Archive for April, 2010

Transience-Going and Coming and Going Again

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Reading and listening to the news, the huge bet in the education world is how many teachers and other staff are going to the unemployment office in June due to layoffs in each state and school district.

superintendent with students at a Los Angeles elementary school

superintendent with students at a Los Angeles elementary school

Worst of the worst, 300,000 teachers laid off will certainly clear the board of its latest spread of new teachers at low-performing schools just as those schools are identified as turn around targets.  How will it help any school when young committed new teachers who have been acknowledged as creative, innovative, self-confident, highly educated, and technologically competent are the first to be laid off when the roulette ball lands in their slot?

More pink slips than really needed are often sent out so as not to litigate layoffs that are identified too late in the school year, a no-no nationwide negotiated by unions and part of most state’s education code.  But even 100,000 is a huge number and leads to the problem to be addressed in this post-TRANSIENCE.

Begin with student transience.  In most states and definitely in California high transience in low-performing schools practically guarantees that few students will have proficient or advanced levels on the state tests given in May.  Generally, students who make strategic moves like those because of school safety issues, overcrowding, class size reduction, even suspension do not necessarily lead to worse academic achievement.  On the other hand, reactive transience due to financial stress, family dysfunction, and housing instability often lead to negative results in student achievement.  The more moves in a school year and over several school years generally indicate a worse outcome.  For more detail see the Urban Institute’s 2009 study “Student Transience in North Carolina.”

Like truancy, student transience can be reduced with relentless determination.  When a student moves to another attendance area, the child stays in the original school for the remainder of the year, a procedure dependent on buses and parent permission.  Speaking of parents, the district can educate parents on the short and long-term consequences to student achievement with constant movement.  In addition, within a school district, the speedy transfer of student records can be improved, especially with data being established on servers that can be accessed by every school.  Of course, over time in a city or region, the availability of low-income housing would ensure that students remain at the school.

Students coming and going increases teacher anxiety as each is preparing to be evaluated on student test scores.  Think, though, about the anxiety for children as teachers go and come and go again when layoffs are the way to balance the school district’s budget.

Students in low-performing schools usually need steady well-structured learning time.  One school in Los Angeles was described recently as losing half its teachers due to last year’s layoffs, and even now six months after school opened for the 2009-2010 school year, some classes are taught by a series of substitutes instead of full-time regular employees.

Teachers need to be in place in the school for an average of five years for the most effective teaching to take place.  What is going to happen in June 2010 as students see new teachers take home all their materials, still unsure of the location or grade level they will be called to teach when 2010-2011 begins?  If they get rehired.  Before the school year begins.

Last, in the Fall it’s a sure thing that some teachers laid off in the Spring will be assigned to a school when the enrollment is stabilized.  Think about the time that will be needed to train the new staff in the strategies, special programs, student discipline procedures, and myriad other details that make each school unique.  In the meantime, students review and wait for the real teaching to start.

Let’s hope student transience doesn’t begin until the transient teachers have had time to lay down the rules of the game.

Truancy’s Many Minutes

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Today teacher layoffs for 2010-2011 hit the front page of the New York Times, “Revenue Cut, Schools Warn of Huge Teacher Layoffs Across U.S.” by Tamar Lewin and Sam Dillon.  The news (with photo of 21, 000 plus in California) finally comes to the attention of the nation.

mixed neighborhood school in Silicon Valley

mixed neighborhood school in Silicon Valley

Most media minutes this past week were devoted to the teacher evaluation-tenure-compensation conundrum.  Last week’s post reported on Colorado’s SB 10-191 legislative bill.  End of the week Florida’s governor finally vetoed the state’s bill after the entire school community flushed out the legislation’s inadequacies.

Still, how are teachers going to address the evaluation-tenure-compensation issue next year when they’re all laid off?  In fact, a long list of school-wide problems must be addressed to establish a fair playing field on which teachers and schools will be evaluated, a playing field with a timer ticking off minutes of instruction.

Truancy is at the top of the list of insidious problems for persistently low-performing schools.

How can students learn when they don’t arrive on time and every day?  When a child arrives tardy by 20 minutes once a week, it doesn’t seem like much.  When he misses 3 days in the month, it doesn’t seem like much.  Right now there are on average 36 weeks of actual learning time.  Take away about 720 minutes or 2 days a school year for tardiness, 27 more whole days of unexcused absence, and the student misses four weeks-a month-of learning time in a school year.  Now that’s many minutes!

