Thursday, November 3, 2011

District Fund Balance Restored to Minimum Target

Today's St. Cloud Daily Times carries a story that the St. Cloud School District's  fund balance has finally been restored to about $5.4 million, which takes it for the first time to the minimum level recommended by financial experts.   As the Times article explains "St. Cloud school district’s fund balance first approached zero in 2001 when board members voted to spend about $4 million from the reserves to pay for employee contract’s. The next year, the fund balance was down to $34,033."   That explanation is partly true, but it omits the other major critical event that occurred in 2001 -- the state legislature's massive transfer of levy money out of school districts like St. Cloud, to "equalize" school funding in Minnesota.  

I figured that it would be really hard for people to place a negative spin on this fabulous news, but I was wrong.   One person posted to the comment line that we should be thankful to teachers for sacrificing pay increases to make financial progress possible.  Actually, the restoration of the fund balance resulted from passage of our operating referendum, and specifically the allocation of about 10% of referendum dollars to that purpose...a commitment made during the referendum campaigns. If we hadn't made the promise, we wouldn't have the money in the first place.   If the District had diverted that funding to increase pay, we would have been breaking a campaign promise.  The Board of Education has felt that the integrity of past and future levy campaigns require us to keep those commitments scrupulously.

Another commenter said that when a school district has reserves, that proves that it has too much funding.   No, that is not true either.   Reserves are required in government and in business, because you pay people for producing your product (or your services) before you get reimbursed or paid for those services.  And, in Minnesota, the Governor and Legislature have both used school districts as a State ATM machine when times get rough, shifting the school aid payments into the next year and forcing school districts to dip into their reserves, or to borrow money, to make payroll.  

When a school district increases pay by dipping into its reserves, the consequences are graver than merely putting the school district at risk of being forced to borrow.   When the board of education back in 2001 spent $4 million out of reserves to pay labor contracts, it did more than eliminate its reserves.   It also agreed to permanent ongoing expenses that were $4 million greater than revenues.  Dipping into reserves for a one time only expense doesn't have this impact, but agreeing to ongoing payroll expenses, or any other ongoing expenses, out of reserves, places the district into permanent deficit, unless compensating cuts are made.  

When a school district dips into its reserves by say $4 million, it actually requires $8 million in cuts to restore the reserves.   The first four million in cuts are required to stop running a deficit, but another $4 million in cuts (or additional revenues) are required to restore reserves.    That's why it has taken so long to bring the reserves back to their former level.  

What are the consequences of restoring our fund balance? What are the consequences of hitting our minimum fund balance target?    One consequence is that as long as we keep our fund balance at that level, we eliminate $5 million on borrowing to cash flow operations.  The interest that we save frees up money to fund daily operations.  Another consequence is that we don't have to divert money from operations to restore the fund balance.   So, it places the District in a better position financially, and that is a good thing too.  

It took us about 7 years to restore the fund balance to the minimum level recommended by conservative financial planners.   Careless management could wipe out that fund balance in a single year, again.  If we remember how difficult it was to restore our fund balance, perhaps we'll be wise enough to avoid repeating history. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Standards Based Grading Comes to St. Cloud

Our school district is introducing standards based grading in grades K-8.     We've been using a form of standards based grading in elementary schools in the past several  years, and this year, we begin the experiment in grades 7-8.   Let me begin by stating that I tend to approach sweeping innovations in education with a healthy dose of skepticism.   Not because I'm against change, per se.   No, its because we are dealing with so many changes in education these days, and because implementing reforms requires so much extra work, that I feel that new innovations must be justified by proof that they will lead to significant concrete improvements.   At times, public education is prone to adopting the latest fad proposed by one or more education gurus who travel the country claiming to have discovered a philosopher's stone which will revolutionize education.    So, when our leadership announces breathlessly that "the research says" that we simply must adopt an innovation, I feel its generally time to take a few steps back and ask searching questions.  

Standards-based grading involves measuring students' proficiency on well-defined course objectives.   Many districts adopt standards-based grading in addition to traditional grades, but manhy proponents insist that standards-based grading can and should replace traditional point-based grades.

Introducing standards based grading is easier said than done.  Guskey and Young explain:
With their curriculum standards articulated and assessment procedures to measure those standards in place, many elementary educators today are developing standards-based report cards. However, shortly after beginning the process most find themselves embroiled in controversy, particularly when parents see a standards-based report card for the first time. Discussions about the report card turn into heated debates and unexpected problems thwart their progress. Developing a report card that satisfies the diverse needs of parents and the school often seems impossible.
The idea of standards based grading seems sensible enough.   Instead of  summarizing a student's performance with letter-grades A-F, why not provide the student and parents a disaggregated list of the student's mastery of the particularized course objectives?   One is left, in theory, with a permanent record of whether the student mastered fractions, or decimals, or percentages, and so on.  Consequently, proponents argue, grading becomes more intentional, more objective, and much more complex. This accounts for resistance from many parents, who feel that they inherently understand what an A is, but really would prefer not to try to figure out what it means that their student got 4's in three objectives, and 3's in two others.  

