Archive for July, 2010

Core Standards-the Pro and Con

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Across the U.S., states adopt a set of common standards for academic success-a goal to make our students, rich or poor, literate citizens in this country.  At the same time…

What do we hear in the news?  Unnamed students and adults didn’t know that the colonists were fighting the British in the Revolutionary War.

A highly-esteemed 6th year principal in a Vermont school was replaced in hopes that a change would bring much needed Race to the Top money to the state.

The Washington, D.C. school superintendent has fired about 300 employees, including 241 teachers.  The news reached California July 24, 2010, but never fear, plenty of new teachers have already applied and been interviewed.

The DC superintendent is a graduate of the Teach for America program, the how-to model written about in Atlantic, New York Times, shown on PBS to prepare graduate students for teaching.  The new teachers receive lots of support and supervision to help them succeed in the short 2 years they pledge to teach at a low-performing school.  However, for any principal looking for long term success, teachers moving in and out of a school is the worst problem for an urban site.

Online in The Bay Citizen, July 23, 2010, “Emeryville Schools as a Model” by Gerry Shih described a plan to replicate a tiny school district’s successful improvement of reading and math scores on state tests in a moderately large, financially stressed, neighboring school district.  A strong superintendent with the ability to rally the families and businesses in a city with wide disparity in income and education may be able to improve reading and math abilities-a goal long out of reach for most students in Oakland.

In this blogger’s opinion, lost in the media’s latest news is the recent adoption of common core standards by 29 states as of July 27, 2010.  Right now in California, argument is going on about California’s highly-regarded rigorous standards, including introducing Algebra I in the 8th grade, compared to the core standards designed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative up for voluntary adoption by each state in the union.

Other than a refusal to adopt something new a la Alaska and Texas, criticism is useful to list.  Valerie Strauss‘ blog and Daniel Willingham, University of Virginia, remind everyone that Common Core Standards are not the magic dust that will make schools better.  First in any teacher’s mind is equitable resources needed to make the revised standards teachable.  Curriculum may need to be overhauled; teacher and administrator professional development needs to be provided; and time to revise lesson plans.  Not to forget that any state reform needs accurate data for rigorous comparisons of how the standards are implemented.  That means a lot of time spent on revising the assessments used by each state before any changes to teacher evaluation will be accepted.  Last, speed of improvement must be realistic-this blogger knows it takes years of determined collaboration to improve reading and math ability for a school full of students who enter unprepared for academic learning.

On the other hand, the advantages are worthwhile.  According to the Fordham Institute July 21, 2010, the English/Language Arts (ELA) standards are more clear and rigorous than 37 states’ current standards and more rigorous than 39 states’ math standards.  Higher Ed groups know that common standards will help college admissions, currently flailing at the mixture of applicants.

Rapid adoption of the standards means that the criticisms summarized above must be addressed just as rapidly.  Which means MONEY and while Race to the Top has been an unprecedented impetus to assert change, money will not be distributed equally among school districts that need the most help.

This sounds like wishful thinking, but one hopes over time a student entering a Los Angeles, California, school from another state will sit down and pick up what the fifth grade class is learning about the army George Washington and the colonial militias defeated.  No guessing, no “oh yeah, that’s what I meant,” every student’s hand shooting up, even the new child’s hand waving.

School Mandates Reform, a Golden Apple Worth Pursuing

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Summer vacation is half-over and students are still learning.  Sports camp, computer camp, theatre arts camp, science and math camp for girls, and newest of all, half-blood day camps for boys, who learn the Greek mythology stories while pursuing gorgons and Medusa in search of the Golden Apple.  Glory for all.  See New York Times, July 16, 2010, “What I Did at Camp: Followed Plot, Killed Gorgon, Saved World.”

