Archive for April, 2011

Same Test, Incomparable Results

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

The once-a-year test will appear on students’ desks any day now. The school day will turn topsy-turvy to accommodate testing schedules. The exam-specified amount of time to complete each section must be provided while supervising speedy high-achieving students who are bored out of their mind and waiting for more deliberate test-takers to finish.

Death Valley Academy High School

Death Valley Academy High School

In California, since the No Child Left Behind Act was legislated, the exam switched from a generic standardized type summative test (assess all that has been learned in the current year and recalled from the past).  Now, a criterion-referenced summative exam with questions that reflect the California curriculum standards taught at each grade level is the model. Note that analysis of results gives you a lot of numbers and percentages, but the school’s or student’s results tell you little more than high-performing or low-performing.

Why is that true?

Think about Death Valley Academy High School in the tiny town of Shoshone, Inyo County, California. Hot, dry climate and desert flora and fauna. Expect to see a roadrunner on occasion. Two community colleges and one all-male private college are located in the area.

Think of Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, north end of Santa Clara County, California’s Silicon Valley. Temperate weather, the remains of fruit orchards, and hills just right for cattle and mountain lions. Five universities and three community colleges are located nearby.

In 2010 on testing days, Death Valley Academy High School had a total of 35 students, grades 7-12. Seventeen students took the exam. The school wide proficiency for English/Language Arts (ELA) was 52.9%–9 students. The Math proficiency was 47.1%–8 students. Under statistical modifications for very small schools, DVHS met the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets and received a California Academic Performance Index (API) scale score of 766. One hundred percent of the students graduate.

Look further. With 35 students and 7 staff members, all but one or two students should be proficient. Reviews tout the one-on-one assistance provided. DVHS receives school-wide federal Title I funds, based on the income levels of the families. However, some students must take a bus 60 miles to reach school. Less than half of the parents have any college education. English, math, history is provided, Driver’s Education, Spanish, PE, and Art. There is an athletic director and a girls’ volleyball coach. No tutoring or English language assistance was listed. There are so few Hispanic or Native American students, they are not even disaggregated in the AYP data, normally a huge factor in assigning scores to call a school high- or low-performing.

In 2010, Palo Alto High had 1850 students and over 100 teachers, grades 8-12. Four hundred seventy-two students were tested and received a California API score of 896. The AYP school-wide data showed 89.8% student ELA proficiency and 90% Math proficiency. With a high number of white and Asian students whose families are well-off technology company workers and Stanford University faculty, the graduation rate is 98%. Eighty-eight percent attend 2-4 year colleges and 79% go directly to 4 year colleges.

The school has 3 counselors, a librarian, psychologist, Speech/language therapist, and 5 Resource Specialists to address the needs of the socially diverse student demographics. The website shows several schedules, 20 AP classes, daily bulletins, myriad student activities, and an email tab for parents. No wonder the school does well, even with the strained budgets in the state’s distressed fiscal climate.

How are students in a tiny out-of-the-way school in Death Valley going to compete with high-achieving, well-supported students in Silicon Valley? API and AYP numbers do little but indicate the need for help.

Rather than bicker over small sums for vouchers or tenure for a quick fix, look at demographics and geography to determine solutions.

On Not Vouching for Vouchers

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

You’d think the anxiety about debt, deficit, revenue, and spending cuts would leave school vouchers, one of the bugaboos of public education, to molder in the corner behind the trash containers.

Recall the ruckus to settle a budget for the entire United States government (only until October 2011) in which the Obama administration negotiators actually held onto a good number of education programs ready to be hooked and tossed into the education budget garbage bin by conservative players in the game. Notably, Title I grants, special education state grants, Race to the Top (RTTT) competitive-grant programs, Investing in Innovation (i3), Head Start, Pell Grants, and Promise Neighborhoods Initiative remained, mostly unscathed.

But, House Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) and his cadre, slipped in a measure to reinstate the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship program, euphemism for vouchers of up to $12000 for a low-income student to attend a private school. OK, the measure does provide some aid for Washington, D.C. public and charter schools also.

