Archive for December, 2009

School Business

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Let’s look at schools as businesses.  You need a business economist’s point of view to understand how and why some of the latest premises to reform schools have appeared.

Education Next‘s April 2009 interview “Many Schools Are Still Inadequate-now what?” featured the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek who has done a lot of writing on education reform, lawyer Alfred Lindseth, and Michael Rebell from Teacher’s College at Columbia whose focus is on court decisions that have affected education change.  The focus of the article was on Lindseth and Hanushek’s book about the funding-student achievement puzzle and Rebell’s concerns with aspects of reform advocated in the proposal.

Most teachers and administrators, both local and state, already agree on several reforms outlined in the article:

  • give local schools flexibility to determine a model to meet high standards
  • establish reasonable funding based on needs of the particular school and school district (including local tax payer ability to authorize bonds or establish education foundations to upgrade school financial support)
  • best of the reforms, commit to evaluate school and program effectiveness using continuous improvement models such as “cycle of inquiry”-originating from business models of improvement

Sounds good.

Difficulties arise in the evidence to support other aspects of the proposal since all must be interlocked to achieve reform, according to Lindseth and Hanushek.

The two issues that stand out are the plan for performance-based pay, a business oriented policy, and the plan to increase the choice for vouchers and charter schools, seen as sanctions against schools or districts where students haven’t achieved designated levels of proficiency.

Pay-for-performance:  Mr. Hanushek is strongly against limits on spending and regulations for the use of funds provided by state and federal sources.  Further, he wants to do away with contractual obligations, mainly negotiated with unions.

Then, teachers would be rewarded for success in, for example, improving student achievement, bonuses for teaching in hard-to-staff schools, higher pay for taking on subjects with teacher shortages.  These are all “value-added” factors used to determine the teachers’ salary or bonus for the year.  (Exact procedures for setting up this plan were not part of the article.)

Vouchers and charter schools:  Not only would schools and teachers be rewarded, but well-articulated and decisive consequences would be imposed on schools not meeting the goals.  Liberal distribution of vouchers and transfers to charter schools are the sanctions advocated.  If a public school is deemed unsatisfactory, it is unclear how to guarantee that a student’s voucher or charter school choice would be suitable.  How to fund this change is not described in the article.

Enter Michael Rebell from Teacher’s College who does not agree with the data and statistics used as evidence for the Lindseth and Hanushek book.  He says, and many who might read the article (or book) would say, that testing outcomes, pay-for-performance, rewards and sanctions, vouchers and charter schools have been studied for a long time with mixed results.

Readers may also agree the reform proposal is based on unproven business models that may, but haven’t yet, shown great results.  The move to privatization of education may be an economist’s preference, but has not yet shown to improve the academic proficiency for the vast number of students needing help.  For example, is California with more than 6 million students going to privatize every school and turn each student into a perfect product?

Rebell supports standards-based reform, but maintains it is a state education policy goal, supported by ideas from business world economists, researchers in the legal and university community, and especially teacher leaders.

Finally, perhaps the book, but not the article, describes how to resolve the funding problems due to the heterogeneity of students and regions in the United States that underlie the challenges for the education world.

Whose Fault???

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Having been a teacher, blame placed on teacher’s unions “that view reforms more for how they affect pay and job security than whether they improve student learning” is unfair and inflammatory.

The accusation by David Davenport in the article “Value-added education in the race to the top” San Francisco Chronicle, November 29, 2009, is based on the country-wide dispute about using data to help students learn, rather than to evaluate teachers.

This is not to go along with every position NEA, for example, has taken in the past, but the constant denigration of teacher’s unions about their position on evaluation and student testing performance is misleading about a complex reform.

Davenport, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, well-known for its conservative views, advocates the “value-added” model, originally a manufacturer’s economic theory, to address the problem of teacher evaluation with data, collectible from the vast pool of scores since NCLB began.

Actually, the teacher and student evaluation reform issue is touchy, easy to manipulate with statistics, and difficult to resolve because of the multitude of variables.

