Archive for November, 2010

Give Us a Break

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Don’t lose perspective says Nicholas Kristof in the 10/31/10 issue of the New York Times.  Until 2008 we had only No Child Left Behind aka NCLB (the current name for the Elementary and Secondary School Act) which has been roundly criticized in education circles in spite of the initial bipartisan send off as the new century began.

By now, in California and other states minority groups form the majority.  See the San Francisco Chronicle November 17, 2010, “When minorities are the majority” by Arun Ramanathan.  You didn’t see this happening? Our education for those students is no longer the old style sit-in-your-seat-and-drink-it-in model.

middle school renovated after a bond passed

middle school renovated after a bond passed

It isn’t even the model that mostly white student schools use nowadays, especially when students reach middle school and begin to lag behind, if they haven’t already.  For anyone, studies describe what works.  For instance, Edsource‘s report “Gaining Ground in the Middle School: Why Some Schools Do Better.”  You can leave it, but if you’re looking to change, you’d be wise to take it.

The latest anxiety is teacher education, never mind that educators have been hollering about it since the 1983 report Nation At Risk.  Give us a break–it’s a favorite worry of those who like to blame all on weak teachers.  If only teacher’s unions would let the experts get rid of “bad” teachers.  If only teacher training was upgraded.

The United States does need to look at what other nations do to find good teachers, accepting high quality scholars would help.  Raising salaries would help.  Training in critical thinking, problem solving, effective communication, and collaboration would help.  All were points made by Thomas Friedman in his Sunday, November 21, 2010, New York Times column titled “Teaching For America.”

Does the world think teacher training-whether pre-service or staff development– isn’t happening?  Does anyone think that various school boards haven’t analyzed the compensation issue, realizing that the old “steps” approach no longer works?  Do teaching institutions not try to accept the best?

Here is what everyone doesn’t remember.  In America individual states can listen to the federal government, but their decisions are made depending are where they are regionally and demographically in the country.  No one can tell all states to change.

The federal Department of Education can offer grants like Race to the Top which have excellent guidelines.  The president can be correct when he reminds the 300 million citizens of the U.S. that being well-educated is what makes a country strong.  The governors of the 50 states can designate a commission to come up with Common Core Standards and ask, but not require, the states to teach them.

However, three main things must be done no matter where you live.  State departments of education, school boards, and teachers must address the accountability issue and the assessments used to evaluate accountability.

They must address the gap in achievement for the minorities that are now the majority of traditional public, many charter public, and even parochial schools in this diverse country.  Every week another model is given accolades.

Last, state departments of education, school boards, and teachers must find a way out of the financial mess.  Whether it’s through changes in the pension system, a different road for compensation, changes in the structure of a particular school district, or the realignment of school districts, anything can be tried.  Keeping what is already there without paying is not an option.

The obstacle is to get states or regions in a state to agree on any of them.

Zoom to the Wide Picture

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Every day, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and blogs write as if the journalist had the answer to the education crisis in the United States.

It could be the person against teacher’s unions and all they’ve done in the past or will do in the future. Perhaps it is an evaluation of the past and future of the latest superintendent to resign-think D.C. and New York.  Read Newsweek, October 25, 2010 and the New York Times, daily last week as well as November 17, 2010.

It could be the latest bit of hand-wringing from, say, Education Week, on-line and hard copy magazine, that has an article giving a warning about the misuse of formative testing, another warning about Common Core Standards, a warning about easing the NCLB rules, and a current piece on teacher pre-service training.  It could be about the use of the Bible as a text, Newsweek, October 25.  Perhaps it’s the distinction between funding according to the church and state doctrine of the Constitution.  See the opinion article about Arizona in the New York Times, November 5, 2010, and even the TV excerpt during the election season depicting Christine O’Donnell’s lack of knowledge about the Constitution.

Once in awhile as in Newsweek, November 8, 2010, a short article about closing the achievement gap appears which is a genuine problem in the United States.  Of course, depending on the state, the gap can refer to Hispanic students, Native American students, and/or African-American students.  See Bob Herbert’s column “This Raging Fire” in the New York Times, November 16, 2010.

Every so often, an article will address the issue of teacher accountability and using “tests” as the marker of a good or “bad” teacher.  See “Teachers should not be judged on test scores alone” by Sandra Dean and Valerie Zeigler in the San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 2010.  The article refers to the Los Angeles Times use of a summative test to evaluate grade 3 and 4 LA Unified teachers.  While there is some validity in the concept described in the LA Times, the Chronicle article outlines specific ways that teachers can and should be evaluated.

The big debate that readers rarely see in the news is the fiscal issue for schools all over the country as states struggle with budgets. Right now as 111th Congress sits down in a lame-duck session, members are voting on the tax issue of $700 billion.  Should wealthy Americans contribute more to the federal budget-i.e. their tax rate goes back to what it was in 2000, while the middle income and poor people contribute their share and no more?  The argument rages, but in perspective, $700 billion means 12 million jobs can be approved, private and public.  Everyone in Congress knows that teachers and construction workers are necessary, two areas of employment that will not evaporate and that influence all citizens.

John Muir Elementary in San Francisco is an example of one local school that has been lucky enough to qualify for funds, even though California is one of the states in the worst financial disaster. Know why? It is one of the 188 lowest performing schools in the state and must be helped by stimulus funds from the federal Department of Education.

Suddenly, as stated in the San Francisco Chronicle front page article “Reversal of Fortune” by Jill Tucker, November 13, 2010, the school has money for something simple like chart paper, as well as a literacy coach, staff development, and a new principal whose focus is literacy, the basis for lack of achievement.  The school has three years of substantial funding.  From experience there will be a major change quickly and then the school will need to stand firm to overcome the factors that remain obstacles to achievement.

