Archive for September, 2011

Open School Doors for Little Ones

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

In thirty-four months since January 21, 2009, thought in the education world has changed dramatically.

For instance, San Francisco Unified has become a field test district with a 3-year grant from S.D. Bechtel Foundation to try out Common Core Math Standards agreed to by 45 states in the U.S. (See “New take on math-will it add up?” by Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle, September 27, 2011). The common core standards were developed from the haphazard standards of 50 individual states, revised and aligned with the guidance of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the oversight of the National Governors’ Association. To be sure, the standards can’t be mistaken for a takeover by the federal government.

Data driven analysis of student and school improvement has been adopted by many states. The talk is about how to evaluate teacher and school progress-not whether to evaluate. To the consternation of many, Oakland Public Schools in California, troubled for years, is planning to shut five schools in its effort to improve finances and the achievement of its students. On the other hand, legislation set in California to allow parent choice to get rid of staff, move to another school, or set up a charter school is coming about in low-income Compton USD.

And not least, the offer by the U.S. Department of Education to look at state plans to improve schools is an effort to provide a realistic chance to see student achievement mandated by No Child Left Behind. The adequate yearly progress (AYP) benchmarks, long seen as unlikely for every child to reach, can now be modified-not to fall back into the easy rut, but to set flexible and achievable goals.

Two news stories about four and five year olds beginning school should make anyone with interest in the world of education sit up and pay attention. We are seeing movement for policies endorsed by the federal government to expand Early Childhood Education.

This school year in California, the date by which a child may enter kindergarten has changed. September 1 is the cut-off date. It reduces the number of very young boys and girls who are asked to settle into the social and academic activities of the ten month kindergarten year. The expectation is that a child’s chronological age will more closely match his/her readiness to learn. In addition, the number of children held out of kindergarten by parents will be reduced, a controversial choice outlined in “Delay Kindergarten at Your Child’s Peril” by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt In The New York Times, September 25, 2011..

Still, it will be to no child’s advantage if funding for Head Start is pulled out from under a wonderful program that most middle-class children have available to them from private sources. In the desire to cut the federal debt, conservative Congress members have proposed such short-sighted ideas. Especially in the current economy, poor children are the most vulnerable group in America. In 2010, 30+% of children 0-5 years old lived in families with income below the poverty line.

Now why would anyone think it was a bargain to cut funding that would leave those children behind in readiness skills to which other kindergarten children have access? And which leads to less likelihood of proficiency in the reading, language, math, science and history common core standards expected of every child in the United States by the time they graduate high school?

What’s the harm!?

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Incredible! Members of Congress can’t be persuaded of the harm caused by shortchanging school age children and young adults? Who wants children to live hardscrabble days in the richest country on Earth?

high school outside of Death Valley, CA

high school outside of Death Valley, CA

Even middle-class and upper middle-class kids in suburban public or private schools are affected by the despair in the education world. But the harm is most worrisome for the 13% of the impoverished American families (according to 2010 Census Bureau figures) made up of parents under 30 with children.

Why have some members of Congress continually voted to let high rollers add to their billions while students go to schools with missing ceiling tiles and antique air venting systems? Saying the federal government should not be the funding source for state and local needs is simply not looking at reality. The states must cut their spending to maintain balanced budgets in spite of the evidence that shows revenue will only rise when jobs are available. If not the federal government, where is money to repair schools (and provide jobs) going to be found?

Why must parents count pennies to purchase food at home at the same time funds are being subtracted from school district food programs? It was a joke when that smiling, but hard-hearted president wanted to count ketchup as a vegetable, but not any longer when the only decent breakfast and lunch are provided at schools. The story about a school district food manager finding sources for low-fat, interesting meals for kids is worth following, but one success must be replicated country-wide to provide healthy change.

In a rich nation, healthcare for families should not be only affordable for the well-to-do who have jobs. Right now there are 46.2 million poor Americans: children, teen agers, working age adults, veterans, and the elderly. In Texas alone it has been advertised in the news that 14 million don’t have health benefits. But that isn’t the only state with the problem. At the same time, the cost of health care keeps rising. Fighting about the individual right to choose to pay for health benefits is not the priority. Generating jobs and setting up insurance exchanges is the need.

Pretending that the main problem for the U. S. is the debt and that austerity measures like spending cuts are the way to buy the country out of recession is fuzzy math. The resources needed to close the achievement gap for low-performing students mean revenues must be generated. The news this weekend about the billions that can be produced by revising tax rates on the extraordinarily wealthy is staggering. Fiscal priorities aimed at students who don’t drop out, and who graduate from high school and college on time, are far more likely to promote and create new jobs.

Children do well in school when they’re healthy, vaccinated, and fed. They do better when the school buildings are safe. They do better when enough teachers and staff are on the payroll. Students achieve when their parents have good jobs and time to pay attention to their children.

“The time has come…

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

To talk of many things”-Lewis Carroll. But talk about the lack of revision to ESEA (NCLB in its last iteration) is dominating the education world in September 2011.

rural school and district on Lopez Island, Washington

rural school and district on Lopez Island, Washington

The No Child Left Behind Act- President George W. Bush’s title for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)– was first authorized in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson and revised every 5 years until the last alteration in 2001. Since then, all calls for adjustments have hit the high Congressional wall of inaction.

Who’s talking? National teachers’ unions NEA and AFT advocate change. The Council of Chief State School Officers exhorts Congress. Members of the National Governor’s Association have been in the forefront.