If only the California Superintendent of Schools could climb Mt. Shasta-the local Mt. Olympus– to ask an oracle to speak with Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, dispose of nay-sayers with a swat of the sword, and snatch the Golden Fleece in order to save teachers from lay-offs when school begins-for some as soon as the second week in August.  The closest any state will come to finding the Golden Fleece is to win Race to the Top funds in the second round of federal grant disbursement.

If you were the Oracle what would you suggest to states in order to bring short term support for schools?  Remember, California alone has 6 million students with 174 districts financially distressed (San Jose Mercury News, July 5, 2010).  It is 44th lowest in dollars spent per student, and somewhere between 45-50th ranking in number of students per teacher-depending on how the ratio is determined.  No one option will be a magic cure.  Soon, all sources of funds for the state must be equitably reallocated.

Here are some options collected from various blogs, news articles, and reports.  The list emphasizes saving money.  Which options also do no harm to students and curriculum?  Suggestions were found in articles collected by Edsource.

Large school districts shorten the school year calendar, increase class sizes and lay off teachers.  The money saved supports the program left.  This is already happening.

Halt any facilities improvements to public schools, e.g. solar panels which initially cost a bunch although they save money over time.

Pass more parcel taxes to make up for lack of property taxes.  In the Los Altos area, one parcel tax to continue benefits to the high school district was passed in June and 2 more are proposed for the November ballot, one for the elementary district and one for the community college district.  The thought is that homeowners are more likely to support taxes for schools close by rather than taxes frittered, supposedly, by the state.  If only legislation would pass designating a 55% majority instead of a 2/3 vote.

How about the governor’s fix?  End the elected position of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and his/her department.  Only keep the governor-appointed position of Secretary of Education.

Drop sports from the budgets of the University of California and State University.  Lots of money saved to support liberal arts and engineering.

Finally, in February 2010 the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) distributed a proposal to reform unfunded school district mandates which eventually must be paid by the state.

Some mandates serve a purpose and are fundamental to the education of students, such as protection of student health and provision of essential assessment and oversight data.

Otherwise, the abundance of mandates legislated over the years should be eliminated; the reimbursement process simplified; or a different far-less-costly process designed to achieve the objective.  An example of a mandate to be eliminated is the requirement to submit physical education data which is already collected during financial audits.

It is estimated that this one reform measure could save the state $350 million or more a year and instead be used to address school needs that have statewide interest, produce results, and are worth the cost.

Here lies one substantial piece to reform school finance.  It may not be the Golden Fleece but surely a  Golden Apple is waiting to be picked up.

Colorado Amendments 60-61 and Prop 101 to bury us, but not in debt

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Proponents of three anti-tax initiatives in Colorado, known colloquially as the ‘three blind mice,’ argue that Colorado citizens are over-taxed and that state government is inherently wasteful. They make these claims even though Colorado ranks 46th lowest in combined state and local taxes.

Colorado revenues will take big hit with three initiatives
The ‘three blind mice‘ attack state revenues, already low from the recession and other constitutional amendments, in novel and imaginative ways.

  • Proposition 101 will cut $2 billion+ in car fees, income tax and phone bill rates. The vehicle ownership fee will plummet to $2, cutting funds directly out of school budgets.
  • Amendment 60 will cut local school property taxes by 50%; the state will have no money to backfill the loss. The amendment will also override previous local elections in which citizens voted to exempt themselves from the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) effects. Most inventive, citizens will be able to run elections to reduce their mill levy.
  • Amendment 61 will prohibit the state from using any debt for any reason. All capital expenses will have to be paid with cash, upfront. School districts that borrow from the state at 0% interest to cover payroll in the months when property tax collections are low will be prohibited from doing so. The school year in those districts would have to run from March to November when property tax dollars are highest. Winter will be the new summer.  (Colorado Blue Book on Amendments and Propositions)

Public school funding tanks since 1988

Colorado’s per student funding has dropped steadily in comparison to other states since 1988. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Colorado was $1397 below the national average in per-student funding in 2007, before the recession. In its 2010-11 budget, the Colorado legislature gouged out $354 million in prek-12 cuts, or $400 to $500 per student. 2011-12 looks no better, and may be worse.