Some arguments for standards based grading include the following:
  • That they provide more coherent and precise information as to what the student has learned.
  • That they force the teaching staff to focus evaluation on the key objectives of state adopted learning standards
  • That they convert grades into formative assessments that focus the learner on what they still need to learn in order to be successful
  • That it is possible to report more complex learning objectives 
Some arguments against standards based grading include the following:
  • That it requires a tremendous amount of effort by teachers and curriculum staff  without a proven payoff..   
  • That students who are far behind (or who have disabilities that prevent achieving standards) can work very very hard to achieve, yet receive grades that may suggest failure, no matter how hard they work. 
  • That some parents simply don't like them and that they engender significant controversy
  • That some implementations of standards based grading do not appropriately reward attendance, effort, and completion of homework
  • That  not all students in any class are at the same level, and so evaluating students at grade level tends to focus assessment on what the kids in the middle are ready to learn
As a Board member, I approach implementation of standards based grading with significant trepidation.  One of my concerns is that reforms like this seem to gather momentum in a way that makes it difficult for the proponents to hear warning signs from dissenting teachers and parents.  As more and more effort is expended on these reforms, the proponents increasingly develop emotional attachment to successful completion of the innovation.    People who raise concerns may be perceived as obstructionists, instead of supplying warning signals of defects in the implementation strategy.   Proponents of reform are typically armed with "the research", often a monograph written by the reform's resident guru.  There is a tendancy when these reforms are brought to the board for discussion to present to us three or four of the most dedicated proponents of the reform, instead of providing us with a coherent summary of the arguments both for and against the reform.   Seldom are we presented with a clear understanding of the issues that are being raised by opponents.  

Most board members want to support reforms when the administration recommends them, because we feel that education needs to be run by educators.  In this case, it is my view that the change is big enough and difficult enough, that we would be well to keep the existing letter grade system along with the new standards based grading, until teachers and parents have enough experience with the new system to accept elimination of the old. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Why is Minnesota's School Finance Dysfunctional

Why is Minnesota Public School Dysfunctional

A few days ago, I was privileged to meet with a group of school finance experts to discuss why Minnesota's school finance system is broken.    Everybody knows that school leaders complain that school funding is not adequate, and that is certainly true.  But the problem is much more complicated than that.   Here is my own list of school finance dysfunctionalities:
  • School Districts are increasingly relying on voter property tax referendums to balance their budgets.   Over 130 school districts have referendums up this year, and many of them are seeking to renew their referendums.  Since 1986, the percentage of school districts with referenda has risen from 47% to over 90 percent.  The average referendum dollars collected per student has risen significantly as well, with more and more districts collecting in the $700 to $1000 per student range.   Because referendum revenue has become so important to school districts, the failure of a referendum can have catastrophic impact on a particular district.  
  • State funding formulas are not evidence based.    The legislature does not utilize evidence to determine how much money should be provided to accomplish a designated mission.   Formulas are based on politics and necessity.   We lawyers would describe this state of affairs by stating that the funding formulas lack a rational basis.    Nobody makes even a half-hearted attempt to connect the formula to data.    Funding for schools serving large numbers of students in poverty is not based on research or data showing the amount of money that can provide adquate resources to make up for the additional actual cost of educating those students.  Funding for students who don't speak English is not based on research or data showing the additional cost of educating those students.   Funding for students with disabilities is intentionally and knowingly set at rates substantially less than required to accomplish state mandated objectives.  
  • The special education funding shortfall -- the difference between state-mandated spending and total revenues provided has grown to a projected $700 million per year.    
  • The state's labor laws and bargaining system inherently produce labor cost increases at a rate faster than funding increases.    As a result, school districts are driven systemically to fund labor cost increases by making crippling cuts in programs, unless they can make up the difference in increased referendum levies.  The cost of these settlements is inadequately monitored and often reported in misleading ways so that policy makers don't focus on their true costs. 
  • Many school districts have continuing contract obligations that force up labor costs beyond the revenues provided by the State even without bargaining  Steps, lanes, longevity pay, insurance costs have been driving labor costs up faster than state funding increases.  
  • Fundamental changes in state mandates have drastically increased the cost of what school districts are required to do, without proportionate increases in revenue.  Since 1990, Minnesota has transformed its education system so that all school districts must educate all students to high levels of proficiency.   This has dramatically increased the cost of educating disadvantaged students, but funding for education has not recognized this fundamental change in mission.   
  • Open Enrollment Has Destabilized School Finance in Challenged Systems.   Different students cost fundamentally different amounts to educate.  At the top of the cost scale are students with disabilities.   At the bottom of the cost scale are advantaged students who receive strong educational support at home.  The cost structure allows school districts to make a profit on the cheaper students and requires them to cross subsidize the more expensive students.    Open enrollment allows and encourages the cheaper students to migrate into the school districts where low cost students predominant, causing an ever worsening financial situation in the districts where high cost students are concentrated.    
  • The special education funding formula also destablizes school finance in challenged Systems.   Migration of non-disabled students to charter schools and open enrollment into traditional publics create a situation where urban core districts have high proportions of high cost students. 
  • Different school districts have significantly different tax bases.  As a result some districts can raise significantly more revenue with a low mil rate than others which require a much higher mil rate.   Different school districts have very different population demographics and consequently in some districts it is very easy to pass a referendum while in others it is virtually impossible.  
  • Funding Pressures are bleeding down critical capital and capital-like assets.  School districts are increasingly cannibalizing their textbook resources, school libraries, staff development in order to make ends meet.   The State's system of assuring that these necessary components of education are provided is abysmal.   
  • The State has mismanaged the funding of pension systems and forced school districts to increase contributions without compensating revenue increases

