Archive for June, 2010

Vouchers for All

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

As soon as someone uses the phrase “school choice” a debate ensues.  Most often, the words are spoken when the controversy concerns charter schools and vouchers.

Colorado public elementary school

Colorado public elementary school

The National Education Association (NEA) as well as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have written passionate criticism of vouchers.  A group called School Choices founded by Andrew J. Coulson defends them.  A number of educators defend them, including Charles Murray from the American Enterprise Institute in a New York Times article on May 5, 2010, “Why Charter Schools Fail the Test.”  It’s a play on words as studies have shown that the majority of charter schools do no better on state tests than traditional public schools, but in his thesis there are many other reasons why charter schools and vouchers are the best “school choice.”

Vouchers have been legislated in a number of Midwest school districts and famously in Washington, D.C.  However, the legislation permitting a 5 year field test of vouchers for D.C. school children was not reauthorized by Congress in 2009.  Only students already in school receive vouchers until they graduate and no new vouchers will be paid for with federal monies.

Why is it such a ‘hot’ issue?

Most people in the education world define the ‘school voucher,’ (AKA ‘education voucher,’ or ‘scholarship’) as “a certificate from the government that a parent can apply to tuition at a private school.” (see Wikipedia)  At first the vouchers were not valid for a parochial school because of the Constitution’s separation of church and state.  Of course, the “school choice” advocates did not like that exception.  Now the rules for use of vouchers vary.  In states like Wisconsin the courts allowed vouchers to be used for parochial school fees.

The theory is that families paying for a private school also pay taxes to support public school systems.  Those families look at vouchers as a way to offset their costs.  On the other hand, opponents, especially teacher’s unions, say vouchers undermine the public school system because taxes for vouchers are like paying subsidies to private schools.

What else has happened?

In the 1960’s, vouchers were valued in the South as a way to continue segregation.  Only white children obtained them to use at one of the many private schools that popped up at the time.  One voucher claim is that these certificates help low-performing students move to a school that isn’t failing.  A number of studies don’t confirm that proposition.

All of these policies were based on economist Milton Friedman’s free market theories that built a following especially in the 60’s.  He thought competition between private or charter schools (since 1992) and public schools would improve every school’s academics and cost efficiency.  Friedman’s line “the freedom of private enterprises to experiment” is music to the ears of those who love the business model for schools.  In fact, many school choice proponents emphasize the competitive market ideal that vouchers would foster in every feature of schools in the United States, although most private and parochial schools aren’t set up as businesses.

NEA and other groups make a case that privatizing schools allows for even further inconsistency in what is taught and learned.  They advocate consistent standards for students.  Also, the unions see further economic, racial, ethnic, and religious divides in the country if some students get vouchers and others don’t.  NEA and ADL both discuss the elitist strategy of subsidizing private school tuition rather than using every penny available to improve education for low-income students.

It is alarming how the issue of providing ways to get into a school other than public school is gaining traction.  In California, recent legislation altered the education code so that it fits with federal guidelines designed to provide help to improve schools.  The bills authorized a raise on the cap for school charters.  In addition, SBX5 4 allows students to move into another school if the school they attend is persistently poor-performing.  Next, someone in the legislature will introduce a bill to provide actual vouchers, defeated once before, but one never knows.

Spin the Arrow-Which Kind of School?

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

A lot has come to light about charter schools since the previous posts (9/9/09, 12/9/09, 1/29/10), none of which has made the choice clearer.  In fact, each school, whether public, private, charter, or parochial, depends on what the parent and student like.

Does the student want the school closest to home?  Does the parent want religion included in the curriculum?  Is the parent anxious about lack of discipline at the local school?  Does the student want to go where his friends are going?  Is some special program, like theatre arts or music, a drawing card at the school?

The list of choice questions goes on and on.

Note, however, that test scores have not been mentioned yet.  Except for the parents of high-achieving students that is not the first priority. Or parents who want high scores to improve the equity of their home.

But to educators, concerned about the lowest-performing students in poor inner city or isolated rural schools, student achievement on tests is the highest priority.  And the prognosis is mixed about the best model to improve learning in such schools.

Many in the education world say that those failing schools should be closed and reopened as charter schools which might experiment with curriculum and employment rules since most are not organized with teacher’s unions on hand.  However, studies keep appearing in the news with decidedly mixed results as to strong improvement in existing charter schools vs. local public schools.

At the first of May an evaluation by the School Choice Demonstration Project, comparing students in charter and public schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, found comparable performance, refuting one of the “pulls” of charter schools–that small schools allow more help to students and so better scores on state tests.

