Archive for July, 2009

Who Will Race to the Top?

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Race to Top money provides short-term grants for teacher professional development, teacher pay, standards-based assessment, and accountability for struggling schools.

Colorado is running a full-court press to compete for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top money for education reform.  The state’s Lt. Governor, Barbara O’Brien, says Colorado is well positioned to bring in some RTT money.

Colorado needs RTT and budget reform to meet kid needs

Colorado’s legislature, through its interim School Finance Committee, is also trying to revise its long-term strategy for funding public schools. The current school finance formula focuses on equity and adequacy based generally on district size. The state provides extra money to low-property-tax districts to “equalize” funding with high-property-tax districts.

The question remains: Is any of this funding adequate to achieve a “world class” public education system?

Colorado uses ‘categoricals’ for special-needs funds

The state uses “categorical grants” for special education, vocational education, gifted and talented programs, transportation, expelled and at-risk students, and English language proficiency. The current school finance bill, SB09-256, provides $230 million-plus in categorical funding for 2009-2010.

Does funding through categoricals meets the learning needs of kids?

Colorado just gets by ‘on the cheap’

According to State Senator Chris Romer, D-Denver and co-founder of the nonprofit Great Education Colorado, the state gets by “on the cheap” for education funding.  Colorado’s large middle- to upper-middle-class population provides a setting for middle-class kids who are “prepared for school” and have lots of resources at home. This advantage helps kids learn, despite the state’s near-bottom-of-the-nation financing for public schools.  The state is rated “average” in school performance across the nation.

But this low funding hurts kids in poorer homes who don’t have the same learning edge.

Poor kids struggle, unprepared for school

More than 65,000 Colorado kids under 5 years old live in extreme poverty, according to the Colorado Children’s Campaign. This number is growing faster than the national average. Eventually these children, and many other poor kids, end up in the state’s dropout statistics.

Most public school districts in the United States use free and reduced lunch as a “proxy” or predictor for at-risk kids. Dr. Alex Medler of the Children’s Campaign acknowledges that poverty is the largest umbrella indicator for at-risk kids.

Precise indicators exist to determine school funding and education reform

In Colorado, if a ninth-grade student has one or more F’s on a semester report card, there’s a 9 in 10 chance the child will drop out. Similarly, if a high school kid has 20 or more absences in a quarter, the child is at least 60% more likely to drop out. Fifty percent of dropouts have had at least one suspension in four years.

Student centered funding gives new approach to school finance

The School Finance Committee, concerned about dropout levels and under-performing public high schools, is looking at a student-centered funding system as a possible replacement for the current method.

Student-centered funding “drives funds to schools, with additional weights for school-based decisions.”   Schools will receive more money for English language learners, low performers, kids with lots of absences, etc.

The goal of student-centered funding is to give local schools more flexibility in dealing with diverse student populations. The system also can more closely connect budgeting with standards and assessment, providing more accountability.

Of course, any school-finance change begs the question of reform if it ends up that not enough money is in the system to begin with.  While the state is trying for school finance reform, Race to Top can provide the short term resources to give students a chance at excellence.

OMG, What To Do?

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

So you see (post 7-14-09), everyone in the education world is accountable for helping students become proficient in reading and math.

It turns out that some schools are doing well. They continue to turn out plenty of qualified applicants for high ranking universities. In addition, many schools are still able to hit their targets – just enough students can read at grade level and perform well enough on math exams to reach the yearly benchmark.

The question might creep into your head-what about the students that haven’t reached the yearly target?  Despite NCLB, some schools chronically under-perform.  No matter how stringent or how lax the state standards and exams, a large group of students do not do well in school. Many drop out before they finish high school.

Those students are the ones that schools must figure out how to be accountable for.  NCLB says nothing about how to save those students.  It leaves the nature, depth, and quality of any needed reforms entirely up to schools, school districts, and states.

This blog summarized studies that have analyzed what improving schools look like (post 6-30-09).

To begin a turn-around the federal administration and department of education have enumerated specific basic principles to improve the school day and year for the nation’s children.  For instance, on the Education Agenda of the current White House website, the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind legislation specifically states that money should be provided to support programs to retain and train teachers; provide mentoring and planning time; as well as address compensation for work in schools with high need students.

Teachers examine data

Teachers examine data

With those principles in mind, the blog reader should go to the Partners in School Innovation Foundation, based in San Francisco, for information about the ‘cycle of inquiry,’ one model based on the business model suggested in the previous post which supports mentoring and planning time.

Such a strategy helps teachers and other school professionals be accountable.  For a former “program improvement” school like Grant Elementary in San Jose, California, a continuous ‘cycle of inquiry’ strategy was a major thrust to meet AYP goals.  As of 2008 data, school’s performance was 12% higher in reading/language arts and 22% higher in math than the state benchmarks required.

Ted Lempert, former assemblyman in the California legislature, heads a group called Children Now, which has useful recommendations about teacher compensation.  The group also strongly recommends transparency of funding resources and stable funding for schools, especially those working with high need students.

