Archive for September, 2009

Tough decisions for school districts, and it’s not all money

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Jefferson County Public Schools (known as Jeffco Public Schools) is the biggest district in Colorado and one of the largest 50 districts in the country.  Its 80,000 students attend schools from the north, still part of the Denver metropolitan area, to the southern most hamlet of Deckers in the national forest near the headwaters of the South Platte River, and over to the front range Rockies at the west.

Like so many other suburban school districts in the western United States, it’s becoming a place for students of many ethnic backgrounds. The changing demographic began about 10 years ago and is accelerating.

At the same time, the whole district is now “mature” and built out.  Little new construction will occur, but plenty of re-construction of older buildings in less affluent parts of the county will be necessary.  School closures are also a possibility as some facilities are under capacity by over 50 percent.

The biggest long-term challenge the district faces is how to handle this transition from primarily white, suburban schools to a diverse population of kids speaking many different languages.  To make the problem more complicated, some of the district in more affluent areas is still primarily white.  And the resources to bring kids up to proficiency on the exams selected by The Colorado Department of Education are most necessary in the poorer parts of the county.

Jeffco Public Schools will probably lose about $11 million in January, 2010, when the state legislature pulls budgeted money back into the state’s general fund.  The district faces about $40 million in deficit financing from property taxes and state contributions in 2010-11 and another $40 million in 2011-12.  It has roughly $160 million in reserve, some of which will be applied to the budget deficits.

Based on the demographic demands and the budget deficits, how should the district allocate resources?

Should it hunker down and keep on trucking as it has?

Or should it take bold steps to attack school improvement of student math and writing deficiencies and reduction in the 25 percent high school dropout rate?

Are we in a time when bold is impossible because there is no money to fund it, even when the facts on the ground require bold action?

Jeffco Public Schools is not the only district facing this dilemma in Colorado or across the nation.

The time is here to make tough decisions, and they will affect the lives and education of many little kids depending on the adults to make the right ones.

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*The school community wants to talk about this dilemma? Take Care!, showing ways for the school community’s adults to resolve problems successfully may help. See the website for this blog.

Am I Highly-Qualified?

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Sometimes I wonder what the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation means when it requires all teachers to be highly-qualified.  It’s still the law.  No changes yet.  No matter how often my union (CTA) brings it up in its magazine.

3rd grader reads at home

3rd grader reads at home

In the latest issue of California Educator, September 2009, the problem is seen in the Race to the Top requirements: “paying teachers based on a single test score will increase the likelihood of teaching to the test and make it harder to recruit and retain teachers.” (p. 30)

I read those words and think how does my training make me want to be paid only for teaching to make sure students pass a test?  Is that what a highly-qualified teacher does?

I spent two years taking classes in the latest research before I was credentialed.  None of it was about teaching to a test.  In reading/language arts, the curriculum focused on the best practices known to show students how to figure out unknown vocabulary and to read for meaning so that no matter what text, fiction or non-fiction, is found in the test booklet, they will be able to show what they have learned.

For mathematics, we were trained to use the most up-to-date strategies to teach students beginning set theory for little kids through pre-algebra for upper elementary students.  In my current class, the students are very strong in mathematical understanding, so I spend my time assembling enrichment materials.

In California, the same as many other states, I wrote my own research papers, using the students in my student-teaching classes as subjects to test the strategies I was studying.  I took the CBEST, the exam that new teachers must pass before being credentialed.  I observed and student-taught at three different grade levels.  I was evaluated on my lesson plans and classroom management skills for those weeks.  Even in my second year, I’m still observed and evaluated, being a probationary teacher.  I get good remarks for my work.

Doesn’t it sound like I’m highly-qualified?  I know, however, that I’m fortunate to teach students that are highly motivated and who have parents who encourage them and spend a great deal of time giving them after-school opportunities.

What if, like some teacher friends from my credentialing program, I was hired in a low-income neighborhood where the students don’t have the advantages my students enjoy?  What if the students were struggling with another language?  Enough food?  Illness?  Parents who worked all the time and still didn’t have enough money for trips to museums or the beach or the sights of San Francisco, much less a home library?

And what if, no matter all the best practices of the teachers and enthusiasm of the students, the yearly test scores improve, but only little by little, and it takes relentless struggle to reach the benchmarks set by the state each year.  Some years, the benchmarks aren’t met.

Do those teachers not deserve recognition just like the teachers in schools where most students surpass the benchmarks every year?

So how is this ‘pay based on test scores’ evaluation plan supposed to fairly identify highly-qualified teachers?

Will this be another mandate with no guidelines and no money behind it?  Please say no.  In fact, put forward other well-documented ways to help students succeed, not pay-for-test-score-performance at all.