Monday, October 24, 2011

District Settles Charges with Office of Civil Rights

On Thursday, our Board of Education will be reviewing a proposed settlement agreement with the Department of Office of Civil Rights to resolve complaints filed by CAIR - Minneapolis about 18 months ago.    

At the time that the complaints were initially filed, the District carefully reviewed each of the complaints and it was quite clear that the District had not violated federal civil rights laws.  When we examined the facts, we found examples of  Somali students with legitimate grievances against fellow students.  We also found examples of non-Somali students with legitimate grievances against fellow students.  And,  we found many of the complaints were completely untrue.   But the overwhelming sweep of the evidence was that teachers and administrators had promptly and properly addressed issues that came to them.  

Representatives of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) visited our district.  If they had found examples of civil rights violations, we would have taken prompt remedial action, but they did not identify any.  We instructed our attorney to bring us any evidence, any at all, identified by the Office of Civil Rights that suggested that the District violated civil rights laws.  To be blunt, we feel very strongly that if we demanded that the Office of Civil Rights go ahead with its charging process, we are very confident that we would prevail.   At the Board meeting on Thursday, members will most likely discuss why would then enter into an agreement, since the OCR has not provided us with any evidence that we have violated the law.  

Part of the reason for entering into an agreement is that the agreement doesn't require us to do anything that is bad for students or bad for our school district.   The concept of the agreement is this.  Why would we spend more taxpayer money examining something that happened 18 months ago (or should I say, something that didn't happen) when we can resolve the matter by doing things that we want to do anyway.  
  • The agreement doesn't give any special class of students special rights.  The policies we have adopted will protect all students equally.  
  • The agreement doesn't make us implement policies that we disagree with.  
  • The agreement requires us to have policies in place that provide a remedy to any students (not just Somali students) who have harassment concerns.   We have adopted theses policies already, and we firmly believe that the policies we have adopted are good for all students.   
  • The agreement does not require us to treat any students better than any other students.   If it did, we would not be signing it.   (this is worth saying twice)
  • To implement the agreement, we have "agreed" to adopt a Code of Conduct.   We were happy to offer to make that proposal, because we had already developed a Code of Conduct and had decided to adopt it anyway.  After signing this agreement, we will have the same code of conduct in place that we adopted several months ago.  
  • The agreement does not suggest that we have violated the law, does not require us to pay any money to anyone, nor does it require that we hire consultants to "fix" our school district.
The procedures we have adopted, and the few that we are about to adopt, create more consistent transparent procedures that give all students a venue to seek protection when they are being harassed by other students.   That means that if a student of any background, White, Somali, African American, or whatever, or their parents, have concerns about student safety, they will know where those concerns can be addressed.   By better documenting the resolution of concerns, we provide more protection for all our students.  Moreover, by establishing a more consistent documentation of internal resolution of future incidents,  we protect our staff against future bogus charges.

I want to emphasize that nobody in our school district is minimizing the issue of harassment in public schools.   When I say that there was clearly no civil rights violation, I am not suggesting that students are never harassed in our school district.   Of course that happens.  Nor am I suggesting that we should tolerate harassment, ever. Our community has some work to do to assure that we provide a welcoming environment for immigrants.  Some of our Somali students have some work to do, especially when they first come to our community, to understand what is expected of them in school.   What we must do--what all schools must do-- is to constantly work to create a welcoming atmosphere, protective of the rights of all students while maintaining high standards of student conduct.    The agreement we proposed to the OCR supports those things because doing that is good for students and teachers, and because it puts this episode behind us.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How is Integration Revenue Used in Minnesota?

A while back, the St. Cloud School District announced the replacement of its Director of Equity Services.   Since that announcement, I've noticed a bunch of online comments attacking the integration revenue program that are pretty far off the mark.  I think that the misunderstanding derives partly from the lack of clarity in the state law itself.   The legislative auditor issued a report on integration revenue and urged the legislature and Department of Education to clarify the intended uses of integration revenue, because different school districts are using the money in very different ways. So, I'm not blaming the folks who can't exactly figure out where the money is going.

In fact, some school districts are using integration revenue primarily to create opportunities for students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds to understand each other better.  In St. Cloud, we actually use a very small amount of integration revenue for this purpose -- the annual "respect retreat" being a specific example.    Other school districts are using integration revenue to strengthen educational results for disadvantaged students.   For example, some of the districts in the west metro area are funding the AVID (advancement through individual determination) program, which is a highly rigorous program that promotes better study habits and encourages participation in more demanding coursework.    Our district generally emphasizes use of integration revenue to fund improved educational programs and promote student achievement.   