Speaking of money and teacher training, remember that there are many programs available, even in these tough economic times, to provide inexpensive, but valuable, professional development.  See the flexible DVD model Take Care! on the blog’s website.

The NCLB approach for holding schools accountable is clear.  The expected educational outcomes are clear.  Given the need, it’s unclear why the multitude of models available to achieve student success are so difficult to implement.

What Do You Mean-I’m Accountable?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

As a reminder, the statistical data that evaluates every public school in the United States is reported as Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), a fixture of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

This data is the factor that determines whether or not you have reached the appropriate AYP benchmark and that’s what makes you accountable-whether you are a school district, school in a district, teacher’s class in the school, or student.

Analyzing data

Analyzing data

All schools receive their AYP score sometime in the summer or fall based on the results of a “determining test” administered the previous spring. Since 2002 the statistical data available tells the federal department of education how many students are proficient in reading, language arts, and math for that particular year.

The benchmarks are precise: a fixed percentage of students must reach proficiency, the percentage per year decided by each state.

No matter the student’s ability to speak English; status as receiving Special Education support; family’s income and education level; condition of the school’s facilities or its ability to provide students with adequate materials; not to forget the quality of the determining exam.

By 2014 the Act specifies that 100% of the students in the United States will be proficient in those two curricular areas.

NCLB legislation requires that exams to measure performance are given in third grade, seventh grade, and tenth grade.  Many states, however, require more.  In California tests are given yearly, second grade on.

Measuring performance to ensure quality is not new.  Business people have developed practical models to design excellent products and to ensure that the products are marketable.  Those business models share a few basic elements.

The people assigned to an undertaking understand the desired outcomes and have the tools needed to achieve those outcomes.  Assessments – based on valid criteria that reliably measure progress towards the desired outcomes – are made at regular intervals.

The team responsible for the undertaking analyzes the results of each assessment to determine what’s working (and therefore needs to be maintained or enhanced) and what’s not working (and therefore needs to be improved).

Here’s the rub.  States authorize tests, school districts organize the distribution of tests, schools give tests and students take the exams, fulfilling the assessment tool element.

All the other elements (e.g., standards of success, analysis, program improvement) are not outlined in the NCLB legislation and, even eight years later, are barely understood or implemented by many states, much less school sites.

A state department of education website can show the reader in detail the percent of improvement each school is accountable for each year.  The teacher’s unions explain implementation difficulties in detail for each state.  Go to your union’s website.

You will have considerable difficulty finding tools* that show how to assure school improvement from year to year.

(*An example is Take Care!, a tool to improve communication strategies among adults in the school community, striving to ensure student success.)

Next Year

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

When I read the newspaper I wonder how schools will ever change.  Budget cuts threaten everyone and everything associated with teaching students.

Now, I’m the lucky teacher.  My district cut costs in the 2008-9 budget, somehow recognizing the dangers lurking in the economy.  Also, the residents in my school district, who strongly support education, passed a parcel tax at the last election.

The district has saved so much money that, at the end of the school year just completed, we were assured of weathering the disasters affecting other districts.  The major disruption will be a reduction of before and after school classes.  They will only be offered for students with learning difficulties.

On the other hand, funding for adult education classes, touted to retrain the unemployed all over the country, is being slashed (the New York Times, May 28, 2009, and the San Francisco Chronicle, July 1, 2009).  I question how people are going to get back to work without the programs offered in the community colleges?

In Oakland, California, a school district under state takeover after making a mess of its finances, is now back under the guidance of its school board, along with $60 million of debt.  How is that low-performing district going to devise a plan to raise its students reading and math achievement when it’s searching for money to clean the school restrooms?

A teacher friend in a large district in San Jose, California, told me the schools will revert to 30-1 students per teacher.  The 30-1 formula reduces the number of classrooms needed.  That’s when teachers will not be rehired and the “who-to-lay-off” question comes into play.  A young highly-qualified teacher or a tenured teacher?  In my school, the issue has been put off for a year because of the massive savings held by the district.

In the huge Los Angeles district, I’ve read that most summer school programs have been cancelled.  The cuts leave students whose parents work at loose ends; leaves teachers who depend on the summer income searching for work in a recession; and worst of all, leaves the achievement gap, that most worrisome of school issues, to expand because students don’t have access to learning opportunities.

Most students in my school have highly-educated parents with time and money to provide all sorts of opportunities during the summer.  In my small district I only worry about keeping students at the top of the achievement benchmarks in California.

It’s infuriating that the federal stimulus funds, supposedly available to support a turn around in low-performing schools, will likely be used for basic services.  Why?  Because the legislature in California and other states gives funds and takes them away from the budget depending on the temper of the governor and legislators from one day to the next.

As a teacher I surely want clean restrooms in my school, but I also want to teach my students with all the resources available, not simply ‘make do’.