Archive for August, 2009

Don’t Buy New Texts, Save Money

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Textbook purchases are being put on hold!  It’s amazing to find out, not from my school district, but when someone says, “I saw in the paper….”

studying the latest math TG

studying the latest math TG

My dad passed on the article “Budget Cuts Put New Textbook Purchases on Hold,” by Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times, August 8, 2009, just after I’d commented in this blog (post 8/12) about the impressive math textbook purchases in my school district for 2009-2010.  I didn’t see an article in the bay area newspapers.

The article puts in print what I’d been thinking.  Turns out the state legislators, closing that $24 billion budget breach last month, did it partly by waiving the textbook purchase regulations in the California Education Code.

This waiver came about in spite of the California State Department of Education’s longtime insistence on keeping up with “modern, state-of-the-art textbooks, not outdated, antiquated textbooks,” as stated by Jack O’Connell, state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The article included lots of back and forth about pragmatics in the current California school budget crisis versus actual need for new texts as often as set in the Education Code.

In my view, I understand how high school history and government classes may want materials every 6-8 years to reflect the latest changes in the world.  I remember, though, when I was in high school not very long ago, we read many supplemental books, newspapers, and other paper articles to get another point of view.

Now, I teach elementary school in which the literature texts, math texts, and even social studies texts are current for much longer than the regulations say.

I agree with the commentators in the article about state money designated for textbooks only: in this crisis, use the money to keep teachers in schools, to keep the custodial staff in schools.  A clean, safe elementary school with highly-qualified teachers is the first requirement to make sure students succeed.

At the same time, if school finance was fixed, if California finance in general was fixed, we wouldn’t be in this mess, would we?

Turn Around School Finance

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Now that California finally has a budget, school districts are faced with brutal cuts to base funding, affecting school year 2009-2010 and long after.

Optimists note that for the next few years, the school population will decrease which suggests the remaining money can be spread further.  On the other hand, the recession means that the state receives fewer tax dollars, and those dollars, plus a few lottery dollars, are the entire school funding source from the state, not including categorical monies.

In spite of this awful news, back in April 2008 an Issue Brief “Getting Beyond the Facts” (see K-12 Research of The Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity) proposed a school finance reform “more rational, more equitable, and …politically feasible.”

Authors Alan Bersin, Michael Kirst, and Goodwin Liu feel that California’s “budget woes” provide “a window of opportunity to create a new framework for school finance.”

The proposal suggests four principles for reform.

First, revenue allocations should account for student needs (see post 7/31).  While school governance, accountability, teacher training, consistency in delivering curriculum are important, “a rational funding mechanism provides an essential backdrop” to close the large achievement gap.  For the latest student scores, see “Gaps in Test Scores Remain Wide,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 19, 2009.

Second, revenue allocations should take into account the tremendous diversity in cost of living and labor market conditions from region to region in the state.  Funding must ensure the ability to attract highly-qualified teachers and purchase the materials and resources for successful schools.

Third, the finance system must be transparent and easily understood to ensure support from the entire school community.  As shared in the post 5/16, public surveys show willingness to support schools, but unwillingness to increase funding (taxes, bonds) when the public doesn’t see how the money will be used.

Finally, financial reform must apply to new monies, not take away a district’s current allocation.  The term for this condition is called “hold harmless.”  The delays in budget plans, instability of education revenue, and overall inadequacy of school funding make school district officials wary of any change and must be considered when introducing financial reform.

In summary, the proposal suggests three money components: base funding (the amount per pupil for textbooks, safe facilities, and teacher salaries); special education funds for students with special needs; and targeted funding, such as Title 1 monies for low-income students and state monies for English Learners.  Models, based on the principles outlined above, describe the varied revenue possibilities for school districts.

Not only does the Issue Brief by The Warren Institute offer a school finance proposal, two other group proposals are available-Getting Down to Facts Project and the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence (Priority 2: Ensure Fair Funding).

As of July 23, 2009, the California legislature has made its 4th amendment to Assembly Bill 8 (Julia Brownley), a proposal to convene a working group to make findings and recommendations by December 1, 2010, to restructure school finance, based on similar principles as in the Issue Brief outlined above.

Here’s the question.

Why is this legislation allowing another year and a half to go by, only to come up with a 4th proposal, not a bill, when the current school financial crisis is dire and students from the most high-achieving to the most low-income are not being served?

Second Year

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

School begins the third week in August in my district.  I’m already thinking how to start–what worked last year and what I’ve figured out to make this year better.  Less stressful, less harried, better prepared, more sure of myself.

To make sure things run smoothly I’ve already been to Office Depot (used my coupons), Lakeshore Teacher Supply (carries everything), and The Container Store (the best price on plastic shoebox containers in which to store the supplies).  It’s guaranteed every teacher, young and old, is doing the same thing.

independent reading

independent reading

Lucky for me, I’m teaching the same grade I taught last year.  I’ve planned out the first three weeks, how to get my students into shape for group work and independent work, not to mention which door to exit from and how to be civil in line without me hovering.

