Archive for August, 2012

Dilemmas for California Schools

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Recent media news shared states’ compromises on tenure and dismissal of “poor” teachers, certainly a concern for low-performing schools.

small island high school

small island high school

These issues were reported as part of the talks on teacher evaluation outcomes. This week California newspapers are taking sides on the legislature’s Assembly Bill 5. This bill finally revises the Stull bill, longtime and out-of-date legislation that designated procedures for California teacher evaluation.

Like most evaluation legislation, this bill has pro and con appeal and a compromise position has not appeared. The bill was designed to take advantage of the United States Department of Education’s application for a “waiver” to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates for 100% student grade level proficiency on state-designated exams in reading and math by 2014.

Long time complaints about the inability to reach the NCLB goals have come up against the need to improve teacher, administrator, and school evaluation, including tenure and dismissal for poor performance.  The use of yearly state exam data for evaluation fingers a sore point.

Aside from local teacher evaluation controversy, the current U.S. government administration constantly attacks the year-old Congressional resistance to passage of proposals for state aid to provide jobs for laid-off teachers (and police and fire fighters) in order to stay on track to improve student academic success.

In addition, tuition tax credits and continued financing of Pell grants for college students is in danger of spending cuts. Government aid for college completion to prepare graduates to enter the job market with fewer horrendous debt burdens should be valued as an economic boost. Nevertheless, spending cuts to education are possible in the new year depending on the November election results.

In November in California, Prop 30, the tax initiative to benefit school budgets, dominates the news. In the meantime, however, legislators, teachers’ unions, and the public must confront the AB 5 bill.

The California Teachers Association (CTA) supports the bill’s “meaningful feedback to teachers to help them improve their craft.” San Francisco Chronicle, “Open Forum On Teacher Evaluation” by Eric Heins, August 24, 2012. The article stresses the wording in the bill to provide collaborative reform from teachers, administrators, and community. The evaluation process spelled out in the bill clears up the uncertainty and inconsistency in the earlier legislation and requires evaluation more than once a year.

The bill’s critics (New Teacher Project, Center for Future of Teaching and Learning, EdSource among many) reject the bill because it removes the requirement to use state student assessments as one measure of teacher performance.

While the state education superintendent, Tom Torlakson, insists the bill will be a successful application for a waiver, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education disagrees.

Just as the Obama administration continues to justify job proposals to help schools in spite of obstruction, the California state legislature must find a compromise (as 38 states have done) between the powerful CTA and multiple dedicated education groups to establish a satisfactory teacher-administration evaluation process.

Tenure Intrudes Just as School Year Begins

Monday, August 20th, 2012

So far school begins a few days earlier each year. I’m still ready to teach fourth grade, but the hitch that disturbs a smooth opening is student overflow. Too many new third graders have enrolled in the attendance area for my school. In consequence, the question is which students will move in with fourth graders. Next, the same number of fourth graders must be moved to a fifth grade.

Unless the district can be persuaded of the disadvantages, there will be one three-four combination and a four-five combination classroom. Some schools, however, are not filled with the maximum number of students so newcomers could attend those schools-if the district makes that decision.

Advantage: by staying close to the nearby school the student has less travel time and has the chance to become friends with more neighborhood children of a similar age.

Disadvantage: no parent or teacher wants to mix their child in a combination grade level if possible; it’s difficult to find time to teach each grade’s curriculum so no child is shortchanged. In my school district third graders have 24/1 student/teacher ratio, so a three-four combination has 24 students, thus forcing the move for fourth graders into a four-five combination class  with 33 students (maximum classroom size allowed) and less individual attention.

With the nationwide attention to Common Core Standards and yearly exams geared to the curriculum covered for the student’s grade level, any lay person can see the difficulty for student learning. In addition, unless you have worked with third grade or fourth grade or fifth grade age children in a classroom, you don’t recognize the differences in children’s social maturity and thus the ability to absorb academic learning.

Now, I think I’ve covered the reasons I dread the possibility of a combination grade, even though I consider myself highly-qualified to accommodate the circumstances if necessary. Teachers in many schools have had to adjust to such peculiarities of the public or private or parochial school.

In the meantime, I follow the news media, grasping onto new school year stories. The big one is “tenure.” The issue is a big time feature of teacher’s financial reward and classroom effort. State departments of education and teachers’ unions have finally found ways to compromise on the issue. The two factions have faced the fear for teacher security, wrenched from the hands of authoritarian school administrators, and the inability to dismiss “poor” teachers, constantly on the minds of education policy makers.

New York, New Jersey, Idaho, Florida and 14 other state legislatures have developed some type of tenure resolution, usually based on evaluation of class students’ academic growth shown by score improvement on yearly tests and administration’s rigorous teacher observation plans-with some variations.

My school district hasn’t yet had staff development on any change in tenure policy, but I’m thinking ahead about two difficulties. What about the school’s position on state records of improvement, like California’s Academic Performance Index? What will the teacher’s individual evaluation for tenure be like? With all the variables that indicate student learning, combination classrooms add one more possible hurdle for students and teachers.

