Archive for October, 2009

Fiscal Relief Maps

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Fourth graders are still excited about school projects in the Fall.  We’re about to make relief maps of California, a product of fourth grade since-well, no one can remember when they didn’t make one, even my mother, fourth grader in fall 1956.

I don’t know about other states, but California is perfect for the papier maché model, mountains high like Mt. Shasta and Mt. Wilson, deserts low like Death Valley. Lots of chance to use different color paint, white for snowy mountain tops, yellow for desert, green for valleys, blue for Lake Tahoe and Salton Sea as well as for long rivers up and down the Central Valley.  Don’t forget orange and brown to indicate the high and low mountain ranges.

If only depressing money woes didn’t get in the way of teaching.  The last staff meeting introduced projections for discretionary funding in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012.  In brief, discretionary funds (also known as general funds) are provided from California state property tax revenue for the most part, divvied up to each school district depending on the number of students in the district (called ADA-average daily attendance).

Why would my district talk about the budget for the next two years after only two months of the current school year?  To warn everyone-the picture isn’t pretty.

Next year for Cupertino Union School District, where I teach, a fiscally well-managed operation with strong students and highly-qualified teachers, the ending budget balance is expected to be -$4.46 million and double that for the year after.

So much money has been cut from local school revenues, in spite of the various laws to guarantee stable school funding, that even my district is in deep trouble.  This year’s state budget fiasco will leave my district with $1.5 million in July 2010, a miracle in the general calamity for most districts.  Not in July 2011, however, nor the year after that.

It’s only October, and I’m already worried about a job for next year.  I should be concentrating on parent conferences coming up in November, finishing up the math and science units on the fall quarter schedule, planning field study trips to a mission and rancho in the San Jose area, all typical duties for a fourth grade teacher in California.

It’s crazy.  Evidence from surveys like the Field Poll as described in “Voters want to change state law,” by Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle, October 14, 2009, show that 51% of California voters believe change is needed to the state Constitution.

As anyone who lives in California knows, however, the voter feels responsible in his heart for the local schools, but, calculator in hand, votes NO on most state proposals to untangle the severe fiscal quandary our laws have generated.  In the October Field Poll 52% of the voters opposed changing the requirement for a two-thirds legislative majority to pass a budget.

Even so, my favorite proposal is to pass a constitutional amendment to Proposition 13 (passed in 1978).  It would lower the approval threshold for any monetary measure to 55%, instead of the nearly impossible 66% (two-thirds) required by Prop 13.  See information in September 2009 Edsource, Local Revenues for Schools: Limits and Options in California, p. 6.

It took a tremendous effort to pass the May 5, 2009, Measure B. The six year parcel tax commitment will offset drastic state cuts, providing an annual $4 million to keep the Cupertino district schools going this year and the next two years.

I haven’t heard any more about the crisis, except that today I understand I probably won’t get another “pink slip” in March 2010, but should be prepared to change grade levels or schools.

It would be fabulous if piles of money floated down into Santa Clara Valley turning it green like my students’ relief maps.

Learning Math in the USA

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

How can we be doing so badly?  The richest country in the world and our kids can’t get a decent math test score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

hands-on math in textbook

hands-on math in textbook

That, at least, is the judgment based on data from the 2009 Nation’s Report Card released Wednesday, October 14, 2009, and noted in many national newspapers.  The San Francisco Chronicle, “State’s math scores near bottom” by Jill Tucker, says, “California consistently has ranked among the lowest-scoring states”–third from the bottom after this year’s testing sample, only Alabama and Mississippi with lower scores.

On the other hand, except for once every two years when the Nation’s Report Card test scores hit the newspaper, only a few people in the education world know the test was given.  When teaching, I never knew a school or teacher who had given the test.  I’d never seen an example of the test.

It’s a bet that only math gurus at the State Department of Education know fourth grade math proficiency has grown from a scale score 208 in 1992 when the test was first given in California to 232 this year, compared to USA national average 239.  The bad news is two years ago fourth graders had almost the same paltry score-230–out of a possible 500 scale score (a statistical tool to compare data from all 50 states).