Colorado Higher Ed funding 48th in the country
The legislature now allows state colleges to increase their tuition up to 9% per year to offset the state’s 48th ranking in per capita spending, which has plummeted to $159/year. Neighboring state Wyoming spends $709 per capita, New Mexico $581 per capita, Nebraska $404 per capita, Kansas $360 per capita, and Utah $296 per capita (State Higher Education Executive Officers, SHEEO). Even Mississippi substantially exceeds Colorado’s spending at $372 per capita.

Cheap car registration or very high college tuition for CO?
Voters face a huge choice in 2010. If the initiatives pass, the state will not be able to continue its school construction projects in the rural areas of the state authorized by the legislature. School districts will not be able to do capital improvements without cash on hand. There will be no more physical improvements to the University of Colorado medical facility and no money for more construction at any state college or university.

On the other hand, vehicle registration will be really, really cheap and Colorado will have no new debt.


Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

When the days are long and fruit and flowers bloom, an abundance of articles about various school issues pop up in the newspapers and on websites.

USA Today (6/7/10) had a brief synopsis of reports saying that black students have moved to suburban schools in the Dallas, Texas, area.  Hispanic students have filled their places in the Dallas school district.  Another example of families who have become knowledgeable and made decisions to help their children.  Such a demographic move has happened many times all over the country and stands for one reason it is difficult to stick to the same old program forever.

The New York Times (7-3-10 “World Focus Is Gaining Favor in High Schools” by Tamar Lewin) described the International Baccalaureate (IB) program favored in several high schools as an alternative to the more common Advanced Placement (AP) programs.  The IB is a rigorous model to capture the attention of students who may want a balanced curriculum in a small group setting that also impresses college admission officers.  The emphasis is on philosophies worldwide, not separate academic subjects like AP courses.  Interesting that the article did not describe the variety of high schools across the nation that have instituted the IB model for many years, like California’s San Jose High School with many Hispanic students and some Denver schools with an IB program from upper elementary to high school.

The Nation (6-14-10) brought out its education issue “A new vision for school reform” with fact and opinion by a number of well-known education writers.  For this blog writer, the most unsettling conclusion came from Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University, who, in her view of the legislation in the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) emphasizes “competition and sanctions as the primary drivers of reform rather than capacity building and strategic investments.”

Perhaps the despair of the teachers unions, both AFT and NEA, is the outcome of the quote above.  At their recent combined convention in New Orleans both union presidents seemed vexed about charter schools, teacher evaluation, and anti-union comment mainly made by conservative legislators.  The vote in the House of Representatives to commit $10 billion more dollars to reduce teacher lay-offs and other delays in school budgets, but the US Department of Education’s unhappiness in taking money from Race to the Top funds to pay for it, infuriated the unions.  See The New York Times “New Tension in Obama’s Ties to Teachers” by Sam Dillon, 7-5-10.

Closer to home, San Francisco is in the process of closing a middle school and overhauling 9 other schools, all hit by California’s determination to transform its low-performing schools-the good thing about the federal reform effort.  If only the school transformations will emphasize Darling-Hammond’s “capacity building and strategic investments.”  See San Francisco Chronicle “S.F. to shut school, overhaul 9 others” by Jill Tucker (7-3-10).

Now what about the litigation sent to court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Los Angeles in February and by the California School Boards Association et al (CSBA) in May, also known as Robles-Wang vs. California?  The ACLU suit was to hold off Los Angeles teacher lay-offs in low-performing schools, and the CSBA suit was written to force the California legislature to restructure school funding to finance the requirements of education legislation.

Nothing has happened since the May 13, 2010, injunction in Los Angeles (see 6-2-10 post).  The California Assembly is proposing a California Jobs Budget which will stave off shortages in school funding for a year and still make up the $19 billion state budget shortfall.  We’ll see how long it takes to pass this year.