Nevertheless, I know to wear my welcome smile when I pick up my new students on the first day.

Political Obstructions Shake Schools

Monday, August 13th, 2012

Politics is taking over all thought and action on education issues, pre-school to college. Clashes echo over the benefits of Common Core Standards, a project of the National Governor’s Association-bipartisan at one time in the recent past. Salvos from both liberals and conservatives about state budget needs for schools lead to rising college tuition and cuts in scholarships. Disparities flare in the U. S. over ethnicity of special ed students suspended although viable alternatives exist to reduce harsh measures.

Your single school or school district may have dodged the bullets, but be aware. In this nation thousands of teacher jobs have been lost; class sizes have risen as the number of children ready for school has climbed to 7% for the next year; salaries are reduced by using furlough days, i.e., fewer days in the school year; and so on and so forth.

Across states, much of the reduction in school services is due to anxiety over reduced revenue for the state budgets and reluctance to raise revenue except by local bonds or parcel taxes. Nationwide, the political quandary rears over increasing revenue and reducing government programs. The desire to control the national debt and turn the deficit into surplus leaves the effect on education nearly lost in the complex argument.

Numerous times this blog has reminded readers of the momentous changes that have rapidly occurred since the current administration has put an emphasis on education: accountability for all-teachers and administrators; improved student achievement in the lowest-performing schools; variety in techniques and strategies shown to increase learning; legislation to help poor families with health, nutrition, and job training.

Nonetheless, if certain budget possibilities gain the upper hand next year the country may find discretionary spending in agriculture (affecting food for schools), education, transportation, science and more reduced by three-fifths. Medicaid would become a state block grant, in effect dropping about 14 million people from health coverage. And who do you think those people include? The children over whom pundits wring their hands because they need to have access to the best education possible.

In spite of fears for education, promising actions have been described in the media. The New Teacher Project offers a study with recommendations to create policies aimed at retaining high-performing teachers and holding administrators accountable for maintaining high-performing schools. It is suggested (following on many similar research proposals) to set clear standards for teaching effectiveness and offer higher earning potential for excellent teachers.

Further, a state with conservative leaders has instituted programs to extend the academic learning year. Arizona ‘s Balsz Elementary School District took advantage of state legislation that offers 5% more financing to districts that add 20 school days per year. The funds were used to raise teachers’ salaries to pay for the additional teaching.

A liberal legislature and conservative governor designed legislation to revise tenure provisions and establish revocation of said tenure when necessary. Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, signed the new tenure bill developed with bipartisan support and aid from the state’s teachers’ union.

Optimistic news, but what would the education world look like, much less the rest of society, if cuts to discretionary funds take effect?

Why Are So Many Schools In Trouble?

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Poor student performance on standardized tests is almost always blamed on poor teachers. Easy to point the finger at the adult in the room. Not the correct answer, of course. But, who wants to think hard to solve a complex problem filled with hurdles like that of achieving student progress?

high-performing middle school

high-performing middle school

Two New York Times articles, a week apart, pursue the issue. In the July 22, 2012 article “Sunday Dialogue: Improving Our Schools,” Stephen Krashen, well-known USC professor who has written extensively on the persistence of poor achievement in low-performing schools, bluntly states poverty is the problem. Students in middle class and well-to-do neighborhoods do fine on the voluminous amount of testing that establishes student proficiency nowadays. However, low performance due to poverty makes the United States rank 34 out of 35 in economically advanced countries.

Krashen points to inadequate nutrition, poor health care, little access to books that equals low student achievement. When Congress and states undertake the legislation to address those needs schools will improve.

Look at the July 29, 2012 article “Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?” by Peter Edelman. While Stephen Krashen’s piece focused on low achievement in schools and the mistaken idea that more testing is going to improve impoverished students’ scores, Edelman looks at poverty of all people in the United States. He points out that low wage jobs, households headed by a single parent, disappearance of cash assistance, and persistent issues of race and gender keep 15% of the nation in poverty and the communities where those people live filled with low-performing schools.

Although the media dwells on the low-income problem, the economy has grown, but for the top 1%. Edelman names familiar remedies to reverse the stagnate distribution of wealth: the rich pay their fair share, the minimum wage rises, good health care and a decent safety net become entrenched.

Right now the budget plan put forth by the House of Representatives will not reduce poverty and so will not support improvement for low-performing schools. Edelman hopes that enough people will organize to tip the scale in the direction it should go.

For example, teachers in the California Teachers Association are stepping up to work for passage of Proposition 30 and Proposition 32 in the November 2012 elections. Simply put, Prop 30, if passed, will allow a sales tax increase for 4 years and a personal income tax increase for 7 years to provide revenues for K-12 and community colleges. It also allows a tax shift to local governments to pay for services cut in previous years.

A “no” vote on Prop. 32 will defeat an attempt by corporations and Super PACs to make unions unable to collect payroll deductions for PACs to support candidates and initiatives in the teachers, firefighters, police interests.

The U.S. Department of Education has already instigated many changes to improve teaching and learning in the poorest public schools. Congress needs to tackle legislation to reduce poverty. That’s when excellence for all students will emerge.