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

With each article about prisons, I think of “at risk” school kids who could benefit from the millions of dollars spent on building and staffing one more prison facility because California, like many states, has a crazy quilt of laws about prison sentences.

“California Passes Bill Addressing Prisons,” by Solomon Moore, The New York Times, September 13, 2009, is another in the unending line of commentary on the cost of  felonies and misdemeanors, building another prison, overcrowded prison facilities, and court mandates to reduce prison populations.

Make no mistake.  Major criminals should be incarcerated, though FBI statistics in “Violent crime falls sharply…” by Devlin Barrett, Associated Press, San Francisco Chronicle, September 15, 2009, show that killings, for example, decreased 3.9% in 2008.  Still, the laws that send men and women to jail for petty theft or small drug sales, as if they had robbed the federal gold depository or had lorded over a multi-state drug cartel, need reform.

Know why?

CA spends $6000 a year for each of these public school students

CA spends $6000 a year for each of these public school students

Students “at risk” need every dime of help they can get.  And they need every adult who can be rehabilitated to support their children.  In California $7000 a year (in 2009 down to $6000) is allocated per student attending public schools.  At the same time, an average of $49,000 per year is spent for each prison inmate (current prison population-167,000).  However, the bill just signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger will release 16,000 inmates without violent records or serious offenses through changes in parole regulations and early-release rules.

Sound better?  Let’s see…

Studies (see post 6/30) have shown that for an “at risk” student to succeed, attendance is important, adequate safe facilities are necessary, highly-qualified teachers must be hired, adequate books and other resources are required, assessment and time/money for analysis of student academic needs is mandated, tutoring and before or after school programs should be provided, and parent commitment to encourage the student’s achievement must be supported.  Not counting the funds for a district to oversee each school’s budget in order to get every bit of use from each thin dime.  All that for $7000, now $6000 after the recent budget cuts, a year per child in California.

Now for each person spending the year in prison, food must be provided; health care, a safe facility, rehabilitation services should be allocated; and prison guards and administrators must be paid to run the facility. Done at $49,000 a year per inmate.

Rarely is a word printed about any funded services to guide inmates ready to be released into programs that will help them return to their family responsibilities.  In fact, the local public school is held responsible for guiding parents: providing counseling, direction to family health services, and parent education so they can support their children’s academic success.  Again, unless the school receives a grant or qualifies for Title I monies, all those services are included in the $7000, now $6000, per child per year.

Rethink priorities.

Along with the entire financial mess that California has brought upon itself, how different groups in this state are supported financially must be carefully reviewed.

In the article “California’s costly budget decisions,” by Larry N. Gerston, San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 2009, we are reminded that budget-cutting at the expense of students, who with education get jobs and enter professions, leaves them to drop out.  How many will think the only way to get money is to rob, sell drugs, or steal cars, eventually landing in prison at $49,000 a year?  Instead, how about spending “the fraction it might take to keep them in school?”

In addition, wouldn’t it be better to spend money on community colleges, half-way houses, drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities for no other reason than to provide paroled adults with skills to help their children succeed in school.

Sanity must return to California’s finances.  What teacher wants to grovel, asking, buddy, can you spare a dime?

Charter Schools vs. Public Schools

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Until Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desperate attempt to get Race To The Top money in order to turn around schools with dismal scores on the latest 2009 once-a-year exam, charter schools were floating under most teachers’ radar.

Known as places where parents, upset with the curriculum in their child’s school, and public school reformers got together and set up their own school.  Sometimes it was back to basics that charged them up, sometimes free-wheeling ideas about children choosing their own curriculum.  Many mission statements have been drafted, some authorized.

After much wrangling between the proponents and, often, teacher’s unions, legislation for charter schools was established (see US Charter Schools website), and now in 2009 about 750 California schools with about 276,000 students are chartered.  Not many, considering there are well over 6 million students in California.

For reformed-minded educators like those in New Schools Venture Fund and the Broad Foundation, the biggest draw to charter schools is the freedom from excessive regulation and the opportunity to set up innovative curriculum, instruction, and internal accountability for student success.

In the U. S. Department of Education’s Innovation in Education series, one finds that the effective charter schools do everything effective public schools do.  None of it is extraordinary, except those campuses are governed by a local board, not a far off school district board.  So those board members can move quickly to make changes without waiting for bureaucratic district approval, a big plus for reformers.

The California Teacher’s Association (CTA) agrees that the effective charter school has strong community support, small classroom size, good oversight of its financial management, health and safety plans with substantial attendance improvement, and instructional quality.  Everything all public schools want.

So why is there antagonism?