It’s easy for the media to grab onto student test scores and conclude the results are attributable to the skill, or not, of the teacher.  It doesn’t matter that a superintendent, a principal, or a teacher defends the year’s testing outcomes, if scores have not soared higher than a kite, those educators are said to be making excuses.

The term “value-added” education, partly referring to the student’s gain in reading and math proficiency over a year, has been around for nine years, at least, in California.  Every school knows its exact place in relation to other schools in the state.  Those in need of program improvement are deep into the change process.

Several reports can be found (Mass Insight Education & Research Institute and the California Governor’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence are two) elaborating on conditions for bringing change to schools so that students actually learn more and more each year.

In addition, “value-added” refers to the other attributes in the school and classroom that can be assessed, such as the instruction received.

None of the “turn around” measures advocate evaluating a single teacher solely on the improvement in scores of his/her students.  As I’ve read it, unions are against that particular type of evaluation (which is the magic bullet whirling around in the media air), but NEA and AFT have offered suggestions to use the test as one part, along with other tools, to assess the teacher’s skill in the classroom.

As part of Race To The Top grant preparation, California’s Governor Schwarzeneggar has signed two bills to support data availability for teacher and school evaluation.

Next problem.

While reading that the “value-added” proposal can provide a foundation on which to build accountability, to be practical, how can time be spent to develop these evaluation tools when there is so little money?

And what will be done when the evaluation procedures are developed?  Will there be money to set in motion the practices needed to truly and fairly move unsatisfactory teachers from a school district?

Besides, does Mr. Davenport surmise that just getting rid of weak teachers is going to fix a school?  The article notes Eric Hanushek’s comment that replacing 6-10% of the nation’s poorest teachers with average teachers will make a difference in the quality of American education.

How will that happen?  A bit of research into Mr. Hanushek’s theories may provide some insight.  See next post.

Having supervised teachers in a program improvement school, the advice is every Race To The Top dollar should be spent for program evaluation, professional development for highly-qualified teachers, facility improvement, parent education so they know how to keep track of their children’s work and expect achievement, and school community celebration of effort and success.

While each teacher must be accountable, the overall success of those “good” school characteristics is the key.  That’s how the program improves.

More Pay for More Performance?

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

School districts are looking for new ways to compensate teachers.  The most common system of steps and levels rewards teachers for longevity and additional education.  This method does not distinguish excellence or discourage mediocrity, which troubles some educators and many taxpayers.

I see two challenges in changing the system:  inertia and educators uneasy with compensation based on student learning, annual goals, and management observation.

Traditional teacher compensation systems

Most school districts have compensation contracts with teacher’s unions based on time on the job and amount of education credits.  This method is straightforward and objective.  It does not rely on observation of teaching skill or on results of student learning.  Management doesn’t have to haggle over whether a teacher is effective – if the teacher has ten years and a master’s degree, it’s easy to check on a grid to see how much the teacher will be paid.

New assessment tools available

This 90 year old system has simplicity and universal coverage in its favor, which was a plus before we had testing tools to measure student learning and annual growth.  Colorado now administers the CSAP, a statewide, annual student learning assessment.  The state test measures student proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science, and can compare students of “like” learning levels from one year to the next to determine “annual growth.”  This tool enables schools to identify which students have grown more or less than their peers in learning.  Schools with high growth are seen as “good schools”; schools with low growth are supposed to improve.

Some caveats

These tools make objective assessment of teacher effectiveness possible.  But where’s the money to use this assessment as a compensation mechanism?  And what about those teachers whose children are not given a statewide test – music, art, physical education, vocational teachers?

How would districts support additional teacher education?

If “levels” or additional education is taken out of the compensation formula, then there’s room for shifting pay toward effectiveness.  But then there’s no money to reward for additional education.  Would teachers pursue more graduate level training if the reward is not inevitable?  Will districts agree to tuition assistance plans to pay up front for additional education to replace levels?  Will a district that removes levels be able to compete for staff with districts that keep levels?

