Archive for February, 2010

Short Term Savings, Long Term Losses

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Daily, articles describe the fiscal problem for schools.  Tuesday, February 23, 2010, a San Francisco Chronicle front page headline stated “Over 900 pink slips likely for S.F. schools,” the largest, distressed district in the bay area.

CA suburban middle school

CA suburban middle school

Today, Wednesday, February 24, 2010, the Wall Street Journal front page reported disaster for San Mateo County school districts, elementary to community college, affecting high and very low-performing schools with layoffs up and down a beautiful part of the San Francisco peninsula.

The superintendent of well-to-do Lafayette School District states “districts across the state are increasing class sizes, decreasing the length of the school year, eliminating professional development, and eviscerating art, music, athletic and summer school programs.”  See “Complacency has added to our crisis in education” by Fred Brill, San Francisco Chronicle, February 19, 2010.

The catastrophe for students is the procedure whereby huge cuts balance a short term budget, i.e. layoffs aka RIF-reduction in force.

“Increasing class size” means teacher layoffs.  “Eliminating professional development” means teachers providing the service disappear.  No “art, music, athletics and summer school” means RIF.  Furthermore, furloughs and decreases in the number of school year days forewarn that teachers decamp in hopes of a better salary elsewhere-maybe to booming Wyoming.

It may be that school districts are caught in the middle of the state’s fiscal debacle, especially in California.  However, Jeffrey Pfeffer in ‘Lay Off the Layoffs” Newsweek, February 15, 2010, quoted a head of human resources, “If people are your most important assets, why would you get rid of them?”

It’s a business quote, let’s be honest, not a school district’s.  First thing that will come to the reader’s mind is school districts are not businesses.  Agreed.  This blog often says that.  Nevertheless, think about why layoffs sabotage the goals for student achievement.

Immediately, the unemployment benefits that the county will pay cuts into money available for schools.  Money spent when people are rehired cuts into supposed savings.

Next, morale of the remaining staff goes down.  Teachers are redistributed, and there is a direct and indirect cost to resettle in a different school, much less learn the “school climate” at the new location or new grade level.  That’s why the strongest schools have few teachers moving in and out and students remaining at the school from grades K-5.

Another indirect cost is loss of institutional memory.  Especially in low-performing schools where young teachers are often the first to be sent packing, every year the few remaining teachers must spend at least a month of instructional time training new teachers who inevitably are brought in as student demographics shift.

Next, productivity is reduced.  Fatigue sets in.  With substantial layoffs, too few teachers must take on extra duties that had been distributed among more employees.  They get sick.  More teachers take days off and the district must pay for substitutes-another cost.

This blog has no “magic bullet” to avoid projected layoffs for 2010-2011, other than to hope more stimulus money is authorized by Congress.  However, state and local school boards should think “long term.”

How about working through the county to gain volume and thus reduce the substantial cost of supplies per school district?  Right now each school district makes deals, not nearly large enough in volume to save the money required.

The state department of education should advocate for the revised federal health care plan, thus cutting costs for teacher benefits and Medicare, after salaries a major cost to school districts.

County boards of education should strongly advocate for combining small districts into one larger district to save the cost of multiple superintendents and district personnel.  Maybe the goal should be 10-20,000 students per district.  Contentious, but cost-cutting.

Finally, this blog has advocated for the proposal developed two years ago “Getting Beyond the Facts: Reforming California School Finance” that suggests a plan to reorganize the funds available to the state so that money is allocated where it’s needed.

Why should teachers (and so students) be the first to pay the price for a poor economy and state inability to manage its finances?

Back to the Old Name for NCLB

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

When the U. S. Department of Education began to address the revisions to No Child Left Behind legislation (up to now put off several times), the first thing changed was the name.  NCLB (often pronounced Nickel B) has become toxic to most educators, governors, and state education departments.

We’re back to Elementary and Secondary Education Act aka ESEA, the original title of the legislation, in an effort to abandon the stigma attached to the NCLB revisions in 2001.

Heading the list of disliked provisions was distaste for “top down” mandates.  Seen as an especially noxious feature of NCLB legislation were mandates required by Congress with no money attached.  Even now, as word gets out about negotiations on ESEA revisions, the fear is for more top down requirements with no $$ attached.  As most states are currently in the middle of terrible fiscal times, all eyes are on m-o-n-e-y.

Looking at current deficits, states can’t bear to rewrite state tests, put new evaluation procedures in place, provide colleges adequate funds to train teachers, much less support school districts to turn around failing schools-even though, in the long term, all those revisions must occur to close the achievement gap among student groups, the top of the top priorities for ESEA revision.

On the other hand, states might as well face the facts.  The Obama administration has insisted on accountability, but no longer with a NCLB type of yearly test geared to state standards that are set to increase levels of proficiency to 100% by 2014.

As before, each state will set its own standards and choose its own test, but everyone in the education world knows how that worked under NCLB.  Lowered standards and simplified tests made the state look like it was making its benchmarks.

The overview of the ESEA legislation revisions have stressed the U. S. Department of Education’s insistence on data to show student growth and school progress over time with the plan to reward gains in closing the achievement gap among the students left behind in the ordinary school setting.

So now the focus is on the National Governor’s Association and Council of Chief State School Officers to design common standards that become the core of each state’s plan for accountability.  This blog’s bet is that researchers at, for example, Education Trust will be comparing each state’s standards and tests so that low-performing schools are not left to fail.

