Archive for September, 2012

Apples and Oranges for Schools

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Too many times education critics have thrown past numbers at current school costs and complained that schools have more money in their budgets today but have worse results.  David Brooks made this assertion on September 14, 2012, in the New York Times, complaining about the Chicago Teachers Federation strike.

Since he’s taken it to educators, schools, and unions, it’s time to take on him and his numbers – as well as the many other critics out there who spread crazy factoids.

Brooks states that kids were taught in 1960 at $2800 per student at inflation adjusted dollars, and that current kids receive $11,000 per student.  Yet so many kids are failing.

Let’s examine the adequacy of his first premise – that $2800 is apparently a good base number for average per student costs in an average district budget today.  The district in which I live has roughly 85,000 students.  At $2800 per student, the district’s budget would be $238,000,000, much less than its current $590,000,000, which is significantly less than its 2010 budget of $660,000,000.

The operational budget which pays salaries must be reduced by 14% to adjust for non-compensation costs such as technology, transportation, text books, etc.  That leaves $199,000,000 for compensation, pension, and health benefits.  The district has 12,000 employees.  Based on these figures, our average per employee compensation would be $16,600.  Who would teach school for that amount of money?

Brooks also insinuates that 1960 educators did at least as good a job as current educators, and maybe better.  He offers no data to support that assertion.  What I remember from 1960 is that special education kids were shunted off somewhere or just didn’t go to school.  My district today runs a special school for the most physically and mentally challenged children – kids who need diapers changed, kids who cannot move without someone else pushing a wheel chair, kids with severe autism who lash out at teachers and others.  These kids received no education that I ever saw in 1960.

In 1960 districts had no particular concern about kids for whom English was not their native language.  Minority children weren’t included in advanced classes.  Let’s face it, lots of kids lived in a sink or swim environment then, and the ones who sunk slipped below the surface and the rest of us kids didn’t notice.

It’s impossible to deny that today’s schools do not succeed with all children, and the gap for minority kids is especially grave.  But this week, an article appeared in the September 15,2012, issue of the Denver Post about Colorado’s Sheridan School District, a small district in the middle of the Denver metro area whose schools were non-performing.  With extra money for tutoring, reading support, after school academic programs, and parent involvement, the district has turned its schools from non-performing to performing, a significant improvement.  But because of the improvement, this district with 80 percent minority kids will lose its extra money.  So how long will these improvements last?  Money obviously isn’t the only solution to educating our kids – but when used strategically and precisely, it will make a difference.

When someone compares today’s schools and today’s budgets to the past, I’d say anything more than five years, it’s pretty certain that apples are oranges and the comparisons are specious.

Teacher Thoughts on Testing

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Teachers, have you read about the angry strikes in Chicago, fury at the San Francisco school board, union relief that collective bargaining may not be cut off in Wisconsin?

teacher team analyzing tests

teacher team analyzing tests

Actually, the education issues that have disrupted the beginning of the 2012-13 school year drill down to more debate over teacher evaluation. But make no mistake, you can google loads of successful ways to collaboratively implement a new system.

However, put aside the fact that students from mid to high income families do well and really good teachers provide a great education. In low-income neighborhoods, difficulties arise, even in schools deluged with resources. Home situations for the students in those schools make even the safest school haven a precarious place for academic achievement.

The expert’s mantra is high quality teachers, longer school hours, and rigorous testing. Despite nodding heads, only longer school hours can be implemented and maintained with minimal contest. Good teaching can over time be developed, encouraged, improved, and supported.

Rigorous testing is a great idea, but have you ever seen a standardized or criterion-referenced test that met the student’s assessment needs all the time? The goal is to assess students’ achievement at grade level proficiency, but have you seen 50 different state tests provide consistent and comparable outcomes? Nevertheless, a single test score is the part of evaluation that preoccupies all stakeholders-teachers, administrators, department of education officials.

