Archive for October, 2011

School board election to test public education

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Non-partisan school board elections have turned highly partisan in the Denver metro area.  The Republican party has gone full forward against two teachers’ associations – the Jefferson County Education Association and Douglas County’s American Federation of Teachers.

What’s interesting is that both districts do well in the state’s academic assessment program.  Douglas County, which rims the south metro area, has a mostly white population, with a 10 percent poverty rate.  Jefferson County, which at one time mirrored Douglas County’s demographic, now is much more diverse with a 30 percent poverty rate.

Jeffco School District is the largest in the state with about 85,000 students.  Its students test well above the state average on the Colorado School Assessment Program (CSAP) tests.  Of the 140+ schools in the district, one is considered non-performing.  The district has numerous schools ranking among the top 10 percent in achievement.  Douglas County Schools are similar in their test results, with no non-performing schools.

Douglas County has also been at the front end of pay for performance reforms.  It is about to release a revised performance pay package.  Jeffco is currently testing pay for performance strategies in a federal pilot program based on a $38 million grant.

Nevertheless, the Republican party is pushing a hard, anti-union agenda, on the premise that unions provide dollars to Democratic candidates. The Jeffco district, with a majority Republican board, advocates, and is trying to implement, a voucher program allowing up to 500 students to attend private schools, including religious schools.

The cry in Jefferson County by Republican candidates is for more “choice,” even though every school in Colorado is a choice school.  Jefferson County has 12 charter schools and has received only one charter application in recent years.

In addition, the Jeffco Republican candidates, along with a current board member, will put pressure on the superintendent to “follow directions.”  It’s likely that the superintendent, elected Colorado Superintendent-of-the-Year by her colleagues in 2010, will leave the district if the Republican candidates, known as the “two dads,” win.

The two dads state that a voucher plan is not their goal.  But Republican candidates for school board in Douglas County said the same thing in the 2009 election, and now that district is fighting for vouchers in the Colorado state court system.

November 1 is Election Day.  Both districts, representing about 17 percent of Colorado kids, face stark choices.  The school boards elected in this election will test how citizens see public education in the future.

Charter Schools-Good, Bad, and Complicated

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Charter schools. Two words with associations that twist and turn. Here’s another look.

Teachers unions are most often against the charter school concept because from its first implementation in the early 1980’s, one of the objectives was to get around the obdurate stance of unions about student and teacher time, tenure, and accountability. If you’ve ever read the history of a teacher’s status-put up and shut up– until the time unions became a force, you understand how the ability to join together was a surprising victory. And not one for teachers to give up.

On the other hand, think about the editorial “Lessons From New Orleans” in The New York Times, 10-17-2011. After Hurricane Katrina, the schools in New Orleans, Louisiana, with the state’s Recovery School District legislation, benefitted from the chance to set up schools with longer hours and days of school; reform the teacher cadre into a more capable group of instructors; and bring in programs that were completely different from a failing curriculum that left students far behind children in other parts of the country. Using a charter school formula allowed those changes to occur quickly.

The charter school model set up in New Orleans took the best of the charter school goals to reform a school district. Many school districts use various charter school models to help “at risk” students and the schools have begun to turn around. Some even with teacher’s union collaboration, in Los Angeles for example.

But, the vision behind many schools in the League of Charter Schools is not as laudatory as that of a failing district picking itself up and pursuing change. As has been outlined in other posts on this blog (9/9/09; 1/29/10; 6/23/10), a conservative group who doesn’t want teachers unions to bargain with school boards, who wish to set up an admissions model that drops students and doesn’t accept others, and who still want to get money from the public school district is often the cadre that promotes the model.

For example, Bullis Charter School is located in Los Altos, California, a small, affluent, and supportive community with high-achieving students. The charter began at a time when the school population took a nose-dive and an elementary school had to be closed. Choosing the smallest school in the most affluent area of Los Altos Hills set up a huge confrontation.

Eventually, parents from the closed school applied to the district with a plan for a school at the closed site to be modeled on the charter school premise. The whole idea for the charter was to avoid sending children down the hill to school. After much controversy, the plan was denied and the parents went to the county Board of Education and got approval. The district, however, would not allow the school to form on the closed property and finally gave the coalition some property on a middle school site in the middle of Los Altos. Since then, the site in Los Altos Hills has re-opened as the school-age population rose again.

Just recently the County Board of Education, now with a different set of members with different views on the charter school, had another confrontation about an extension of the charter for an additional five years. The county board members brought up the issues of diversity, outreach, and an unaccountable charter school board, but voted to approve the extension without asking for changes.

The school has set up a different curriculum which the charter school community thinks is more suited to the students, all high-achieving. In fact, there is plenty of room for these students in the regular public schools which all have programs for exceptionally high-achieving students.

In New Orleans and other cities where charter schools are set up to provide an opportunity for low-income neighborhoods to reform when the public school district can’t or won’t, who would be against that attempt? If the charter is designed to use public taxes to provide a closed system for the chosen few, even the original charter school developers might conclude it’s a complicated plan to get away from a public school.