As most school districts are just trying to get by for another year, such a big change in thought and structure for school reform requires investment.  Like flowers from a magician’s hat, the Race to the Top competition energized 48 states to think about change for high schools, and Title I School Improvement Grant competition sets those states to structure elementary education reform.

Get over it.  Whether a group of charter schools or a public high school district or a tiny rural public school district, someone is at the top.  Here’s the question: is the figure at the top looking ahead or keeping his/her head lowered?  Those are the stakes for legislative reform in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Where do you stand?  Paralyzed?  Or willing to grab this formidable bull of reform by the horns and wrestle it down?

Hurricane Katrina a-coming; school districts drowning

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

School districts are cutting budgets like crazy.  In Colorado, the state will reduce its contribution to school districts by roughly $350 million in 2010-2011, leaving districts scrambling to high ground while figuring out how they’ll cut millions from their operating budgets.

Pension fund deficits hurting budgets

On top of budget cuts, Colorado’s state pension fund (PERA) is underwater by about $30 billion over 30 years.  If left unchanged, the fund will go broke in 2032, which is not a problem if you’ll be dead within the next 22 years, but a challenge if you intend to live past that.

Colorado’s SB10-001, a bipartisan bill to square up the pension fund, will reduce the automatic annual COLA increase of 3.5 down to 2.0, and will increase employee contributions by 2 percent and employer contributions by 2 percent.

Salary freezes, furlough days, and larger classrooms on horizon

At the same time, many districts are looking to freeze salary steps and levels right now to balance their short-term budgets.  The freeze in Colorado teacher salaries could extend over two or three years, depending on state and local property tax revenues.

These facts leave boards and all school employees between a desk and a hard place.  It’s difficult to picture how school districts will provide any staff raises in the near future.  Starting teachers in the $30 thousand range may be stuck, sliding farther behind workers in other professional fields, such as investment banking.  New college graduates may struggle to figure out how public school teaching can ever provide enough of a living to be worthwhile.

While taxpayers certainly feel the pinch in this recession, schools are doubly hit as the budget crisis proceeds.  If a salary freeze occurs in ’10 -’11, budget balancing in ’11-’12 will require larger classrooms and layoffs.  By the third year out, budgets may be so drained that furlough days will be piled on salary freezes and increased classroom size.

High quality education at stake

Meanwhile, schools try to bring the highest quality education to kids, including all the technology necessary to keep students technologically literate.  They’re asked to reduce the learning gap between ethnic groups.  They need to get kids up to speed in reading, math, writing, and science.

Schools have so many fingers in the dykes that it’s inevitable that a New Orleans style flood is on its way, drowning kids in inadequacy and insufficiency.  School districts will need to offer their best arguments to their constituents to bring more money into the system.  But communities will also have to step up to avoid Hurricane Katrina destruction in classrooms across the nation.

*Serious discussion needs good communication to promote successful solutions for the school community.  See the website with this blog for a possible support program.

Pink, Pink, Red, Pink

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

It’s February and that means everything is pink and red hearts and flowers on worksheets, corridor walls, and windows facing the playground.  Whether learning Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s famous poems for Black History Month or receiving tooth brushes to encourage every child to brush his teeth and keep his gums pink for Dental Health Month, it’s still cheery pink handouts that are taken home.

Looks like all is fine and dandy.

However, as my BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment) consultant says when I ask for advice, it’s year 2 problems of which suddenly you are aware.  The first year was such a rush.  Now you worry about the girl who won’t finish her work and keeps begging for help without following the steps you’ve laid out and reviewed over and over to avoid this problem.  It seems I’ve tried every ‘trick’ in the book.  For instance, I ask how she’s feeling when I see her working well with her partners, but the one that has worked best is the old-time stickers on a card for specified behaviors that goes home weekly for reward time at the computer and so on.

I’ve mentioned the money difficulties for my district and they are not any better.  At every budget meeting, in fact, more funds disappear.  The second year teachers have all been told to expect “pink slips” and it’s only February.

I’ve been reading about the lickety-split passage of education legislation by the legislature in order to pick up federal funds as if $700 million is going to save California.  We know schools need every penny, but the teachers in my district have been warned that the money will not appear at our door.  Our students are high-achieving and most of the money is for the lowest of the low-performing schools.

It is amazing though.  My father passed on that an acquaintance in Los Angeles, well-versed in education issues, said that so many states have already revised their education legislation, it’s one of the biggest positive moves brought on by the Obama Administration in the past year.  I wonder how long before such news hits the media.  Or is it only the complainers who will be heard.

Still some of the legislation and some of the money will foster changes to teacher evaluation and changes to the pay structure I’m already used to.  Honestly, in these days of recession one advantage of teaching is a salary and benefits that can be counted on.

I know that several large school districts like Washington DC have had completely new evaluation plans handed out by the superintendent with no negotiations from the teacher’s union.  I can’t imagine that will happen in California.

There is, however, the plan to revise California standards and benchmarks which is a good idea.  But when we talk at lunchtime, we all know it will not be next year that the standards are ready or that evaluation changes will be negotiated, much less that pay will be determined by how high your evaluation ‘number’ is.  And who decides, the state, the district?  That’s a red hot issue.

June?  With the pink construction paper already gone from the supply room in February, is that an omen of where I’ll be?  One of 102 teachers from my school district standing in the unemployment office, laid off, pink slip in hand?