The integration program is not a public relations program as one recent commenter contended.  Nor, in St. Cloud, is it primarily designed to promote inter-racial understanding, as the Times recently reported.  But before you get the idea that my purpose is to defend the state integration revenue program, let me begin, by saying that I think that the current integration revenue law has some major flaws. This year's legislature is requiring that the uses of integration revenue receive a comprehensive searching review.   And I support that review.   During the last legislative session  I wrote a letter to all of the leading legislators involved in education finance urging them to modify the integration revenue program to allow school districts to use that revenue more directly to impact learning.  I believe that by far the most effective way of "integrating" minority and disadvantaged students into the mainstream is to assure that they succeed academically.    If they succeed, then integration will follow almost automatically.  If they do not succeed, integration is a hollow objective leading to disappointment and failure. 

You can find out more about the current integration revenue program by jumping to the Minnesota Department of Education's Questions and Answer  sheet on that topic.   School districts receive integration revenue one of two ways:

 Some Districts, like Minneapolis and St. Paul get integration revenue because those districts were defendants in a lawsuit which alleged that the district had become racially segregated and that racial segregation was leading to unequal educational educational results.   Ultimately, that lawsuit led to a legislative appropriation for those districts which supported some school bussing and racial transferring, designed to promote more racially balanced schools.  Minneapolis and St. Paul receive significantly greater integration revenue appropriations, per student, than any other school district in Minnesota.  

 Other Districts, like St. Cloud, receive integration revenue because they have a significantly higher percentage of minority students that adjoining districts.   When that happens, integration revenue is provided to the district with a higher percentage of minority students at an elevated rate (but lower than Minneapolis and St. Paul), and integration revenue is provided to the adjoining districts (like Sauk Rapids, for example) at a lower rate.   But none of these districts are required to conduct an integration program in the sense that most people understand it.  Students are not bussed or transferred from one district to another.   (I believe that these bussing programs are ineffective, divisive, and counterproductive).   Each District submits a plan to the State of Minnesota explaining how it intends to use its money during a four year grant period.  In St. Cloud, the school board has sought to use integration revenue, to the maximum extent possible, to improve educational achievement.  At times, we have had to wrestle with the bureacracy at the State Department of Education to get them to approve those objectives, giving rise to my argument that the law needs to be clarified and improved.

The Department of Education's position on using integration revenue for improving student achievement is as follows:

Can integration revenue be used to fund programs focused on improving academic achievement for students or closing “achievement gaps” among groups of students?

The Desegregation Rule states that both intra-district and inter-district integration plans “must be educationally justifiable.” (Please see Minn. R. 3535.0160, Subp. 3 and Minn. R. 3535.0170, Subp. 6.) In addition, one of the stated purposes of the rule is to “recognize that the primary goal of public education is to enable all students to have opportunities to achieve academic success.” (Minn. R. 3535.0100) MDE strongly encourages districts to develop programs and activities under their plans that simultaneously advance both the goal of improving student academic achievement and the goal of increasing opportunities for integration as stated in Minnesota Statutes, section 124D.86.
Integration revenue can also be used to accelerate the pace at which non-English speaking students become fluent in English, and in St. Cloud, that is one of the ways that we are using integration revenue.   I believe that the sooner that immigrant children become fluent in English, the sooner they will become integrated into school and society, and the sooner they will grow educationally.

Often I read postings by commenters who believe that integration revenue is for minority students only, and that too is not true.  The Minnesota Department of Education explains:
The Desegregation Rule does not require the use of race or ethnicity as a test for anyone’s participation in an activity funded with integration revenue. This includes school choice programs, magnet schools, teacher scholarship programs, or any other initiative or planning process. Districts may choose to use race-neutral guidelines for students, families, or staff to participate in programming, such as eligibility for the Free and Reduced Priced Lunch program or residency within a defined geographical area.
Public schools are in the education business.    For this reason, we must use our precious education dollars whenever possible to promote the educational success of all of our students.  Next year, we will be preparing our new four year plan for the use of integration revenue.  At the same time, the integration revenue program will be the subject of careful scrutiny at the State level.   I believe that we would do well to change the name of the program and reconfigure its purpose to target the revenue towards providing stronger more effective programs to promote educational success for students who come to school with educational disadvantages.  As I've said in my last post, I'm convinced that the key to improving student success is more hard work, more reading, better study habits, and more time learning.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Overwhelming Achievement Gap Before School Begins

In my last post I wrote about the gap in vocabulary among  incoming students at the Kindergarten level.   I argued that it is a mistake to believe that any teacher can wave a magic wand and make up this difference with good teaching alone.   Learning takes time, I argued.  Learning is hard work.  Students who are educationally disadvantaged aren't going to make up the gap, unless they compensate for their disadvantage with extra time learning, and lots of it.  A ton of research has been accumulating on the cumulative learning disadvantage arising from shortfalls in vocabulary among disadvantaged students.