Let’s hope more stimulus money is legislated by Congress soon, as in the next month, so teachers remain.  On Monday this week the TV news mentioned the coming distribution of millions of dollars to districts with identified persistently low-performing schools. You can bet those teachers and principals will assert ‘you want to see improvement from the beginning to the end of the year, it stands to reason that the school board better have plans to improve truancy data.’

It certainly must be in place before any new teacher accountability plan for tenure and compensation takes effect.

Severe truancy problems can be reversed.  For example, at Success for All elementary schools student attendance (arrival on time every day) is one of the first problems addressed–so students can take advantage of the learning strategies being put in place.

How do minutes of truancy decrease?  Before school a rousing Sousa march is played on the PA system,  students line up in a circle, and the principal announces birthdays, events, classes with the best attendance, and so on which are applauded.  The children go to class where a game is played to spell words, one letter each day everyone is present.  The word completed, a small reward is provided and the class is congratulated by the principal.  The attendance clerk contacts absent students’ families daily and information is sent to the district that keeps computer records of attendance with the goal of 96% each month.  The school counselor is on the phone immediately with the parents of tardy students.  A plan is set up to call, pick up, attend the morning Sunshine Club (where students sit in a group for breakfast).

If that isn’t enough, the counselor contacts the county truancy court and proceedings are initiated.  In an elementary school, one court appearance per family is usually enough, other younger children are kept track of before the problem stands out again.  See San Francisco Chronicle article “Oakland truancy court for parents” by Matthai Kuruvila (April 17, 2010) for more information about California education laws on truancy.

Be ready.  It takes relentless, unending time and effort in neighborhoods with single mothers, families working several jobs, older siblings who baby sit and don’t set good examples.  Such oversight must be funded substantially and not pulled away when the chips are down.  Like laying off teachers, cuts saves money but at what cost to the long run across the playing field?

It takes no more than a minute to agree, truancy reduction is one major procedure that will ensure many more minutes  of effective learning time on task, the entire goal of U. S. public schools.

Colorado’s Race to the Top app foundered

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Colorado’s Race to the Top application foundered, as expected, on its lack of progress on teacher evaluation and tenure.  To give Colorado a second chance at RTTT funding, State Senator Michael Johnston has introduced SB10-191 to change the state’s evaluation and tenure process.

Tenure hit with new bill

Currently, teachers get tenure with three years of satisfactory probationary teaching, and it’s very difficult (at least three years) to remove teachers with tenure.  With SB10-191, new teachers must show three years of “highly effective” teaching in their first three years, and if tenured teachers receive two years of unsatisfactory reviews, their tenure can be yanked.

The state will define “highly effective” teaching.  Fifty percent of teacher evaluation will depend on student performance, based on annual yearly progress on state tests.  Sixty-six percent of principal evaluation will depend on student performance.

Teacher evaluation goes from once every three years to once a year

The bill will change the current evaluation system from once every three years for tenured teachers to once each year.  The bill also will “reward” excellent teacher performance with career development and compensation.

No new state dollars for the program

What the bill does not do is provide extra dollars for compensation.  It assumes, apparently, that those dollars will come from RTTT.  At some point, however, Colorado, and all states, will need to get serious about compensation if they expect teachers to play to the new tune.

In the Denver metropolitan area, new teachers make roughly $35,000 per year.  That’s about the same as a retail store manager.  A starting engineer will make somewhat north of $65,000, depending on the engineering field.  A starting lawyer will make about $75,000, depending on the size of the firm.  A new physician can make up to $100,000, depending on the practice.

Teachers will get paid less at least through 2011

The incentive for new teachers to become “highly effective” based on compensation is nil.  The only incentive is pride and love of the job because the opportunity for a raise in the current economic environment is not what it was even two years ago.  Right now, most school districts in the state are cutting their budgets, telling staff that they will make the same in 2011 as they did in 2010.  In fact, they will probably have made more in 2009 than they’ll make in 2011.

The state legislature is cutting about $250 million from the 2010-2011 school budget.  That’s the wrong direction if the state intends to implement a system that puts a teacher’s employment at risk each year.

