Archive for May, 2011

Winding Down

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

The 2010-2011 public school year winds down as students, parents, and school boards spend the final weeks rounding up support to keep programs going in the fall.

parents and their children at a Colorado school

parents and their children at a Colorado school

The small parochial school Ventana in Los Altos, California, has made the local news and spends time soothing neighbors about the expansion of student enrollees. Sounds like a good thing, but it means more cars roaming the streets on the way to drop students off and louder play yard noise. A neighborhood meeting at Christ Episcopal Church on May 23, 2011, hoped to overcome the not-in-my-backyard concerns.

Let’s look at the curriculum that makes school a lively place-libraries, art, music, theater, sports. Did you read about high school students busking in subway stations to garner cash for the music program at the high school? Did you see the photo of kindergartners loping around the racetrack in the fundraiser for the library at a school in San Rafael? Cupertino schools are in their second cycle of high-hopes fund raising with the help of community businesses who pass on a small percent of total sales for a day to the Education Fund. See “Parents, faculty, students go all out” by Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle, May 23, 2011, for more summer plans. Are you reminded of the tune “Money Makes the World Go Round?”

In the meantime, special education support for every single student hits an obstacle course when public schools must provide funding that is not available for the expensive education needs of severely handicapped students–physically disabled, autistic, behavior disability due to drug toxicity. While the policies to serve these students are laudable, school districts look at the cost, and no matter the legal outcome, no one wins. See “Parents Battle School Districts for Special Support” by Trey Bundy, The Bay Citizen, May 22, 2011. A cake walk at the school carnival is not going to do the trick.

Across the country in Levittown, Pennsylvania, the school board can only express dismay when the state funds and federal stimulus funds dry up–on which the Bristol Township School District relied. What a way to close around your schools at the end of a successful year. A district that had followed No Child Left Behind requirements and finally had pulled up the student achievement levels in its failing schools, finds itself with a $10 million shortfall for next year. The loss of funds means cutting programs, teachers, tutors-all that helped students improve.  Dog shows, bake sales, walk-a-thons won’t provide $10 million. Not even a gift from the Bill Gates Foundation would keep the schools going over time. It’s the economy, everyone. The entire sad tale is found in The New York Times, May 22, 2011, “The Math of Heartbreak” by Michael Sokolove.

Finally in The Atlantic, June 2011, you can read Joel Klein’s “Scenes from the Class Struggle.” His job as New York City Superintendent of Schools has wound down via resignation, but his opinions are flying high. He begins with statistics from national and state test scores which are not good. He moves on to describe the divisions in our society because of economic policies favoring the wealthy and turning away from the underclass. Politics in Congress, state legislatures, and unions are blameworthy.

The section describing the rationale to attract new, well-educated, conscientious teachers was most interesting and plausible. He suggests realigning the salary scales to front-load compensation for new teachers, encouraging them to continue. Eliminate automatic step increases as employees stay in the system. Provide opportunities for bonuses when taking on any of the necessary additional activities in a public school. For example, attending student study teams or leading data analysis study or agreeing to be designated teacher when the principal is away. In addition, negotiate decent pensions, but no longer so great that teachers hang on just to claim the benefits with no system in place to show accountability for student success.

Of course, Klein was speaking of the over-all national problems circling around school reform no matter how big or small the district. School boards will nod their combined heads in agreement; then turn to huddle about scraping up $5 to $10 million before September 2011.

Money Trickles In

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

After rambunctious teacher demonstrations last week from San Diego to Humboldt, California, the news has changed. Not a mere hopeful whisper, the April state tax revenues have actually been tallied in California (and many other states). School districts, at least for the 2011-2012 year, won’t see further slice and slash to their funds.

Teachers have already been notified by union negotiators that announcements will soon be made to withdraw lay-off notifications. The sigh of relief is more like a cumulative whoosh. No one was looking forward to next year and its combination of draconian cuts in services.

A brief update of why: during the first days of the 2007-2008 recession, state budgets were too optimistic about turn around in revenues. That error was soon obvious and so legislative budgets set cautious estimates, too cautious as it turns out. In California, it’s possible that $6.6 billion more revenue will be collected than last year, most of which will go to fulfill the state’s formula for funding schools.

As the demonstrations last week clamored, even while rumors made the rounds, the state still has a large imbalance to the budget. The tax legislation that will sunset this year must be extended to begin to balance the state budget over time.  But the conflict over spending cuts vs. raising revenue remains.

At the state and federal level, for whom and to where money is allocated continues to hurt the actual detailed reforms that numerous public school think tanks wish to implement. It has been a year since Congress began to fiddle with revisions to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known since 2002 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Teachers unions want changes to testing, student achievement benchmarks, and accountability. Most conservatives in Congress want to cut various programs funded by ESEA as a way to reduce the deficit. Others feel the state and local Departments of Education should take all the responsibility for flexible dispersal of funds in a state.

The last possibility affects federal Title I monies for disadvantaged children and Title II funds for English Language Learners. How will compromise be made when the National Education Association (NEA) sees that flexible use for those monies only means disadvantaged and ELL students will be short-changed as states try to balance budgets?

Most education think tanks that want to see reform begin, advocate for fully-funded models. Any kind of evaluation is for teachers, administrators, and school boards, including tenure issues. Plans must be clearly designed to support teachers, administrators, and school board members not meeting standards.

Now, with conflicts in many states between teachers and public employees’ benefits and pensions and state legislatures effort to decrease deficits, it seems improbable to bring reforms into the public schools.