I’ve been sorting through my boxes of stuff to take back to school and contemplating the boxes of materials left under my desk and stacked in the corners that belonged to the teacher who taught in this room before me.  All new teachers have this dilemma.  How do you kindly get rid of the accumulated possessions of a teacher who’s moved to another school and not cleaned out the closets?

Here’s where the recession creeps in.  The school district has cut back on support services, that is, fewer maintenance workers to lug away old stuff to make way for the new.

Lest you think I’m merely about the surface things like matching tables, clean carpet, neatly stacked textbooks, enough chairs, room for my computer, let me put your mind at ease.

Now that I know the ropes, I’ve spent the past week planning how to manage my reading time block, hour and a half minimum.  How much to use the textbook every student dislikes, how to organize literature circles, how to provide enough conference time with each child, when and how to teach skill lessons.  It’s complicated in a school that stresses ‘best practices’ and accountability for student achievement.

Same for the language arts/writing time block in the day.  New teachers in California have been coached in the writing process modeled by the local university’s branch of the National Writing Project and coached in 6+1 Traits, a valuable writing assessment tool.  The issue is to design my plan for teaching skills and providing conference time.

Then, there is the new math series.  Hardly different from the old series which was only used for seven years.  Why change?  Because the California State Department of Education requires every district to purchase a new series every six to eight years.  (Same for reading, science, and social studies-on a rolling schedule).

Who benefits?  As the California Education Code says, the books with which I finally feel comfortable are still consistent with the state criteria for content, reflect current and confirmed research, and are based on fundamental skills that rise in depth and complexity.  The math standards have not changed.  Stacks of old texts and support materials are filling warehouses, perfectly good, but not the new series.

Can you imagine how much money is poured into the publisher’s coffers from a new math series bought for 6 million kids in California every seven years?

In the middle of severe California budget cuts, wouldn’t it benefit public schools to adjust the purchasing schedule and hold onto the books we have?  All that money could be well-used to keep, at least, K-1 classes with the 20-1 student/teacher ratio.  Or middle school counseling.  Or after school programs.

What would you do?

Healthy Schools

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Consider how health care reform can help schools.

It’s a fact that healthy students have the stamina and perseverance to learn, a school reform goal to close the academic achievement gap for ‘at risk’ students.

It’s another fact that the entire school community, parents, teachers with and without their own children, the next-door neighbors, city council members, and the governor will benefit from a new and improved health care system.

Here’s what we have now.

At low-performing schools, the majority of students come from families where the parents work hard at low-paying jobs with minimal health coverage and high co-payments.  Or worse, the employer can’t afford to offer coverage.

The student gets a cold, but he goes to school anyway because the parents can’t take time off to care for him.  He gives the cold to another student.  That child doesn’t go to the doctor because the parents can’t afford the co-pay.  Then the teacher gets the cold and uses sick days to recover.

Please don’t shrug and say ‘that’s life.’  The student can hardly hear or participate in lessons because his head is stuffed up.  The substitute does her best, but can’t teach the lesson as well as the regular teacher, who knows the students.  Days and days of learning are lost.

And that’s just a common cold.

In many low-performing schools, students go without glasses or hearing aids.  It’s easy to understand how those children have difficulties learning.

What about teeth problems?  The parent doesn’t have coverage so nothing happens until the child comes to school with a swollen cheek and the part-time health aide makes an appointment with the county health clinic.  Then the parent must take off work for which she doesn’t get paid, and they sit for hours in the clinic waiting to see the dentist.  More school days missed.

How many states with budget problems have cut back on community clinics?  In how many states is the public supporting health care and school reform, but unwilling to pay for changes.

It costs too much.  I need the money.  I don’t have kids.  I’m as healthy as a horse, don’t even want insurance for myself much less those kids.

Suppose, then, the student’s father gets cancer.  The family’s bread winner can’t work, has huge medical bills, and loses his insurance.  The next-door neighbor, the city council member, and the governor end up paying higher premiums for their coverage as a way hospitals and medical groups shift the health care costs because of the father who can’t pay any longer.

Don’t forget the days the student can’t pay attention in class, worried over her father’s illness.  She stays home from school to care for her baby brother so the mother can go to the hospital.

What to do?

The school community should hope the dad with cancer has health insurance with a medical/hospital group where the medical staff is paid for the quality of care they give, not for the number of services.  One sure way to lower health care costs for everyone.

The doctors will have all the dad’s records and send him quickly to the oncology department.  A traveling nurse will visit the family at home.  The children won’t miss school.

These stories aren’t made up to get sympathy.  These were actual situations at the school where I taught.

It’s why the entire country must get behind health care reform.  Low-income families can get insurance and the regular guy won’t pay out for an unhealthy insurance model.  Finally, students will be successful learners.