State hopes for RTTT to add to compensation

If the state is serious about implementing a new evaluation system, it also needs to get serious about compensation.  Offering a new teacher at least $45,000 seems reasonable.  That’s the only way school districts will be able to attract and retain highly competent new teachers after firing all those incompetent old teachers.

State doesn’t fund evaluation program

The state also needs to come up with a support system for the increase in teacher evaluations.  The main complaint from principals is that they don’t have time for frequent evaluation.  If that’s the case, then schools may have to create a whole new class of educator, the teacher evaluator, which may be a good thing.  This person theoretically can be an instructional leader.

But the teacher evaluator position does not currently exist in Colorado.  Will this position be supervisory or licensed?  Will it be a part of the new “career ladder” envisioned in the law, or one more trend that eventually is discarded.

Democrats will fight over the bill; GOP just needs to stay out of it

Many in Colorado support education reform.  A huge fight is already heating up between Democrats who want schools to get better faster and Democrats who receive much of their candidate funding from the Colorado Education Association.  Republicans can just stay out of the way and watch the pots boil over.

But more money?  To get more money, teacher supporters have to come up with a 2/3 majority of legislators who are willing to put an initiative on the ballot.  That’s not likely.

So if teacher evaluation goes forward, and nothing changes related to compensation, the state may get the opposite of what it wants:  a system with fewer teachers, doing less with less, facing an evaluation program requiring them to do more with less.  It’s difficult to figure how that scenario can lead to anything but complete breakdown in the entire system.

When At First You Don’t Succeed

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

The first winners in the Race to the Top competition were two small states: Delaware and Tennessee.  Good for them.

Being small compared to say California, they managed to get all school districts and teacher’s unions on board.  Not only that, it seems the two states wrote decent, clear proposals.

Too bad the other states didn’t take their lumps without fussing and excusing themselves, without criticizing the judges and scores on the proposals as if they were unfairly disqualified.

This is like any competition: the grant writers, state departments of education, and state legislatures knew the rules of the game.  Some states refused to take the cap off the number of charter schools.  Some states couldn’t persuade all school districts to collaborate.  Some states couldn’t manage to change their education laws to allow reform of teacher evaluation combined with state testing.

For some states-like California-the depths of fiscal collapse is the real reason that the state didn’t win a prize.  Like many contestants, the state needed the money to compensate for its own deficit and now complains because of a cap on the next set of awards.  California, for instance, asked for $1 billion in the first round and has found out it can only max out at $700 million if it wins in the second round of application.

Now, now, swallow your pride and dig in.  That’s what students are told to do.

For one, rewrite the grant to allow small rural schools and big urban districts to reform the issues that affect each individually.  If the school is persistently low-performing (whether large or small), there are at least two ways to restructure, not counting change to a charter, the least best of the ways to reorganize for most schools.  An adept grant writer could show how a school might combine parts of all the possible models; the point is to design a reform model and stick to it along with improvements as needed over time.

The most difficult issue to resolve and the one that held up many proposals is linking teacher evaluation and state testing.  There are those who can’t imagine how to design a teacher evaluation that is fair and accounts for the variables that lead to discrepant test results.  How can the two be combined?

Above all content standards must be agreed upon and assessments must be improved.  Common content standards are being revised right now.  A multiple choice test doesn’t assess all the learning skills a student needs.  Not all teachers are working in a grade or subject that the current state test assesses.

Next, systems must be set up to provide a community of accountability in a public school.  For example, yearly a principal with a formal evaluation rates plans to reach the many groups of student abilities in the class and analyzes assessments for improved student growth. Also observers come into the classroom frequently, using a checklist of items that teachers collaborate on to design a successful classroom.  Those are the techniques to observe.  Feedback is provided immediately, either from the check list or by conference and an ‘action plan’ is developed to help the teacher with any strategies that might improve class work.

Of course, this kind of reform needs financial resources to include administrators to take on school operations and observers who agree to help with this type of accountability, leaving the principal to attend to the learning in the school.  Please note that the district’s school board must focus on academic achievement for each school, high as well as low-achieving.

It will not do to leave the teachers to take on all of the above and then be handled roughly if achievement doesn’t immediately improve.  This blog has long maintained the relentless, consistent nature of reform for an entire school community.

So the moral for state is “try, try again.”