Let’s hope the increase in tax revenue isn’t ephemeral, but the forefront of an improved economy.

(See article about tax revenues in The New York Times, May 18, 2011, “For States, a Glimmer of Hope on Deficits” by Michael Cooper.)

Teachers March On!

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Time to mobilize California’s education community.  When describing the events planned, California Teachers Association (CTA) president, David Sanchez, said, “enough is enough.”

Activities at schools and district offices all over the state will culminate Saturday, May 14, with demonstrations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and a sit-in in Sacramento. The Capitol building steps are perfect–long, wide steps that allow plenty of room to gather.

Expect lots of signs, sound bites, and teachers on street corners. On the news, watch teachers in school T-shirts marching down boulevards and calling out the legislators who insist that passage of the tax extensions by ballot or by legislative vote is not the way to balance the 2011-2012 budget.

Speaking of which, Friday, May 6, 2011, the California Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee met in Silicon Valley. The hearing, one of many up and down the state, settled in at one of Microsoft’s mega-campus conference rooms in Mountain View. Besides five members of the Senate committee and three panels- higher education, business leaders, and K-12 education-with three speakers on each panel, there were about fifty community members who attended.

Reports of the revenue still needed to balance the state’s budget for 2011-2012 range from $12.4 billion to $15.4 billion. The amount depends on whether one counts $1 billion in state reserves and a $2.5 billion increase in state revenues-unexpected, but possible.

With those numbers in mind, each panel of speakers  expressed in detail the distress for each community: public colleges and universities, technology companies of any kind, and public elementary and secondary schools. If you are certain that charter schools and vouchers are going to save the public schools in California, think again–the numbers still apply.

This state alone serves one of every eight students in the United States-6 million children. If the 2011-2012 budget is balanced on the back of students at $4 billion more in spending cuts, classroom size for kindergarten-grade 2 students will move from 30 to 32, upper elementary class size from 32-35. The numbers are worse for secondary, community college, and universities as teachers are laid off.

Don Moser, Evergreen Union High School District Superintendent, reminded the gathering that students who will graduate in 2012 will have studied while fiscal services were cut from under them every year they attended secondary school.

All nine panelists exhorted the members of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Committee to balance the state budget with both revenue increases and spending cuts, not just cuts. Furthermore, speakers implored the legislators to come to grips with a long term budget plan. Education communities cannot struggle on to improve academic success for students unless funding is stabilized.

Even the most conservative committee member put down his iphone when the Franklin-McKinley School District Superintendent, John Porter, spoke. He said that after considering all the alternatives if more billions are slashed, it may be just as well to shut schools down in April next year and keep a decent program going until then.

Porter wondered why the United States can’t consider children national treasures, like children in Denmark?

March on! Let the legislature know what teachers think! Pass the tax extensions. Stop more cuts.

Testing and Teacher Appreciation

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Who would have noticed that the yearly summative California Standards Test (CST) would bump into Teacher Appreciation Week?

My high-achieving fourth graders spent 2 ½ mornings last week taking the practice exam and the English/Language Arts tests. The sections cover vocabulary, grammar, spelling rules, reading comprehension passages, and choosing correctly written passages. They often combine all of the separate skills in the questions for a reading passage. Enough to give anyone a headache, but my class gamely pushed through the sections.

At the end, the majority claimed “it was easy.” I looked at some of the passages, and for most of these students it was easy. I already know they are all proficient at reading books with lexiles (reading levels) established at 4th grade level. In fact, many read books that I didn’t care for until middle school. On the other hand, I know that some teachers in my Master’s classes are teaching students with far different backgrounds. For those students, the test is grueling.

This week we’ll spend two days traversing the mathematics sections of the yearly exam. For most of my students, many of whom are from Asian backgrounds whose parents value strong math skills, they will easily perform at a proficient or advanced level.

Still, I was confounded last week when we did find time for math: how to figure out surface area for a three-dimensional object. Something about looking at all those sides disturbed the students’ understanding of the question. It’s really easy to find the area of a surface, but finding the areas of multiple surfaces and adding up the sums was difficult for some. They just couldn’t see in their heads what a visual of the figure told them, especially if all sides weren’t visible.

By the fourth day of review, most finally had the concept, but a few continued to ask what to do. I never say ‘just do this;’ I ask the student to think back and tell me what to do. It was hard to believe that some looked at me with dismay. Just shows that not all students grasp ideas at the same rate. Like me as a student; I was a terrible speller until one day in middle school I suddenly knew the rules.

Now, other than intense effort to complete the tests, the week during lunch and after school will be a joy. Parents bring wonderful breakfast and lunch buffets. Students bring little handmade cards and gifts. The community loves us and doesn’t want anything to happen to the benefits for their children. I know we’re lucky, but in most communities, parents are protective of their schools.

I read a teacher appreciation letter from Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U. S. Department of Education, in Edweek, my on-line resource for what’s going on outside of my classroom. He wrote what the parents in my school feel, I think. “You rightfully believe that responsibility for educational quality should be shared by administrators, community, parents, and even students themselves.”

Completely different from the articles in newspapers and on blogs where teachers are blamed for everything. Duncan also said we “are frustrated when teachers alone are blamed for educational failures that have roots in broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded school systems.”

It certainly frustrates me that legislators conclude ‘collective bargaining’ or ‘benefits’ explains why states are short of money.  Our district is in the middle of a special election to extend the parcel tax used to keep the schools going. This is no frivolous venture. It will be a teacher appreciation gift if the parcel tax bill passes. Maybe we’ll keep our jobs.