Did you figure out why House of Representative billion dollar slashers would put funds back into an education program? The ideological love for parochial school education and “choice” are the often heard reasons. Also “competition” for funds would force schools to improve academic achievement in order to keep funds on the school district balance sheets. Back to the school system as “marketplace.”

Three school systems in the U. S. have passed and maintained legislation to provide student vouchers, also called “tuition tax credits” by Ronald Reagan and “school choice” by economist Milton Friedman. Milwaukee-1990, Cleveland-1995, and the entire state of Florida-1999 have voucher programs touted as an alternative to help to low-income students attend private and parochial schools with better academic success.

As yet, after 25 years, studies of schools with voucher students have not shown significant gains in student achievement, the main goal in school reform efforts. However, parents who apply for the vouchers for their children cite the desire for schools where students behave and where students graduate from high school. In D.C. students in voucher programs do have better graduation rates than students in public schools.

Five talking points on vouchers are promoted on the National Education Association (NEA) website. In brief, 1) as stated above, vouchers don’t mean gains in student achievement. 2) Voucher schools have almost no accountability in place for the public funds that are siphoned off. 3) Vouchers don’t reduce the cost of public school education, but ask tax payers to fund two systems, public and private/parochial. 4) Parents must search around to find real “choice” in private and parochial schools which, for example, maintain exceedingly high admissions requirements and fees far above the voucher sum. 5) Surveys show that the public prefers spending their scarce taxes to improve the schools in the public system.

Linked here is an article by Mike Winerip, August 8, 2010, from the New York Times which examined public schools in Boston who applied for and are instigating turn-around programs which use tax dollars exactly as stated above. As most programs in which improvement begins to show significant results, these schools have implemented teacher leadership, teacher training, smaller classes, ongoing staff development, collaboration, and adequate resources to support the needs of the variety of children. It is difficult, relentless work to assure failing schools improve.

Furthermore, for anyone interested in justice for all,

“We have to be careful not to succumb to this nonsense that a public system is inherently flawed and that therefore we have to turn to the marketplace for solutions. I’ve never in my entire life seen any evidence that the competitive free market, unrestricted, without a strong counterpoise within the public sector, will ever dispense decent medical care, sanitation, transportation, or education to the people. It’s as simple as that.”

–Jonathan Kozol, author of “Savage Inequalities” and “Amazing Grace.”

For more on school vouchers, google Rethinking Schools, for a slew of articles.

Duck and Cover! Earthquake!

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Since 1989 when the last big earthquake at 7.1 on the Richter seismic scale rocked the Bay Area in Northern California, every school child has been sensitive to sustained rumbles. Even a four-year-old preschooler pushes the chair back and searches for a place under the table, not waiting for the “Duck and cover!” warning to blast over the PA system.

Earthquake drills are practiced in this state as often as fire drills, that is, all a student’s school life. The child may not understand the mathematical calculation to decide the strength of the temblor, but they know what to do. Though the 1950’s practice of “Duck and cover” in case of a nuclear attack was futile, earthquakes are real and procedures to protect oneself have proven to help.

Once buildings, furniture, and lighting fixtures stop shifting and swaying, and broken glass settles to the floor, the long list of procedures that all schools follow has long been established. The class lines up with coats and packets of food rations and first aid supplies. Students and teacher walk outside and sit in a designated spot on the grass to wait for further instructions. Attendance is taken. Designated staff are assigned to search for trapped children; establish an emergency triage room; and implement a system of rescue procedures. However, even the 1906 San Francisco earthquake catastrophe was not 9.0, a movement of the earth in Japan that is difficult to imagine.

The question in any school official’s head has been “what if?”

After the disastrous 1933 Long Beach earthquake in Southern California when 230 schools were severely damaged or destroyed, legislation was passed to create the Field Act. The legislation improved the regulations for school design and oversight of construction. Seventy-eight years later the law is still in effect.

In these days of antagonism toward regulation, critics say there is too much detailed paperwork. Others say the rules duplicate other building codes. Builders are weary of delay while waiting for inspections and action by the California state architect’s office. Now, why is there such delay?