In April a charter school working with very low-performing children and run as a demonstration project by Stanford University had its charter rescinded by the public school district in which the school site was located.  The university staff was surprised, but the Ravenswood School Board, willing to try any model to improve student achievement, wasn’t impressed by the analysis of the test statistics and certainly didn’t like the scores.  The outcome was a ‘no’ vote with a condition to come back with another plan and maybe the New School would be funded once more.

A number of charter schools on both coasts have been caught with their hands in the funding pot or audited for finagling the dollar numbers or for pocketing money to finance trips that just didn’t go with the purpose of a school.  Is that what happens when the school is animated by business models to provide incentives?  The U.S. Department of Education has stated concern with the number of charter school fraud issues that have come to its attention.

Another problem comes up when a group of knowledgeable parents gets together to write up a charter proposal and insists on finding a way to get the public school district to find a site for the school and to provide the instructional funds per pupil.  If, as in Los Angeles, the parents are from a neighborhood with a failing school, the school board may be sympathetic.  If it is being set up in a high-achieving school district without a lot of extra money to spread around, the process can be combative, not collaborative.

This blog post is being written in California, filled with 6.3 million students, almost 1000 school districts, 10,000 public schools, and 715 charter schools (elementary to high school).  Last month 188 California schools, mostly middle and high schools, were labeled persistently low-performing-including the New School mentioned above that had its charter rescinded.

If each of those schools were closed and reopened as charter schools, and every student chose those schools thinking change would happen, they would be surprised.  It would still take relentless effort before the students showed consistent improvement in their reading and math abilities, science and social science knowledge base.  KIPP (a for-profit charter system) regional leaders have already declined to take on the challenge.

Most students and parents won’t flee to another town or to a private or parochial school.  Looks like those persistently low-performing schools will have to meet with their school communities and find their own model to transform their school.

School’s Out but I’m Not

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

A topsy-turvy school year is over and the students are out, many just to attend summer sports camp or computer or art and dance classes.  Not knowing how close the district came to disastrous changes in strong schools.

I’m very happy that I’m not out.  The school district sent letters rescinding all the lay offs about three weeks before the start of summer vacation.

With a $4 million deficit, our local union agreed to five furlough days next school year and the parents in PTA and the Cupertino Foundation collected $2 million.  With job attrition, the use of reserves, and careful budgeting maneuvers, the district managed to find enough money to hold onto all teachers.  Parents are relieved that class size increases are staved off for one more year, special services will be maintained.

You can see how the closer people are to the schools they like, the more certain they are to support them with in-kind and financial help.

After the June elections, a number of bond measures and parcel taxes, some approved and some not, define the outlook of the schools from elementary to community college, including the school I attended, for the next several years until the state legislature either does its duty or the courts force revision of school finances.

In the meantime we had Open House at the end of May.  Parents had smiles on their faces as they looked at the maps made by their student as an assessment of the geometry unit.  Various polyhedrons, named for houses and businesses, sat on the ‘streets’ made by geometric angles.  I was amazed that a few parents of third graders quizzed me about instruction for next year, sort of auditioning me for their child’s year in fourth grade.  They didn’t seem to understand that the teacher doesn’t choose who is in her class.  The students are assigned and rarely reassigned.

We even went on our yearly nature hike up to the site of the Ohlone Indian village in the Open Space Preserve above Filoli Gardens not far from Stanford University.  The docents that lead the students on the exploration of the woods and fields are retired professors and geologists from the U. S. Geological Survey, so it’s the best.  I was so glad the funds for the trip weren’t yanked to balance some budget line item.

It’s strange how things work out.  I was sure I was going to be substituting next year and so applied to San Jose State University to begin a Master’s degree program, thinking I’d have plenty of time to do well in the classes.  Now, I will be working full-time and taking classes at night like so many of my teacher friends.

Be careful what you wish for, right?


Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

June 1, 2010, states sent in their second round Race to the Top applications.  However, the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) may be seen as the great idea to help states and school districts solve the dilemma of compensating all personnel fairly, evaluating performance objectively, and using bonuses to motivate strong employees to do their best.

public elemenatary school in Colorado

public elemenatary school in Colorado

Too bad the research for TIF guidelines didn’t use (as yet) Scholastic’s Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on America’s Schools. The March 3, 2010, survey clearly noted that teachers do not do a good job because they may get bonuses.  As long as the pay is fair and adequate, they are more interested in collaboration for student success, good relations with the school community, clear standards common across the states, and strong support from the school administrators, school board, and superintendent.

Even so, school districts and states are going to try for TIF.  With deficit school budgets, how else are school districts going to keep high-quality teachers needed to innovate to reach today’s students (a strong consideration in the Scholastic survey)?  In fact, how are the schools going to establish innovative evaluations which “accurately measure teacher performance” unless they receive a grant to make it happen?