How big is this gap and what are the significance for public schools.  Many studies of incoming kindergartners seem to show that gap between advantaged and disadvantaged populations is approximately one standard deviation.  Some of you remember the standard deviation from college statistics.   Here's a picture of the familiar bell-shaped curve


bell curve
The idea is that in a so-called "normal distribution," just about one third of the population is within one standard deviation above the median and another third, within one standard deviation below. Put differently, more than two thirds of the normally distributed population is less than one standard deviation of the median.  So, what does it mean if we say that the mean score of disadvantaged students is a full standard deviation below the median of advantaged?   Consider two populations, advantaged and disadvantaged.  The advantage might be economic, linguistic, racial or some other factor that results in a standard deviation difference between the advantaged group and the disadvantaged group.
First, randomly selecting one disadvantaged child and one advantaged child and comparing their scores will show the advantaged child exceeding the disadvantaged child 76 percent of the time and the disadvantaged child exceeding the advantaged  child only 24 percent of the time. Second, 84 percent of advantaged children will perform better than the average disadvantaged child, while 16 percent of disadvantaged children will perform better than the average advantaged child. Third, if a class that is evenly divided among advantaged and disadvantaged is divided into two equal-sized groups based on ability, then disadvantaged students will compose roughly 70 percent, and advantaged 30 percent, of the students in the lower performing group. Fourth, if a school district chooses only the top-scoring 5 percent of students for “gifted” courses, such classes will have thirteen times more from the advantaged group than the disadvantaged group.  Finally,  assume that a reading textbook is written so that the average advantaged student will read it at a 75 percent comprehension rate. The implied comprehension rate for the average disadvantaged student will be 53 percent, virtually guaranteeing that such a reader will not engage with the text. Rock and  Stenner, Assessment Issues in the Testing, of Children at School Entry (2005).
A full standard deviation between advantaged and disadvantaged groups is a huge gap with grave consequences for the disadvantaged group.  It doesn't mean that members of the disadvantaged group can't succeed, because some will.    But it means that the disadvantaged group faces overwhelming disadvantages right from the start of school, and that these disadvantages compound themselves, year after year, unless the disadvantages are attacked at the very beginning.  And, I am arguing that the attack on the disadvantage requires compensatory time -- more time learning during school and after school.  

The achievement gap is not a product of public schools, it is a product of the disadvantages that arise in families where the parents are themselves educationally disadvantaged.   Mastering the achievement gap requires improving public schools so that they can overcome overwhelming disadvantages.  They need to be massively better, not because they are terrible schools, but because we have set them a mission that is overwhelmingly difficult and challenging.   They need to move a group of children who come to school, on the average, a standard deviation behind, and whose disadvantages continue throughout their schooling.   

Suppose for example, half of the students who came to school practiced dribbling and shooting a basketball one hour a night throughout elementary school, while another group never touched a basketball at home.   How would those two groups perform on tests of dribbling and shooting?   I'll have more to say about this in the next post.....

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Attacking the Achievement Gap with More Learning Time

For the last several decades, education elites in Washington DC and state capitols have propagated the idea that the the achievement gap can be closed simply through better leadership, better curriculum and better teachers.   But more and more, overwhelming evidence argues that closing the achievement gap requires us to provide disadvantaged students with significantly more learning time.

Children who do well in school come to us, generally, with some special advantages.   Most of them accumulate thousands of hours of informal learning at home before they come to school.   They have larger vocabularies, better understanding of phonics, superior preparation for the classroom experience.

This discrepancy between home learning experiences continues unabated throughout school.     It is a mistake to believe that any teacher can wave a magic wand and make up this difference with good teaching alone.   Learning takes time.  Learning is hard work.  Students who are educationally disadvantaged aren't going to make up the gap, unless they compensate for their disadvantage with extra time learning, and lots of it.  A ton of research has been accumulating on the cumulative learning disadvantage arising from shortfalls in vocabulary among disadvantaged students.  