If school districts replace “levels” with effectiveness measures, will those measures only include student learning progress and growth?  Should other elements, such as teacher leadership, special projects, coaching and mentoring, parent relations, etc. also play a part?

How will teachers be evaluated?

A merit pay or pay for performance or pay for effectiveness system requires teacher performance evaluation.  My experience is that principals are concerned about doing annual appraisals, surely a must for merit pay.  Annual appraisal requires principals to be in classrooms observing teachers and children many times during the year.  Do principals have time for that level of oversight?  An alternative method involves “peer” evaluation, in which teachers evaluate teachers.  Will the public see that as an accurate assessment or as a means for teachers to take care of each other’s compensation?

Who will set evaluating metrics?

In the business community, companies set up performance evaluation criteria and metrics which managers use to assess their employees. Typically this system also involves setting goals each year that will merit additional compensation.  When companies have enough money for bonuses, this method enables extra pay.

Will principals sit down with each teacher at the beginning of each year to establish goals?  Will principals work with teacher teams to establish goals?  Will principals and staff establish school goals?  Will districts work with principals to evaluate the merit of school goals?  If teachers do not meet goals, will their compensation be confined to “steps,” or time on the job, and cost of living increases?

Pay for performance is not easy

A merit pay or pay for performance system is possible, but it will be more complicated.  The biggest question is whether it will produce better results for kids.  If it creates more “effectiveness” conversations between principals and teachers, if goals focus on genuine needs, and teachers work better up and down the grade level structure, then a merit system may do its job.  And it may give taxpayers more confidence when compensating teachers.  But it won’t be easy.


Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Americans are conflicted by two versions of the “good school.”

after school

after school

On the one hand, people want a well-run, up-to-date facility with every teacher highly-qualified and every student a high-achieving mathematician-scientist-literary whiz.  Their parents are behind every effort to make education a high priority-including even $30,000 a year in tuition (in a private school) to provide the best.

On the other hand, since the Puritans landed in New England, a “good” public school has been the backbone of American society.  Every child, no matter the ability of the family to pay out of pocket, should have the opportunity to succeed in a well-run, up-to-date facility with every teacher highly-qualified.  That’s the mantra, but the tax-paying citizen isn’t willing to pay.

Of course, not all children love school like this utopian picture promises.  In any case, what do we end up with?

In the 21st century, the child-citizen can attend a public school, often a crumbling high-rise from the 1930’s in the urban core, or a single level five-finger school like those built in the 1950’s in California, or a fortress-like stone building to protect students from the bad guys in the outside world.

Or the student can be admitted to a parochial school, a charter school (sort of public, sort of private), an independent learning program (like home schooling).

Or sent to a detention facility with a mandated math and reading literacy program.

Or admitted to a private school, improved upon and supported by parents who will do anything to make sure their child gets the best.

The question is, as mulled over in the November 29, 2009, San Francisco Chronicle article by Beatrice Motamedi, “All youths deserve an ‘elite’ school,” why should there be such a discrepancy in the way the public perceives students in a private school and treats the children in a public school?

It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of non-traditional school is under discussion- back to basics charter, Montessori, Waldorf, boarding ‘prep’, parochial-some funded partially with taxpayer money, some by a religious organization, some completely private, those schools are seen as ‘elite’ and deserving of every good thing that can be invested.  The picture may not always be accurate, but that’s the vision.

Why can’t that be sustained at a traditional public school?

From my reading, the problem occurs because public schools depend on budgets determined by the economy’s vibrancy that generates taxes and also on the whim of the voter who, in most states and definitely in California, must approve any changes in the amount of taxes.  Right now, everyone feels sorry about the lack of light bulbs, mold on curtains, ceiling tiles that fall and send down torrents of rain water onto the computer desks, but can’t bring themselves to actually put cash on the table.