ESEA Revision! Teacher Evaluation?

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Good news! The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has finally released its draft of a bill filled with revisions to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2002. The House Education Committee version, as stated in a previous post, is being negotiated piecemeal in hopes there will be no revision until after 2012.

The Senate legislation may pass, not only because Congress has been chastised for taking 4-5 years to make revisions. The bill takes into account the propositions made by the Obama Administration in 2009, the NCLB waivers by “executive authority” authorized by the U.S. Department of Education in September 2011, and it closely aligns with GOP proposals. Bipartisan legislation!

The main aspects to look over closely are standards, school improvement, and accountability.

preparing students to be college or career ready

preparing students to be college or career ready

We’ve heard for a long time that standards for student achievement must assure college or career readiness. But each state’s standards do not have to be aligned with the Common Core Standards, although all but six states have agreed to those standards. Also, English language Learners must have a set of standards which assure readiness to graduate.

As for accountability, the major change is that there are no longer hard and fast targets for achievement in reading and math. The states are accountable for “continuous growth.” Who keeps tabs on the growth for each state?

With growth in mind, school improvement for schools in each state must include intensive intervention for the 5% lowest-performing schools. Schools with the largest achievement gap between aggregates of the student population must implement practices to reduce the gap. Again, what entity will oversee these changes?

Critics point out that in the revisions the state determines the method for measuring the impact of programs. In the old NCLB that was the problem! The language was too vague to assure high standards for the measures used to assess student achievement. Without clear achievement targets, poor and minority students will be ignored.

The Senate draft and the House attempt does address the teacher accountability controversy, but leaves much up to the state. Each state must have four ratings for teachers and student achievement must be a factor. But, for example, how is student achievement and teacher evaluation to be made for subjects and grades not tested?

It appears that states and school districts are left to design and implement a plan. New reports to share best practices for teacher evaluation appear monthly. One of the latest is a report Peer Review: Getting Serious About Teacher Support and Evaluation by Julia E. Koppich and Daniel Humphrey. The report describes two exemplary Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs in California:  Poway School District near San Diego and San Juan School District near Sacramento.

Briefly, the program is geared to new teachers and experienced teachers who need to improve their instruction and classroom management. Consulting teachers take a year away from the classroom and provide well-designed accountability plans and intensive support to improve teaching. A governance board made up of administration and the teacher’s union has proven to work well to support the program, in spite of tough decisions about employment. It was apparent to the report writers that increased pressure to do better with less money was the critical factor, given that trained consulting teachers provide the most important role in the success of the program.

Back again to the same concern repeated many times. Where’s the money? This school year 37 states have cut funding for education. The American Jobs Act did not pass in the Senate as this post is being written. Since the Senate Education Committee seems to be doing some bipartisan work, maybe they will be the instigators of some spending on teachers. And police and the men and women who put out fires– before Congress lets the schools burn.

Time to teach vs. time to reflect

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

My fourth graders have been in school 8 weeks and already it’s time to have the first conferences with parents. I have a rambunctious and very smart bunch this year to reflect on.

Last week, we went to the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine, a county park, now renovated and a must-see for every fourth grader in the Bay Area. The date my school could reserve is well-before we begin California Gold Rush unit. Still, the kids were enthusiastic to see mining tools and hear about procedures to extract quicksilver (mercury) from which gold could be separated. They will be prepared.

Our science unit covers rocks and minerals, and the docent at the Mine showed the students cinnabar, which the Ohlone Indians dug up well before Europeans entered California, as well as quartz and quicksilver. Every part of this country is extraordinary in its own way, but California students have opportunities to see everything from the ocean to the valley to the mountains. The parents I will be conferencing with are aware of their children’s good luck.

Which makes me think hard when I read or hear stories in the news about big school districts that must lay off staff-tutors, counselors, parent liaisons. Is it the stingy state legislators elected in 2010 or mismanagement in a large school district bureaucracy (that tightfisted legislators blame)? Children in those states will not have money set aside to see unusual places that make up the world where they live. Schools won’t even have money to support the students who need extra help with reading and math.

When I have time to read professional journals, every teacher magazine, newsletter, and website is relieved to report the revisions to the flawed parts of the No Child Left Behind Act. However, rather than focusing on change in education policy, many states and also California conservatives are offering bills and initiatives to block contributions from unions to campaigns, calling it “paycheck protection.” Don’t forget, a teacher in California can request their dues not be used for political purposes. In the bills being introduced, corporations may not request a political contribution from employees, but can still call in huge profits to fund initiatives.

I prefer to spend the school day helping students choose good books at their reading level because almost all read at grade level, if not higher. The need is to understand or “make meaning” of the text. Those are the lessons I teach. Unlike many low-performing schools which draw students in my Master’s degree preparation classes, I also have the time to teach science and social studies.

I don’t think I will ever regret choosing and being hired by a modest-sized school district with a conscientious set of parents. Even two years ago when the budgets were much worse than this year, everyone stood together. I can count on the parents of my fourth graders to stand by educational issues that are important.