"One of the most persistent findings in reading research is that the extent of students’ vocabulary knowledge relates strongly to their reading comprehension and overall academic success (see Baumann, Kame‘enui, & Ash, 2003; Becker, 1977; Davis, 1942; Whipple, 1925). This relationship seems logical; to get meaning from what they read, students need both a great many words in their vocabularies and the ability to use various strategies to establish the meanings of new words when they encounter them. Young students who don’t have large vocabularies or effective word-learning strategies often struggle to achieve comprehension. Their bad experiences with reading set in motion a cycle of frustration and failure that continues throughout their schooling (Hart & Risley, 2003; Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman, & Hemphill, 2000; White, Graves, & Slater, 1990). Because these students don’t have sufficient word knowledge to understand what they read, they typically avoid reading. Because they don’t read very much, they don’t have the opportunity to see and learn very many new words. This sets in motion the well known “Matthew Effects,” Stanovich’s (1986) application of Matthew, 25:29–“the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”  .  Lehr, et al, A Focus on Vocabulary, Pacific Resources for Education and Learning
The achievement gap comes, in part, from a gap in learning time, informal and formal, at home.   You can find some resources on the cumulative impact of the vocabulary gap in "Big Ideas in Reading", an on line resource maintained by the University of Oregon College of Education:
  • The importance of vocabulary knowledge to school success, in general, and reading comprehension, in particular, is widely documented. 
  • The National Research Council  concluded that vocabulary development is a fundamental goal for students in the early grades.
  • Hart and Risley's seminal study tells us that there is a vast difference in the number of words heard by pre kindergarten children at home, with some children hearing three times as many spoken words than others.  A child living with well educated parents will hear 30 million more spoken words in four years than chlidren coming from less well educated families.  They compared children from advantaged families to those in disadvantaged families and found that three year old children in the advantaged families used a greater vocabulary at age 3 than the parents of disadvantaged children.  
  • The discrepancy in vocabulary gets larger and larger as children get older, building greater and greater disadvantages.  
Big Ideas in Reading says: "Research has shown that children who read even ten minutes a day outside of school experience substantially higher rates of vocabulary growth between second and fifth grade than children who do little or no reading. (Anderson & Nagy, 1992, see References)"  The achievement gap cannot be closed without closing the gap in learning time that begins at home.  For students who are deprived of that precious learning time at home, we need to provide make up time in school and after school.    Look at the difference in the number of words read by the most active readers and least active readers.   
Percentile Rank Minutes Per Day Words Read Per Year
Books Text Books Text
98 65.0 67.3 4,358,000 4,733,000
90 21.2 33.4 1,823,000 2,357,000
80 14.2 24.6 1,146,000 1,697,000
70 9.6 16.9 622,000 1,168,000
60 6.5 13.1 432,000 722,000
50 4.6 9.2 282,000 601,000
40 3.2 6.2 200,000 421,000
30 1.8 4.3 106,000 251,000
20 0.7 2.4 21,000 134,000
10 0.1 1.0 8,000 51,000
2 0 0 0 8,000
What does all this mean for closing the achievement gap?   We need to attack educational disadvantages with more time learning, but we can only justify spending public money to do that for students and families who are willing to reward our investment by meeting high expectations.  
  • Students with educational disadvantages must spend more time in school engaging in reading, math and science.    
  • We need to lengthen the school day and lengthen the school year for those students, the achievement gap is a manifestation of less time learning.  
  • We should create after school programs with academic focus to assist students 
  • Students who don't speak English need extra time to learn English and the sooner that they learn English fluently the better.   We should accomplish this objective with extra immersion time in the early grades.  
  •  We should offer increased learning time opportunities to students and families who make good use of that opportunity.    If we provide increased learning time at public expense, the students who receive that opportunity should meet high expectations of attendance and hard work during school and after school.  Parents and students who benefit should sign contracts promising to meet high expectations.   
  • As a community, we must expect parents, day care providers and early childhood programs to provide learning rich environments.   
  • We should assign more homework, and especially homework that increases the amount of home-reading that students do. Not copying lists and doing endless drill, but reading literature that builds vocabulary and reading fluency.   
  • As a community we need to provide more adult mentors to disadvantaged students.   
I'll have more to say in future posts about making up the achievement gap with more learning time.

Expanded Learning Time Links
Expanded Learning Time Matters
Expanded Learning Time "Rocketship Education"
Apollo 20 Project  Creative expanded learning time program

Mass 2020   Massachusetts 2020's mission is to expand educational and economic opportunities for children and families across Massachusetts
Expanding Learning Time in High School
National Center on Time and Learning

Monday, September 12, 2011

Effective Use of Homework: an example of developing great teachers

I want to talk a bit about developing good teachers.  My post is inspired by a recent article in the New York Times, called "The Trouble with Homework" by Annie Murphy Paul.  Paul argues that teachers are failing to use homework effectively.   She writes:

The quantity of students’ homework is a lot less important than its quality. And evidence suggests that as of now, homework isn’t making the grade. Although surveys show that the amount of time our children spend on homework has risen over the last three decades, American students are mired in the middle of international academic rankings: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, according to results from the Program for International Student Assessment released last December. 
Paul  argues that there are a variety of techniques, some of them quite simple and straightforward, that can make homework a more powerful teaching aid and significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of instruction.  One example, is the use of so-called “Spaced repetition" a technique that spreads the learning of particular skills over the entire school year.   We learn about the definite integral in one compact unit in calculus, but in spaced repetition, we attack the definite integral over and over again, throughout the entire calculus course, and learning research is telling us that when students do that, they understand the integral more deeply.  We learn complex concepts best by visiting and revisiting those concepts throughout the school year.   Using this technique is not a function of being a good teacher or a bad teacher, its a function of becoming an improved teacher by developing new strengths and capabilities throughout ones career.  Paul writes: Eighth-grade history students who relied on a spaced approach to learning had nearly double the retention rate of students who studied the same material in a consolidated unit, reported researchers from the University of California-San Diego in 2007.

What does this have to do with the topic of good teaching and good teachers?   Its an illustration of the fact that good teachers are developed over time and that good teaching is promoted through a process of mentoring, professional development and ongoing professional growth.   Often, I hear people claim that there are good teachers and bad teachers, and the way to promote good teaching is simply to get rid of the bad ones.   There's a certain macho pleasure that some people take in thinking that if we just got tougher and weeded out bad teachers, that all of a sudden the quality of teaching would improve markedly.  They believe what they hear on Fox TV, or on the Rush show, from people who fill time on the air with grumpy uninformed macho talk.    Of course, we should get rid of teachers who have no aptitude for teaching and who simply display no potential to become quality teachers.    Bad teachers represent  a tiny percentage of the teachers in most school districts.    You could get rid of every last bad teacher and barely make a dent in the overall quality of teaching, because developing quality teaching is just a whole lot more complicated than the macho crowd can envision.