Unless, of course, it’s a non-traditional school without a supposed reliable funding source.  Those communities have huge fund raisers like the one held by 30-something hedge fund fellows for the Harlem Success Academy 4-right down the street from the antique four story public school I taught at briefly in East Harlem 40 years ago.  (New York Times, December 6, 2009, “Scholarly Investments” by Nancy Haas)  I don’t begrudge the money, those students deserve every dime.

Perhaps the reason the money is forked over is a smaller school can be seen and rooted for easily, a sort of ‘hands on’ experience.

In many posts, I’ve commented that each individual school must put its hands on the reform.  Let’s hope Race To The Top funds insist on program performance evaluation of reform at the school level.  Let’s hope each small community will generate the funding will.

Shouldn’t the “good” public school offer ‘elite’ vocational or technology or college prep models to help students find their way to a job after graduation?

It Gets Dark Early

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Autumn days have zipped by.  I’ve met with the parents of every student in my class and sent home report cards for the first of three evaluation periods.  We’ve been to Mission San Juan Bautista, the culmination of the first unit of California history, from the Native Americans to the explorers to the Californios, settlers governed from Spain and later Mexico.

This year, writing process procedures have been established much earlier than I managed last year.  Most are busy writing the third or fourth in a collection of pieces, non-fiction personal narrative or reports on, for example, the Miwok, California Native American tribe.  “How to Annoy the Teacher,” is a composition that seems to be loved by all, even the most conscientious, well-behaved students.  They can fantasize by leaps and bounds.

Not long after the latest update on our district school budget problems was presented at a staff meeting, I read an article on the front page of the Sunday, November 15, New York Times, “Selling Lesson Plans Online, Teachers Raise Cash and Questions” by Winnie Hu.

While I can find an abundance of lessons and teaching ideas to download on the Internet, this was the first I’d heard about selling lesson plans.  I suppose, in a free market society, teachers can sell their plans, just like a book or a better potato masher.  It may make sense if the money is used to upgrade the materials in the classroom, but when I read that someone had used the cash for new kitchen countertops, I thought enough is enough.  Want to see the new thing?  Check out Teachers Pay Teachers.

Just shows, though, the problem for teachers who wish to be innovative and have access to the best for their students and the inability of taxpayers, even those wishing schools well, to bring themselves to pay for the success of public schools in this country.

Here’s another school budgets issue. I was talking to my sister-in-law who has a six-year-old in a Los Angeles charter school because the local public school is too big and too overwhelmed by second language and poor families.  She didn’t think her child would get enough attention.  Funny thing, the charter school uses classrooms in the public school building which leads to complaints on both sides about space, storage, and access to the playground.

My cousin sent a series of articles from the September 2009 Denver Post on charter schools, detailing the sunny-side-up viewpoint of the League of Charter Schools and the down-side views of longtime public school educators.  A “Letter to the Editor” from Louise Benson, Broomfield, Colorado, way back on Sunday, September 20, suggested my point of view: improvement for public schools means “teachers and staff buy in to programs known to increase achievement, and… avoid some union work rules that impede better instruction.”

Late November my class started its unit on earth science, analyzing rocks from each strata of the earth’s crust, delving down to the core of burning magma, always enjoyed by fourth graders.

What got in the way?

My jury duty summons from the Santa Clara County Superior Court arrived in the mail.  Same problem for every working adult, it came just at the wrong moment.  I spent my time writing lesson plans that will disrupt the class as little as possible, while doing my citizen’s duty checking on the Internet daily to see if my number had come up.

I never had to go to court, we spent our days looking at rocks and using all the strategies I know and the lesson plans I’ve gathered (without paying a penny) to make sure my students are achieving.

I feel lucky.  The parents in my district are happy with its highly-qualified teachers, innovations, and facilities; not asking to set up a charter school with funds from my strapped district.

Next is the Gold Rush unit.  Nuggets of shiny metal from the dark earth glittered in men’s eyes, a symbol of California wealth, hidden right now in the dark of the state legislature.