All across the country non-union teacher’s groups are the biggest voices: Educators4Excellence in New York; Teacher Plus in Boston, Indianapolis, and Chicago; Center for Teaching Quality in North Carolina, Denver, and Seattle to name a few.

What did the 2001 act provide? The legislation is lengthy and detailed. The sections on which most talk centers are “Improve the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged” and “Improving Basic Programs…” which delineate the main provisions of the act. Next, qualifications for teachers and paraprofessionals led to time-consuming paperwork to assure each teacher was “highly qualified.” Also, Innovative Programs morphed into advocacy for charter schools. The section “Improving Basic Programs” outlined the actions to show “adequate yearly progress” in reading and mathematics: in brief, each state must teach to its curriculum standards and provide outcomes on benchmark exams which would lead to 100% school proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

Why is NCLB so despised? All of these mandated programs are underfunded. As has been declared in this blog many times, it was clear to most teachers and administrators from the beginning that to have every student in a state reach grade level proficiency in two subjects by 2014 was a preposterous goal. The cost of upgrading curriculum standards and providing tests that give a single score by which to judge students is a contentious argument.

The ESEA legislation should have been revised by Congress in 2005-2006. It wasn’t. President Obama laid out revisions for Congress to take up in 2009 and March 2011. No go. In August 2011, the U.S. Department of Education used a provision in the legislation to offer waivers to the 2014 proficiency benchmark. States that could show consistent improvement in the four big administration priorities for ESEA revision would be authorized to alter their programs. The administration’s priorities are 1) working state data systems; 2) turn-around plans for low-performing schools; 3) improve experienced vs. new teacher distribution in low-performing schools; 4) boost curriculum standards in the state.

To create jobs in a stricken economy and to provide a further push to Congress, President Obama in his speech on September 8, 2011, recommended $60 billion to be divided among states to save teachers’ jobs and fix the infrastructure of school property. The inference was also to finish ESEA revisions.

Representative John Kline, Education Committee, commented on the high cost and more regulation, calling the program a teacher’s union bailout. Representative George Miller and Senator Tom Harkin of their respective Education Committees were more enthusiastic. So far Congressional revisions have been offered to bolster charter schools, eliminate forty programs under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Education (like the Star Schools Distance Learning Program), and flexible shift of federal funds (like Title 1) from poverty budget lines to special education.

What to our surprise! John Kline’s House Education committee has passed a vote on the charter schools revisions yesterday, September 13, 2011. On to a full house vote.

On the other hand, teacher’s organizations look for revision in school and teacher accountability rules and evaluation; stability in curriculum standards; and testing that leads to better learning rather than a score by which to berate teachers and students when the hurdle is not vaulted even though students may have leaped higher.

The time has come….

Bright days go dark for school finance in Colorado

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Schools open early in Colorado.  In many districts, teachers start back the second week of August and kids arrive the 3rd week.  This year, in many districts, teachers arrived as they usually do to set up their classrooms, but they didn’t get paid.  No money.

This is the irony of working as a teacher in today’s environment in Colorado, where the spending-cuts Tea Party has many forceful adherents.

Fewer days, fewer hours for kids and teachers

Jefferson County (Jeffco) teachers  on the west side of the Denver metro area will take a 3 percent pay cut in 2011-12, based on five furlough days.  Three furlough days will occur out of professional development time, and two will occur around school holidays when students will also get an extra day off.

At a time when many students need to be in school more hours and/or more days, districts across Colorado are cutting both.

State’s largest district sees $100 million cut from budget over 4 years

Jefferson County’s general fund budget has declined by $60 million since its high point in 2009-10, just before revenue for the state budget contracted.  Another $70 million will likely go away through 2013-14.  At this point there’s no telling when the down trend will turn around, and even when it does, it’s likely to take years just to get back to ’09-10 levels.

State continues to throw mandates at districts with no money

Despite the budget cutting at districts, the state continues to mandate work and other requirements.  Senate Bill 10-191 is an example.  This bill states that school districts will provide performance evaluations to all teachers annually, and to new and probationary teachers two to three times a year.

This state mandate is a good idea.  Teachers should be regularly and systematically evaluated.  However, management staffing to do these evaluations is lacking. Most management to staff ratios in business hit around 1 manager for 10 people or fewer.  The district’s staffing ratio is more like 1 principal to 20 or 30 staff at elementary school, and much higher at high schools.

The district has yet to figure out how to conduct on-site teacher observations, interviews, and written appraisals without adding substantially more administrators, at a time when citizens complain about the “excessive” dollars used to pay management staff.

Students’ needs are great as ever

At the same time, student needs haven’t declined.  The district has done some heavy lifting to raise test scores.  It has succeeded.  Compared to state data, the district has improved its test results on students meeting or exceeding proficiency in 17 categories on state exams, as opposed to 12 for the state.  As important, Jeffco continues to compete successfully with other metro area districts, even though it has experienced an increase from 20% to 30% of children considered low income, often with learning difficulties that need attention.

Money questions haunt districts

How much longer can a district with 81,000 students continue to march forward when money and related resources are marching backward?  Will today’s kindergarten class, graduates of 2024, receive the quality education they need and deserve because of declining revenues in 2011-12?

Will Colorado be able to build a strong economic base for today’s and tomorrow’s workers based on a weak public education foundation?  It’s usually a bright time when schools open their doors and windows in Colorado, but now, in 2011, the blinds are down, the hallways are dark, and too many doors for too many children are closing.