Look at two examples of delay recognized by school personnel. Paperwork in the state architect’s office, show detailed unresolved problems with construction materials. Immediately comes to mind the photos of the school in Sichuan, China that was built with cheap shoddy materials, demolished in the 8.0 earthquake in May 2008.

Then there is the complaint from facilities superintendents in school district offices that inspections required by the Field Act have simply not been made. “Enforcement has been plagued by bureaucratic chaos,” according to Corey G. Johnson, April 7, 2011, from California Watch that has investigated the concerns just as the horrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan made the research more vital.

The answer to “delay” is m-o-n-e-y. In 1991, then-Governor Pete Wilson and the California legislature shifted $6.5 million from the Division of the State Architect to fund other uses which immediately overloaded the work for inspectors. Then in 1998 Proposition 1A approved funds for massive school construction. Propositions to improve and construct schools have passed regularly, leaving the state architect’s office sitting on a pile of uninspected projects. In 2008, facing a shortfall in the California budget, then-Governor Schwarzneggar borrowed $60 million from the Architect’s office and repaid only $10 million. In 2010 Schwarzneggar supported legislation to disband the Field Act, an attempt to save money for other uses. The Field Act survived.

So, 6+ million California school children study in schools of which one in ten have earthquake danger. One hopes that the state budget gets straightened out, so the state architect’s office can proceed with inspection and construction before the big one arrives.

In the meantime, California Watch has produced a coloring book called “Ready to Rumble” for little kids, to remind them to “Duck and Cover” when the shaking starts.

The Summit: Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Public education funding in Colorado will decline $1000/per child per year from its high point in 2008 to its projected low point in 2013-14.  The $5600 per student funding in 2003 will be the state’s starting point in 2013.  It’s unknown when the state will return to its $6600 per student funding high hit in 2008.

School budgets going backward in Colorado

School districts across the state will see many more years of declining revenue because roughly 35 percent of school funding comes from property tax.  Property values have decreased, lowering the contribution from property tax payers to public schools.  These revenues will not return until property values increase, and with property appraisals occurring on a two year cycle, a decade may go by before districts get back to their 2008 level.

The state must backfill lost property tax revenue, but it doesn’t have any money either.  The budget gap for public school funding is still to be decided, but it will be somewhere between $250 million to $330 million in 2011-2012, and not any better in 2012-13.  All of this is depressing news, but sometimes out of darkness comes light.

Jefferson County Schools hit hard by cuts

Jefferson County School District, the largest in the state with 85,000 students and 14,000 employees, will be hard hit by the budget gap – at about $71 million in 2011-2012.  The district has $30 million in reserves, but still needs $40 million in additional cuts.  Jeffco was in the middle of its traditional negotiations when it received word from the state about the $40 million gap.

Necessity is the mother of invention.  The school board president, superintendent, and president of the teachers’ union were at a conference discussing new ways of dealing with school reform.  The three heard a presentation on a new negotiation process.  They decided to try it.

District tries new negotiation strategy; good things happen

Called the Summit, the negotiation brought together two board members, two members of the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA), two members from the Jefferson County Administrators Association (JCAA), two members from the CSEA (Classified Service Employees Association), and the superintendent.  They worked with a federal administrator over three days and seventeen hours to complete an agreement.  The agreement foundation was this: take the whole deal or start over.

With so much at stake, the negotiators hunkered down.  They discussed salaries, work days, class sizes, transportation needs, fees, and programs.  They evaluated school closings.  Collectively, they put together a package to take to association groups and the Board.

Hard choices made together

They recommended closing two elementary schools, shutting down the District’s Outdoor Lab program in the Rockies, reducing salaries by three percent, taking six days out of the school year (four professional development days and two furlough days), charging for bus transportation, and boosting sports fees.

No one is happy, but most realize that it’s the best deal for the times.  One board member disagrees. She wants to take more out of salaries, reduce the district’s contribution to retirement plans, and hold employees to the 2010 work year calendar.  The Board, however, supported the negotiation in a 4-1 vote.

The Jeffco School Board will present the plan to the community in April and will vote on the final budget in May.  So far, the negotiations are well-received.  This successful process will probably form the new template for Jefferson County School District to manage its budget and employee relations.