TIF guidelines are premised on the concept that tenure following a “steps and levels” salary schedule and ‘time in the system’ priority for transfer options leads to implicit (if not obvious) incentives for teachers and administrators to move to the least challenging schools.  Thus, low-performing schools are left with the newest or those least willing to make change of any kind.

Five core elements to receive a TIF grant are

1) A plan that communicates clearly what a “performance based compensation system” (PBCS) would look like.  One component that will take determined leadership to design.

2) The entire school community, including unions, must come to the table.

3) Rigorous, transparent, fair evaluation procedures that include, but are not limited to, student achievement (i.e. tests) and multiple observations in the classroom.

4) Data management and analysis.

5) Professional development to improve teaching strategies and time to analyze data.

As of April 2009 seven schools have implemented TIF with TAP, the Teacher Advancement Program designed under the auspices of the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, CA.  The model has been promoted since 2000 by Lowell Milken, lawyer and philanthropist, with strong business connections which are seen the moment one reads the philosophy and assumptions of the model.

Now that schools, districts, states are looking for ways to change the tenure-evaluation-compensation design, TAP is the go-to model.  Most districts, of course, don’t have time or money to spend to plan a completely new paradigm.

The website says TAP provides on-the-job teacher training, career advancement, instructionally focused accountability, and performance-based compensation.  It says that performance award programs are successful when integrated with strong teacher leadership, professional development, and reliable analysis of student achievement-three of the factors that teachers in the Scholastic survey wanted.

Actually, when one finds a description of the process at a school using TAP, it looks very similar to many turn-around models designed to improve student achievement by making the most of teacher preparation, coaching, and collaboration on data analysis.

The big difference is the focus on bonus pay as the incentive to get teachers to take on a model to turn around a high-need school.  And, so far, studies don’t address bonus pay as a determining factor for good schools.  Finally, the website for TAP doesn’t address the problem of tenure, a negotiating factor with unions.

ACLU and CSBA Throw Down Gloves

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

School districts are doing what they always do as a way out of financial crises.  They look to the source of money generated by laying off personnel to solve the problem, never mind the issue of “last in, first out.”

up-scale suburban elementary school

up-scale suburban elementary school

As an example, in the up-scale suburban district of Los Altos, California, about 100 teachers are scheduled to be laid off, making class sizes rise even though the district has long touted its small classes.

All in spite of research showing how layoffs make things worse.  See this blog’s post on February 24, 2010, titled “Short Term, Long Term.”  The May 20, 2010, article “Teachers Facing Weakest Market for Jobs in Years” by Winnie Hu, New York Times, says “the recession seems to have penetrated a profession long seen as recession-proof.”  No kidding!

Not only are lay offs imminent-an estimate of 150,000 or more personnel nationwide, but jobs are not being offered.  One presumes class size increases are the answer.  Students aren’t going away.  Who’s going to teach them?

In this day and age, the layoff idea gets mixed up with the controversy about poor-performing teachers.  The ACLU-Southern California press release for its suit filed in Superior Court February 24, 2010, against lay offs in 3 lowest-performing middle schools in Los Angeles areas of Watts and Pico Union explains that lay offs seeming to be “a budget-related issue, underneath that is the teacher tenure policy that is under attack” by superintendent Cortines, Governor Schwarzeneggar et al.

To others, lay offs take on the quality of a civil rights issue.  Why should LIFO-“last in, first out”-be the school district’s policy when research shows that high-need schools in a district like Los Angeles have the newest teachers.  Whether they are fabulous or poor-performing, the teachers are gone each year a district faces a financial imbalance.  How can those schools establish a stable core of teachers, use resources to increase test performance, and train high-quality teachers–all of which is guaranteed in the state Constitution?

ACLU/SC won an injunction May 13, 2010.

Which leads to the suit filed May 20, 2010, in Alameda County Superior Court, by the California School Boards Association (CSBA), the California State PTA, and the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) as well as nine school districts up and down the state and 60 students.  The suit seeks to overhaul the finances for school funding to “provide the resources to actually deliver” on the mandate of what schools must teach and what students must learn.

Over the past 40 years there have been several decisions and initiatives, Proposition13 (1978) being the most well-known, and Serrano vs. Priest (1976) and Proposition 98 (1988) being influential, that have set California’s untenable education budget.  The plaintiff’s argument is that “school funding is unstable, unreliable, irrational, and overly restrictive,” according to Jill Tucker and Marisa Lagos in “Suit could force major changes in school funding” San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 2010.  About 70% of similar “adequacy lawsuits” have succeeded, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In California, this suit will take years to work its way out of the courts, and one can only hope the legislature will resolve this systemic problem before the court decides for them.  One can expect that lay offs will continue to the detriment of schools and students, tenure-evaluation-compensation will keep being fought over, and stop-gap measures will be found to keep schools going, until the economy perks up and state money, that is taxes, rises to “normal.”