Archive for the ‘Arne Duncan’ Category

What Concerns Teachers?

Monday, November 26th, 2012

School Budgets? Charter Schools? Common Core State Standards? Turn Around Schools? Tenure? Accountability? Merit Pay? Graduation Rates? NCLB Testing?

Teachers, have you spent your hours and hours of curriculum preparation contemplating these issues? You’d have to be the appointed representative to your district union or take evening time twice a month to attend school board meetings to know which, if any, of those concerns affect your class day. Otherwise, you teach, using the models your school literacy coach, department chair, or principal discusses at monthly meetings.

Have you even heard how many students are in your school district? For a comparison, 90% of American students attend public school, right now that’s about 50 million students. The other 10% attend parochial and private schools or are homeschooled. Now established in forty states, charter schools account for about 5% of the 50 million public school students. Remember, charter schools are paid for with the state’s public school budget and may also be for-profit, charging a fee to enroll.

So, no time to read the staggering number of education reports available on these subjects? Here is a summary of thought that has appeared on this blog about each of the main concerns found in the education journals and newspaper sections on education.

School budgets: As the controversy over the fiscal cliff/hill/slope drifts on and on, most states foresee loss of federal money before tax changes start in the following year. Even in California which passed a tax increase to finally help balance the state budget, bets can be placed to guess the amount of money sent to school districts.

Turn Around Schools: If you teach at one of the lowest-performing schools in the nation, your school may have benefitted from Race To The Top grants generated by the stimulus funds four years ago. Some improvement in student abilities has been reported at those schools in spite of bitter critiques by education reform experts. Reformers want to make change fast and furious, but avoid the massive problem facing those schools in impoverished neighborhoods. The best turn around schools address as many of the community difficulties as possible while using models that institute curriculum reforms to improve learning.

Charter Schools: Reform advocates promote charter schools as competitive drivers for school change and choice for parents. The best charter schools show success for students by trying out new teaching ideas, longer days and school years, small class sizes, and other approaches to improve learning. Never mind that additional tuition money is asked for to provide the tools for success. Studies show that a well-equipped public school is just as successful.

Accountability: If you must choose, keep an eye on accountability issues. The strongest current concern is evaluation of students, teachers, and schools. Testing, tenure, common core standards, and merit pay have their role in the decisions that will be made over several years before accountability is set in place for public schools. For example, in the latest speeches by and interviews with Arne Duncan, the United States Superintendent of Schools, the present emphasis will be on principal preparation and evaluation.

Remember, accountability affects you, your students, the kind of school where you teach, and the entire school community.

School and November Elections

Monday, October 8th, 2012

School critics come in two groups.

a desert high school awaits November elections

a desert high school awaits November elections

The first think teachers’ unions are anathema to improvement for low-performing schools and only for-profit elementary to high school charters and colleges are the answer.

The second, foundations call attention to states who have received Race to the Top grants or ‘waivers’ and turn in plans that game the outcome to show evidence of turning around poor-performing public schools.

In the 15% of U.S. public schools that carry a heavy burden toward recovery, teachers hear over and over about the “quiet revolution” called by Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, aimed at quality teacher evaluation as an important goal to improve student success. See Motoko Rich’s “Loopholes Seen at Schools In Obama Get-Tough Policy,” The New York Times, October 5, 2012.

Nonetheless, this is October of an election year. Teachers have other issues on the table. As an example in California, the state in perpetual budget crisis, teachers are gearing up for the election to support the initiative that stops cuts to school district budgets and helps pay down the state’s deficit. Since the measure involves raising tax revenue it has loud advocates and opponents. Everyone knows California schools were once the envy of the nation but without a change will generate more layoffs, inability to renovate dilapidated infrastructure, loss of programs.

Another California initiative is one of the deceptive measures that are written to fool the uninformed voter. While it claims to stop special interest money in politics, especially union funds, the measure exempts ‘super PACs,’ corporate special interests, and very wealthy Americans. Teachers are spending plenty of time educating voters about this deliberately misleading proposition.

On top of election issues on teachers’ minds, gasoline prices have skyrocketed in the last two weeks. Despite explanation of the circumstances in California and the governor’s action for early changeover to ‘winter blend’ from ‘summer blend’ gasoline (all used to minimize pollution on the state’s highways), not only teachers, but parents of students, are paying the price. What kind of disruption is that causing in low-income neighborhoods? A very local problem that plays its part in the difficulties of elevating student success. See San Francisco Chronicle, October 8, 2012.

Local or statewide or national, critical issues take over the attention of teachers at the same time they are called on to improve public education. It’s a political football!