The final insult is only 35% of California fourth graders learned enough of the federal math standards to achieve scale scores considered proficient or advanced.

How can that be when the level of proficiency or better on the California Standards Test (CST) used as a growth benchmark for the California Academic Performance Index (API) and the national Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) report has shown considerable improvement?

How? Why?

After much clicking through data on the National Center for Education Statistics’ unfriendly website, the following was disgorged about California NAEP math scores:

1) 7400 of 6 million California students were tested

2) 310 schools agreed to give the test in Fresno School District, San Diego Unified, and Los Angeles Unified

3) where the largest groups of English Language Learners (ELL) in the state reside.

No wonder the scores are weak (ELL average scale score 211).  Every California school district already knows that the achievement gap in the state is most disparate for students who speak little English.

Seems like, as teachers say all the time, too many exams.  Teachers in-the-know are busy looking at in-school assessments, using on-site data to make teaching decisions for improvement in state standards math instruction.

Nevertheless, newspaper articles and various reports about NAEP student failure point to four problems.

1) Every state has different math standards, some too easy, some too broadly defined, none matching the federal standards.

2) State assessments are too easy or don’t assess the most important math standards.

3) State proficiency benchmarks are too low.

4) Teacher preparation, credentialing, and professional development aren’t good enough, often blamed on teacher’s union policies.

What to do?

Most teachers will say, get on with it, create common standards, assessments, and benchmarks between states for math education.  Another well-kept secret, 48 states have agreed to do so.  An example is the New England Common Assessment Program.

Most important by far, states need to step up and fork over the money to “turn around” low performing schools which all those achievement gap ELL students attend.  Various studies have documented a small number of excellent schools for “turn around” models.*

Once attendance is secured, high standards made clear, parents involved, teachers well-supported, the curriculum may begin to stress critical thinking skills, the way to pass any test with flying colors, no matter who gives the exam.

*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.

Better Off in “Basic Aid” School?

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

These days, savvy California parents with school-age children, looking for a place to live in a school district with stable finances, might search in a “basic aid” school district.

"basic aid" school in Los Altos, CA

"basic aid" school in Los Altos, CA

Those schools are usually thought to be found in high personal income communities, with high academic ratings and highly-qualified teachers.  A parent would be happy when the realtor discovered the perfect house.

Turns out nothing is perfect.  Every school unique.

If the realtor found a delightful dwelling in up-scale Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County, the family might be surprised that Beverly Hills Unified School District-fabulous student academic achievement; clean, up-to-date facilities; elite teacher corps-depends on “revenue limit” funds.

On the other hand, an oil man, buying a home in the Kern County Taft Union High School District, would find his children in a “basic aid” district, reaping the property taxes from the oil companies sitting on vast oil fields in the Central Valley.  The families with children attending TUHSD, however, have the lowest average personal income levels in the state. The schools are identified as Program Improvement (PI) under No Child Left Behind and student educational needs put a huge stress on the “basic aid” funds.  It relies heavily on state and federal categorical funds like Title I to support its programs.

How can it be so?

Settlement of the Serrano vs. Priest cases in 1972 and 1976 by the California Supreme Court, brought students under the equal opportunity protection of the law.  (Read Paradise Lost by Peter Schrag for the whole picture.)

The state then guaranteed each district a specific amount of funding per student per year, based on Average Daily Attendance (ADA).  Those “revenue limit” funds were based on property taxes raised in 1972-73.  For 35 years those monies have been adjusted by the state from other sources to equalize the revenue to each district.  Most of the approximately 1000 school districts in California rely on state “revenue limit” funds to set the yearly budget.

In 1978 Proposition 13 passed and property taxes became a huge thorn in the side for every school district.  It turns out some school districts actually had more property tax available within the school district boundary than would have been received from the “revenue limit” allocation.  Those districts are known as “basic aid” districts, about 100 or so in California this year.

Remember, all is not perfect.

Look at two adjoining “basic aid” elementary school districts in the affluent Silicon Valley where some of the most expensive property in the United States is found.  Los Altos School District’s Academic Performance Index (API) for 2008-09 was 959.  Can’t do much better, except for its few socio-economically disadvantaged students who barely made the grade on the NCLB Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) scale.