Paul writes as well about what she calls “retrieval practice," another application of modern learning theory that, she claims, really works.
“retrieval practice,” employs a familiar tool — the test — in a new way: not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it......Students who used retrieval practice to learn science retained about 50 percent more of the material than students who studied in traditional ways, reported researchers from Purdue University earlier this year. Students — and parents — may groan at the prospect of more tests, but the self-quizzing involved in retrieval practice need not provoke any anxiety. It’s simply an effective way to focus less on the input of knowledge (passively reading over textbooks and notes) and more on its output (calling up that same information from one’s own brain).
Another great idea, but my purpose here is not to regurgitate Paul's position on effective use of learning theory.   My purpose is to make the point that the bag of tricks used by teachers include all sorts  of techniques that really work, and we can develop better teaching if we make the improvement of teaching and teachers systemic in our schools.   One way to do that is to find more time for effective professional development.   Another way is to put teaching coaches on staff.  A third way is to insist that principals are true instructional leaders with strong teacher development skills.    Now, every time I say something like this, some self styled macho commenter comes on line and says, stop coddling teachers, if they don't know how to do these things, just dump them and find someone new!   But the truth of the matter is that that's not how effective organizations treat their most precious assets, their teaching professionals.   Not even macho ones.

Organizations become effective by investing in their employees through effective professional development.   Increasingly,  then, proponents of meaningful reform in public education are recognizing that the key to improving teaching quality  is helping teachers -- new teachers, average teachers, struggling teachers, and even excellent teachers -- to improve their teaching by implementing proven practices that work.   Part of the problem is that schools of education tend to view teacher education as just another academic discipline.   The people who teach teachers to teach, often consider themselves as academics, just like biochemists, sociologists and literary academics.   Teaching is a profession, best taught by excellent teachers as an apprenticeship.   Its not about John Dewey or any other theorist.  It is about assembling and applying  dozens and dozens of tricks of the trade, some of which are specific to the discipline --mathematics, science, language arts, or social studies -- and some of which are native to all teaching.   The art of teaching can be learned, but it takes lots of work and lots of dedication.   You don't come out of teaching school an accomplished teacher, any more than you come out of law school an accomplished lawyer.   Good teaching is developed and nurtured.  

Developing effective us of homework, or using tests to promote learning, are just two examples of the kinds of things that a good school can do to promote effective teaching.    What we need to do is recognize that that there are hundreds of practices, maybe thousands, that can be learned over time.   We must insist that our public school systems install first class professional development systems that grows our good teachers into great ones.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Links to Information About Minnesota School Finance

The purpose of this posting is to provide some references (links) to resources that provide helpful information on Minnesota School Finance.  In most cases, the reports are available online, and I've provided a direct link to the information where possible. 

I.    Minnesota Budget

    A.    Minnesota 2009 Budget Trends Report.  This critically important report explains the genesis of Minnesota’s structural deficit:   the rising dependency ratio, the reduction in taxation, and the unsustainable growth in Minnesota’s health budget. Provides the best bi-partisan coherent explanation for the importance to Minnesota’s future of educating all students to high levels of proficiency.  Links to the Report:   Workgroup,   MinnPost Version  

    B.    1995 Report: Within Our Means  is a report issued by Minnesota Planning Report:  “If there is a time to solve the state’s fiscal problems, it is now. The economy has been strong. The percentage of Minnesotans of working age is still growing and will reach an all-time high in 2010, before beginning a long-term decline. Over the next 15 years, the combined proportion of children and elderly — the age groups most dependent on support from others — will be less than at any time since 1950. From now to the year 2010, the state will have a maximum percentage of people in their peak earning years. After 2010, solutions will be more difficult, as the percentage of Minnesotans of working age begins to decline

II.    Minnesota House of Representatives, 2010-2011

    A.     Financing Education in Minnesota.  This report is updated annually.  Explains, but does not analyze, the various components of Minnesota's financial funding formulas. 

    B.    The House legislative staff publishes a variety of memos relevant to education finance. 

III.    Minnesota 2020  Minnesota 2020 periodically publishes advocacy pieces prepared by staff research associates.   Minnesota 2020 studies advocate for a “price of government” inflation index, which tends to make the inflation adjusted growth in education funding significantly lower than studies using Consumer Price Index.   The organization recently published   Declining Funding, Degrading Quality, August 2011, a Survey of Minnesota Superintendents.  Argues that “By Fiscal Year 2013 (the 2012-13 school year), real per-pupil state aid to schools will have declined almost 13 percent over the decade. That’s taking into account the legislature’s recent $50 per pupil increase to the base funding formula. Nearly every Minnesota school district will be operating with less per-pupil, inflation-adjusted state aid for the 2012-13 school year than in the 2002-03 school year.