Even when the school relies on formative testing (assessments every eight weeks or so to analyze student success and student needs), factors outside the classroom must also be confronted before real achievement can be seen.

What about…

Who is making up the tests? A nation-wide company trying to please 50 state curriculums? A test publishing company niggling over questions to cover every single state standard for a grade level?

Do the test items really assess the grade level skill? For instance, does a first grader make an error (choose ‘bad’ rather than ‘dad’) because he hasn’t mastered the letter sounds or because he mixes the shape of the letters ‘b’ and ‘d’?

Is a student’s age taken into account in the scaled or percentile score that shows success?

Does the teacher’s evaluation, points given for how many students perform proficiently on one yearly test, take account of the transiency of students in her class during the year? Give credit for the high-performing, low-performing, and behavior modifications among students in the class? Balance the pros and cons of her years of teaching?

Teachers, keep in mind that good evaluation tools should rely on adequate professional development, decent facilities to provide students and teachers a safe learning environment, enough administrative and community support. Then good student test scores can be used for a percentage of your yearly evaluation.

Return of Transitional Kindergarten

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

It’s been two years a-comin’. 2012-2013 is the first year for the youngest almost-5-year-olds to get a break. Today kids must prepare for increased academic pressure and have a chance to develop more mature social skills. A transitional year offers an effort to meet those needs.

SB 1381, called the Kindergarten Readiness Act, was legislated in California in 2010 after months of dialogue with school district administrators, teachers, and parents. The bill’s passage revises the required birthday cut-off date to enter kindergarten in California schools. Remember, however, that children are not mandated to enter any kind of kindergarten; matriculation isn’t required until first grade.

However, anyone who has taught Kindergarten knows that some children are ready to listen to a story and others can’t sit down and stop talking. Sometimes, a parent recounts his child’s social immaturity on entering Kindergarten, but sudden change in ability to focus leads to academic success in later grades. Another parent may be anxious the entire kindergarten year as she visits and sees her child overwhelmed by the activity in the room. Each child was often the youngest in the classroom of students.

Transitional kindergartens were part of the public school until the 1990’s when the programs waned. The question of when to begin learning in a structured manner has come up again because of higher Kindergarten academic goals indicated by state curriculum standards. Many little tykes need more time to be ready. Why should they be coerced to sit and listen when they need time to play?

Most school districts in California and numerous other states in the U.S. now offer a two year program. The first year puts forward additional activities often offered in preschool and includes initial Kindergarten readiness lessons. Formal academic learning set out by the California Curriculum Standards for Kindergarten begins in the second year.

During the first year, for example, a group may huddle around the teacher who reads a favorite beginning reader’s story like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as described in a San Francisco transitional kindergarten. Others might play with blocks, paint, or pretend cook in the kitchen. Later in the year the children will learn letters and simple number skills.

Sound interesting and not so off-putting for the youngster? In 2012-2013 kids born after November 1 have the choice to enter a 2-year Transitional Kindergarten. Next year, children born after October 1 and in 2014-2015 children with birthdays after September 1 enter a Transitional Kindergarten (or stay home until the year they are five before September 1).

As in many states, California students in Transitional Kindergartens spend 180 minutes a day in class, just like regular Kindergarten. The classes must adhere to all California education regulations such as the Williams requirement for sufficient books, availability of English Language lessons for students who need the service, and designated student/teacher ratios.

Concerned that the program sounds like young children being asked to “repeat” Kindergarten? Worried about research showing that delayed school entry can have a negative impact on low-income and minority students? Skeptical of experts speculating  whether the child is ready for school or is the school ready for the very young child?

In the end, the parent decides. Keep in mind that this early investment provides a way to help young children succeed academically in later elementary grades. Studies indicate that TK programs reduce retention or the need for special education, improve high school graduation rates, lower the chance of incarceration of the young adult.

Worth a steadfast, relentless effort to overcome a long time obstacle for little ones?  Worth the value of gaining high academic achievement and a chance to find a good place in the world?