Meanwhile next door, “basic aid” only since July 2009, the Mountain View Whisman School District’s API rating was a respectable 822.  However, with a far more diverse student population, two of its schools are designated PI and must “turn around.”

Listening to Los Altos school board candidates, many questions came up about the antagonistic exchanges with the charter school that uses property in the district boundary.  No one brought up the need for schools, even high-performing ones, to devise plans to analyze test data to enrich the curriculum for high-achieving students as well as support low-performing students.

Reading the local newspapers, MVWSD is consumed with issues that can drain money from its  “basic aid” funds.  For example, property tax money doesn’t relate to student enrollment, so when one school loses and another bulges with students, arguments ensue.

What about the main problem for this “basic aid” district:  Program Improvement and “turn around?”  PI means professional development; teachers to work with low-performing students; a staff that communicates well; a plan to analyze testing data and account for the improvements all students must make; district administrators that realize the time and effort it will take.

School boards have difficulty focus on these tough issue, and such a “turn around” gives all districts a tight budget headache.

Pay for Performance?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

How did the business model term, “pay for performance,” morph into the preferred way to assess teachers–by the number of student’s proficient on a test?

The issue has risen in an effort to turn around low-performing schools.

In 1992 the California state legislature set rules to allow charter schools, financed with the same money that would otherwise go to a traditional public school, often perceived as playing on the monetary issue.

Over time, according to statistics from state exams that public-financed charter school students must take, elementary charter school performance is “neither better nor worse” than traditional public schools.

Pay, however,  is often an issue.  See “As More Charter Schools Unionize, Educators Debate the Effect,” by Sam Dillon, The New York Times, July 27, 2009.

So, what next?

Advocated by the Department of Education’s Race to the Top plan to close the achievement gap in low-performing schools, one strongly advised mechanism to improve student achievement is “performance pay.”

Somehow, based on their students’ scores on one test and parent feedback, teachers will find the offer of better pay an incentive to work harder.  While the model may provide an incentive to complete tasks in the office or factory in an efficient manner, thus improving production, that is not how a school is organized.

A successful school is one where children are supported by teachers who know the curriculum and the best strategies to teach.  The parents, staff, and administration animate students to learn and the buildings are safe.  Exams are one tool used to analyze where students are doing well and where they need another technique or tool to master the subject.  Such a school needs adequate funds, but “performance pay” is not the incentive.

In California for a few years before the state budget went haywire, “school-based pay” bonuses were the rage.  Successful schools, measured by the state’s Academic Performance Index (API), received a substantial amount of money to use at the school site.  Rumbles of discontent began to surface over which schools received awards and why, but the plan was dropped when funds dried up.

Some schools in some districts, Los Angeles Unified for one, have tried various plans, often called “merit pay.”  Teachers vote to waive tenure and the salary schedule negotiated by the local union for the possibility of making a larger salary if classroom instruction improves and their students do well on state exams.  Some plans have been dropped; none have become institutionalized yet.

Another plan is negotiated around “knowledge and skill-based” pay.  A district like Douglas County Schools in Colorado, set in a well-to-do area, has few problems with meeting benchmarks on state exams.  The plan addresses pay for extra duty, for professional development, for meeting goals on an evaluation plan.  The incentive pay relies on foundation support and grants.

On the other hand, the school where I worked in San Jose Unified School District with the goal of school improvement on the API, budgeted monies for time spent on professional development and leadership meetings after school hours, and set aside monies for substitutes to allow teachers to analyze test data and plan strategies to improve student learning.  Over time, student performance improved.

Here was a kind of “knowledge and skill-based” pay about which Robert Weil of American Federation of Teachers has remarked, “The best performance plans are standard operating procedure.”  See “Pay for Performance: What Are the Issues?” by Ellen R. Dalisio, Education World, 2006.

None of these models address this question:  how does performance pay help schools turn around when the sole burden on the teacher’s back is how well students do on a single test?

Here and Now in the Education World will look at those issues in the next post.