Waiver to NCLB Goals?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Vacation is over and our weekly posts resume just in time to comment on the waivers proposed by Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan to No Child Left Behind legislation that states 100% of United States students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Not long after 2002 when the law took effect, most teachers shook their heads as it became apparent that the goal was laudatory, but not gonna happen.

So four years after the legislation was up for revision and Congress still failed to amend the law, the Department of Education has overridden the requirement and set up a plan for waivers.

Did you hear sighs of relief even in states with high numbers of proficient students? Chiefs For Change, a bipartisan group of heads of state Departments of Education relaxed their pinched shoulders. They are all for setting high standards but allowing states to adjust for the needs of the students in their states. Last year, 2010, about 38,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public schools didn’t make the grade. As the benchmarks rise, more schools will “fail.”

On the other hand, the National Education Association (NEA) noted that now was the time to look at teacher-led and student-focused comprehensive reform. NEA wants to turn away from one-size fits all standardized testing. A good point that comes up the minute any state begins to adjust proficiency levels.

Waivers for flexibility in benchmark goals for reading and math will be offered under strict conditions, but even “plans in progress” will be taken into account, according to Duncan.

How about diverse California, where school starts next week in order to account for furlough days because of scarce money and to provide enough teaching days before state criterion-referenced tests are given in May? Will the state apply for a waiver immediately since it has pockets of proficient students among an abundance of students who are teetering on, if not already fallen below, the California proficiency level for 2010.

The state has not finished re-organizing its learning standards to agree with the Common Core Standards needed for various federal grants, nor completed a revised teacher evaluation and school accountability system. For certain, the state hopes it has sufficient “plans in progress.”

To top off these issues, on Wednesday, August 10, the news came out that the state has not gained enough revenues to keep its budget balanced. If revenues don’t increase, drastic cuts will affect schools and other social services. That’s what the state legislature agreed to in June 2011. Aside from flexibility waivers to achieve reform for California schools, will there be money available?

Who in California’s legislature will blink first?

Common Core Standards Quandary

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Arne Duncan, Superintendent of the U. S. Department of Education, spoke on the radio program “Talk of the Nation,” Monday, June 13, 2011. His word is that the public schools do well when they demonstrate a ‘high bar’ of accountability, engaged teachers, engaged students, and analysis of good data. He noted the compilation of Common Core Standards which can make the data collected comparable nation-wide.

The standards present a quandary: who’s the head of public school education? Local school districts, the state, or the federal government?  In 2010, Colorado’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI)  became a Medusa-like controversy.

The State Board of Education voted August 2, 2010 to accept Common Core Standards on a contentious 4-3 vote.  The vote broke along party lines, with the exception of Vice Chair Randy DeHoff (R-South Denver metro), who supported adoption.

Arguments against standards did not address the benchmarks themselves.  Opponent Peggy Littleton (R-Colorado Springs) argued that CCSSI is a “takeover” of education by the federal government.  DeHoff and other board supporters said the standards address the challenge of educating Colorado students to compete for jobs across the nation and the world.

Standards created independently of the federal government

The standards were not developed by the federal government.  They were written under the auspices of The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Other education groups, including the National Association of State Boards of Education, joined in.  Teachers added input and direction.  (Myths and Facts about CCSSI)

DeHoff said that standards opponents in Colorado have not directly attacked the benchmarks themselves because they are closely aligned to current state guidelines.  The CCSSI project allows states to adjust up to 15 percent of the standards to accommodate local needs.  (See standards k-12 by subject)

Local school districts will implement the standards based on the State Board of Education’s vote.  But according to the Colorado constitution, education is the responsibility of local school boards, not the state or the federal government.

Money has strings

With funding resources so low at the local and state level, however, local school boards are relying on federal dollars to backfill missing state dollars. The 2010 federal allocation of $10 billion to help local schools stay staffed up is critical to Colorado school district budgets.  Without that money, additional cuts over $200 million across all Colorado school districts would have occurred.

Once an entity above the local puts money into the education pot, that entity wants some say over the use of the money.  Colorado helps local school districts at about a 60/40 ratio.  Since the state started massive contributions to local schools in the 90’s, it’s demanded more and more authority over school districts.

The bottom line is that money talks.  School districts in Colorado lost absolute control of local education when the state moved in with funding and added many requirements for that funding.  The federal government added more requirements when it contributed its funding.

These issues obscure whether the standards are any good.  Funding public education has taken on the quality of putting together a billion piece puzzle without a picture as a guide.  The puzzle box is titled “Who heads public education?”  As it turns out, the picture is of Medusa with all those snakes still writhing one year later.

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.