don’t work fast enough or well enough to fix our problems.

Do tax reforms hurt school reforms?

Many of Colorado’s problems stem from our arcane budgeting mess.  Colorado’s the state with the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, TABOR.  Taxes go up only with a vote of the people, fair enough.  State revenues can only increase based on inflation and population.  Any surplus money must be returned to voters.  That means it’s very hard for the state to save for a rainy day, such as now, when revenues are way lower than expenses.  Colorado has cut the budget about $700 million this year, and will cut a lot more next year.

Tax amendments to tax amendments = budget chaos

Colorado also has what’s known as Amendment 23, a constitutional amendment to ensure a certain amount of state money goes to k-12 education.  But as dollars decline, even these funds are threatened.

Currently, the largest school district in the state, Jefferson County Schools, has to cut $35 million from a $500 million budget over the next three years because a 2008 mill and bond election failed.  The district is trying to figure out what schools to close and what teachers to lay off.  Not pretty.

No steady revenues for education

Like many states, Colorado has to figure out a steady revenue source for education, including higher ed.  At one point during this year’s legislative session, the state’s Joint Budget Committee was going to cut $300 million from the state’s higher ed system, including community colleges, state colleges and universities.

TABOR makes finding revenue sources extremely difficult.  Just about every cash fund has already been emptied and the state is relying more on fees to pay for its ongoing needs.  The Department of Transportation and municipalities are about to partner with the private sector to build new roads, so we’ll be tolled to death.

Reform without money is like a fish without water

Just like California, Colorado has to figure out how to pay for a quality education for all kids.  Without a steady revenue source, it’s tough to get school reforms to work.  If teachers and schools are to receive incentives and rewards to reduce drop out rates and improve achievement, someone has to put some significant money on the table.  We all have skin in the game, whether we want to or not, so we’re all going to have to ante up.

Money, Money, Money, Money

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

I don’t know about every other one of the forty-nine states plus the District of Columbia, but in California, money budgeted for schools is the issue of the day-every day.

On April 17, Jack O’Connell, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, gave a speech at an education conference in Irvine, California, and reported an estimate of 30 thousand pink slips had been sent out to teachers in the public schools, but with $3.1 billion in federal stimulus funds, he hoped that students would have teachers in the fall, whether or not the California budget crisis would be resolved in May special elections.

That very evening I heard a speech by Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, who said whatever other districts did, San Francisco was going to use rainy day reserves to make sure teachers weren’t laid off.

By the end of April, tempers were rising.  The California Poll (Mervin Field), results released April 29, 2009, predicted failure for the California special election on May 19 for propositions 1A and 1B which will determine the school budgets for next year.

Why?  Voters are skeptical that 1A will achieve its goals.  So, in an attempt to recoup some of school funding, the California Teachers Association insisted on 1B, but it will only be implemented if 1A also gets approved.

Confusion is widespread.  Another poll conducted the final week of April by the Public Policy Institute of California shows why.  Simply put, voters value education and want to see improvement, but currently they have a hard time seeing themselves pay for it.

Good luck as of May 6, about half of the allocated federal stimulus money was being disseminated in California, San Francisco Chronicle, “School districts’ stimulus millions,” May 6, 2009.  It will tide the schools over, but not provide the stable funding that schools need.  There is still more to be spent as seen in the chart displayed in the New York Times, May 13, 2009.

Then, at least in California, bad luck presented itself in the budget revisions forecasted if the special election proposals aren’t approved.  Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2009 and San Francisco Chronicle, May 14 and 15, 2009.

You haven’t paid attention to the doom and gloom?  It will be very dark when a possible $5.3 billion is cut from K-12 and community college budgets, not to mention the universities.  Besides, no more stimulus funds will be dispersed to ease the pain if the state budget is cut too deeply.

“Money makes the world go round”…or not.