Voucher choice as a bad choice

Friday, November 12th, 2010

School districts across the country are sucking eggs with their 2011-2012 budgets.  It’s no different in Colorado.

Largest Colorado District budget down $50million+ by 2012

Jefferson County School District (Jeffco), the largest district in Colorado, will reduce its expenses by about $50 million, offset by about $30 million in reserve reductions.  That leaves about $20 million in actual cuts, which translates to about 196 jobs and various other trims.

By 2012-2013, the District’s expenses will have declined $50 million from the 2008-2009 budget year, the high water mark.  In other words, the 6000 children who entered kindergarten in Jeffco this year will be educated with significantly fewer dollars than the children lucky enough to have entered school five years ago.

Douglas County District down $100 million by 2012

Douglas County School District in the south Denver metro area will also have cut its budget by about $100 million over four years. Douglas County didn’t have the big reserves of Jeffco to help buffer the downturn.

Even so, the Douglas County school board is examining school choice and has resurrected vouchers as an option for kids and their parents.  Douglas County has four private schools located within the district, all Christian schools.  The idea is to give parents 3/4 of the state’s per/pupil funding as a voucher to use at one of these private schools.  Colorado provides $6545 per student, which ranks 48th in state per/pupil funding compared to all other states-worse than California.

Douglas County Schools paid $8165 to Eric Hall, a Colorado Springs lawyer who was instrumental in passing a Colorado school voucher program in 2003 to develop a policy known as the Option Certificate Program.  The 2003 voucher system was tossed by the Colorado Supreme Court as violating the section of the state’s constitution that forbids public money to go to religious schools.  Known as the Blaine Amendment, this section was originally written to keep Catholic parochial schools off the public dime.

According to the Douglas County School Board’s president, Republican John Carson, Attorney Hall assures the district that this voucher program will work.  Count numerous residents of Douglas County dubious.  Elizabeth Celania-Fagan, the recently hired superintendent, sent an email to parents saying the option is a “draft recommendation” and “there have been no decisions made.”  Douglas District would lose $4908 per student, keep $1637.

Taking $4908 per student out of the Douglas County District’s budget would represent a big hit to the district’s public school teachers and a big help to the local private Christian schools.  In general, parents can’t complain about Douglas County school results, as the district is one of the highest performing in the state.  Its teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, has accepted alternative compensation packages and the district as a whole is considered forward-looking.  The union supported SB10-191, a bill to include performance metrics in the teacher and principal evaluation and compensation system.

This school board, however, is only a year old, and all Republican.  These board members swept out the previous mixed board in November 2009 on a school choice platform.  District parents may be getting more choice than they want at a time when any lost dollars will be expensive for district performance. “I don’t like this idea at all,” said Karen Ricker, mother of a first grader.  What’s wrong with the schools now?  Public funds shouldn’t be used for private schools.”

The first meeting on the proposal is today, November 12.  The first public comment will be November 16.  It’s certain that the board meeting will be packed and lively.  All Colorado School Board meetings are taped.  This one will be worth listening to.

Preschool to High School and Tests to Finish

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Presentations on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for Girls; radio and TV programs on pre-school as a support to improve student chances to finish high school and go to college; local measures to vote for and reports on the financial needs of community colleges have hit the ears of those interested in education over the past two weeks.

Look at pre-school.

The term pre-school which can address any child from 0-5, generally refers to 4 and 5 year olds when attached to fiscal budget talk.  The programs include well-known names such as private schools Waldorf or Montessori and also federally funded Head Start.

It seems confusing when studies conclude that Head Start (a model with the same goals as most private programs) loses influence after primary grades.  So why continue funding it?  Still, pre-school is touted as a characteristic of students concluding community college and students doing well on standardized tests.  See the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) for more information.  In addition, several states are including legislation for universal pre-school this election year.

This election year, at least in California and Colorado, numerous propositions and measures address community colleges, the latest savior of public higher education.  These schools would be super if funded adequately.  In this blogger’s view, the public seems to think such schools are free entitlements.  Community colleges in California depend on parcel taxes which need to be approved by 2/3 of the voters.  Very difficult to accomplish in a conservative area, despite the fact that one of the most renowned community colleges is situated in the area with students who transfer to Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz.  See the Los Altos Town Crier November 3, 2010, article by Bruce Barton, “Community College Parcel Tax Headed for Defeat.”

Last, there is a continuous stream of articles about testing, telling us that our children need to attend pre-school and find the support services in elementary, middle, and high school to graduate.  All of these services are available even in the poorest areas, but a good test is the key for accountability of a student’s achievement, of a teacher’s value.

Referring to the latest article “Correct answer is rigorous, new exams,” by Miki Litmanovitz of Teach for America, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, October 31, 2010, refers to standardized tests.  What does she mean?  In California, for example, the yearly exam is a criterion-referenced test, supposedly better because it addresses the standards taught by teachers in the state, not some norm-referenced test which standardized tests are.

Her second big issue seems to be ‘teaching to the test’.  Without going into the details of that issue, most educators hope to teach strategies for reading and math as Ms. Litmanovitz concludes, so that no matter the level of test, the student will over time use those strategies to do well.  One can work on test-taking strategies, used by all SAT preparation to raise scores, and learn the kinds of questions likely to be asked on a criterion-referenced or norm-referenced exam.

Still the mid-term elections, November 2, have played a role in the educator’s visions.  As part of Elementary and Secondary Education ACT (ESEA), will tests be changed to evaluate how students have learned to read and do math?  Will students graduate and have a community college to attend?  Will pre-school be available to all?