Mostly, it’s that charter schools came into existence to get around heavy-duty collective bargaining contracts that give teachers endless time to dispute termination decisions, as described in Steve Brill’s article “The Rubber Room,” The New Yorker, August 31, 2009.   Especially in the takeover of a regular public school, the charter hires its own teachers and administrators, some of whom don’t have credentials and who displace tenured staff.

However, the latest rendition of charter high schools in Los Angeles, Green Dot Public Schools, incorporates unionized staff under agreement with the public school district that those who don’t want to stay in the charter school can be placed in other schools.  From Florida to Oregon, as at Chicago International Charter School, “dissatisfied with long hours, churning turnover and, in some cases, lower pay,” teachers are organizing.  See “As More Charter Schools Unionize, Educators Debate the Effect” by Sam Dillon, New York Times, July 27, 2009.

Why else is CTA discontented?

The U.S. Department of Education’s Race To The Top (RTTT) guidelines suggest the best bet is charter schools, even though studies show very mixed results on exams used to hold schools accountable, and other non-charter public schools have turned themselves around.

CTA finds itself one of the few education organizations to be concerned about how teacher compensation and evaluation in all schools, including charter schools, will be designed.  The current emphasis on one test to judge the whole school as in No Child Left Behind is a huge problem.

It’s difficult to turn a school around, assembling the curriculum and instruction plan, committed teaching staff, consistent assessment and analysis, good facilities, and extra resources to address the needs of students and families in low-performing public schools or charter schools.

Finally, amassing enough money to run the charter school is as big a conundrum as it is for any campus in a public school district.  How many silent auctions can a parent attend?

What is difficult to understand is why CTA isn’t pushing for legislation in California to reform school finance, well-known as the first step to turn every low-performing school around, the entire purpose for RTTT funds?

(By the way,  the TakeCare project is a tool to facilitate talk about ‘turn-around’ in the school community.)

Not a Gap-It’s a Chasm

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

In California education talk, the most important words are “achievement gap.”  Next most important are the tangle called “school finance reform.”

The two problem/solutions are as thorny as the briar patch at the edge of the moat surrounding Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

As if more money in itself is going to solve the multitude of education needs to close the achievement gap, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is calling a special session in the Fall to design legislation ensuring the state’s ability to compete for Race to the Top (RTTT) federal funds.

Actually, the education world should be relieved that the real issues may finally come to the fore.

Federal Department of Education guidelines for any state plan expect measures to turn around struggling schools.  This blog has outlined one of many proposals and its recommendations (post 6/30/09).

Lawmakers’ first argument will be about repealing California’s charter school cap, a no-no for the National Education Association (NEA).  Their argument is that school governance by charter schools is only one of many options to improve the chances for low-income, at-risk students to achieve, while in the federal RTTT guidelines charter schools are being treated as the one best way to achieve student progress.

California students will benefit from the guidelines’ focus on the 5% of consistently under-performing schools.  It will, however, require money to provide consistent staff development for on-site assessment and analysis tools that help students; train, recruit, and retain highly-qualified teachers; and supply resources to keep those schools running smoothly.

Which highlights the section in the governor’s proposal to retain highly-qualified teachers and administrators.  For a long time, education articles have argued for pay arrangements to accommodate the difficulties for teachers in the most under-performing schools.  In truth, coaches or advisors to support the teacher’s best practices and counseling services for students and parents would do as much if not more to create incentives for achievement.

The last two pieces of the federal Department of Education guidelines to be debated in the legislature’s special session will leave lawmakers teetering on the edge of the chasm.  Improving accountability and linking student achievement to teacher performance are the most prickly of issues.

First, think about accountability.  How the state uses the data from one summative exam a year to designate successful and unsuccessful schools does little good.  How each school analyzes all the data collected from formative tests and uses it to diagnose what to teach next has been proven, for the few staffs trained in the techniques, to help students improve.  How will schools improve student performance with no funds to train teachers how to analyze the data?

Next, as the NEA in its letter to the U.S. Department of Education says, “It is inappropriate to require that states be able to link data on student achievement to individual teachers for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation.”  Governor Schwarzenegger’s press release notes linked data may provide transparency, but numerous sources give reasons why it’s difficult for a single test’s data to inform anyone  how one teacher assures that an under-performing school closes the achievement gap.

It will take a lot of compromise to fairly make choices about evaluation of highly-qualified teachers and a process to ensure proficient student achievement.

Have your eyes caught the words “money” and “funds?”  In California (post 8/19) the tallest thorny vines surround the abysmal school finance system that hides the chasm, delicately referred to as the “achievement gap.”

No matter the bite from the $4.3 billion RTTT funds California might get if the legislature manages to rewrite education policies, one sure way to seal the achievement gap is to reform how state money is allocated to school districts.