IV.    Minnesota Department of Education

    A.    A helpful list of MDE school  finance links may be found on the Parents United Webpage  

    B.    MDE Budget Spreadsheets.    Minnesota Department of Education maintains a variety of financial data on its websites.  Many of them contain worksheets that allow you to plug in the school district number and bring up detailed information about the particular district. 

    C.    Special Education Cross-Subsidies, Report to the Legislature, January 2011  The adjusted net cross-subsidy declined slightly from $352 million to $345 million between FY 1999 and FY 2001, but began to increase in FY 2002, and grew at an accelerating rate between FY 2003 and FY 2007, reaching $599 million in FY 2007.   As a result of the 2007 legislation, the cross-subsidy decreased to $507 million in FY 2008 but began to grow again in FY 2009 to $547 million. Due to federal stimulus funds in FY 2010 with anticipated carry-over in FY 2011, the cross-subsidy is projected to drop below the FY 2008 level in FY 2010 to $491 million and rise slightly in FY 2011 to $518 million. It is projected to exceed the FY 2007 level by FY 2012 and to reach $742 million in FY 2015.  Shows Concludes that average adjusted net cross subsidies varies by classification of school district. As of 2010,  The smallest of non-metro school districts average $380 per student.   Other non-metro school districts between $400 and $500.  Metro non-Minneapolis/St. Paul Districts averaged $617, and Minneapolis and St. Paul, $850.


    D.    Policy Issues in Special Education Finance (Minnesota Family Impact Seminar Briefing Report - 2009).   Excellent discussion of the issues presented by Minnesota's special education funding system.

V.    Parents United for Public Schools (  This highly respected public school advocacy organization publishes or links to a number of studies and newspaper articles on the State of Minnesota public education.

VI.    Schools for Equity in Education  Schools for Equity in Education (SEE) is an association of 58 school districts throughout the state of Minnesota.  See’s predecessor was a leader in the commencement of the Skeen litigation. Its member school districts serve approximately 250,000 children, over one-third of Minnesota's K-12 public school students. SEE explains: “SEE districts tend to receive the minimum in state aid based on its student population and also tend to have lower property wealth. These combined characteristics along with the current problems in the state funding formula result in most SEE districts receiving well below the state average in funding.”  See maintains a variety of useful studies on its website.

    A.    The History of the General Education Basic Formula The basic formula is per pupil funding that districts receive from the state. These dollars determine a district's operating fund. This chart shows that the basic formula would have to be increased by $1,903 for schools to have the same buying power they had back in 1991.

    B.    District Referendum Information

    C.    Revenue Disparity 2009/10 The gap in funding between school districts is growing and most of the growth is due to disparities of referendum revenue between districts.

    D.    An Exploratory Analysis Hamline University School of Business April 30, 2009.  Discusses the inflation adjusted growth in school funding; the E-12 share of the State budget over time.  Argues that the Minnesota legislature has allocated funds to various formula components without making a meaningful effort to connect the amount of funds allocated to the cost of achieving the objective assigned to those funds.  

Saturday, September 3, 2011

School Finance Litigation: The Rose Decision

During the last several years, Minnesota's public education community has begun to form a consensus that the school funding system in Minnesota is fundamentally broken, and not just broken, but unconstitutionally broken.    The issue is not merely one of the distribution of funding, or the level of funding, it is more systemic than that.   We have a system that in many respects cannot be called a system at all, because the pieces of the system do not work together, and are not made to work together, in a rational coherent way.       The legislature and governor have established a system that forces districts to spend more than they receive in an irrational way that results in financial and educational chaos.

As we in Minnesota discuss what has happening to our system, and what must be done, we seek to understand better the efforts of other states to address constitutional deficiencies in their public systems.    Today, I'm posting about an historic constitutional case, Rose v. Council for Better Education, 790 S.W.2d 186 (Ky. 1989).    The Rose case was initiated by a council composed of 66 school districts.   The Council was joined in the litigation by the parents of 22 school children in bringing suit. They argued that Kentucky’s statewide school funding system violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment and Section 183 of the state constitution, which specifies that the “General Assembly shall, by appropriate legislation, provide for an efficient system of common schools throughout the State” (Ky. Const. § 183).

You can read about the Kentucky experience in a 2009 publication, Substantial, and Yet Not Sufficient:   Kentucky's Effort  to Build Proficient for Each and Every Child , (The Campaign for Educational Equity, Teachers College Columbia December, 2009.)    In 1989, Kentucky's school system was suffering from very substantial statewide deficiencies that made it one of the most ineffective public school systems in the nation.   After the Court issued its decision in Rose, virtually every aspect of the State's educational system has been subject to major reform and restructuring.  To the extent that Kentucky has improved its performance, the consensus indicates that it was not just improved funding that achieved these results, but rather a systemic effort to implement structural reforms, and that these reforms resulted from the active participation of the executive and legislative branches of government, of the education community itself, of parents and business interests.

Let's look at the Rose decision itself  The Rose decision begins with reference to the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  "The goal of the framers of our constitution, and the polestar of this opinion, is eloquently and movingly stated in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education:"

education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.   Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.   Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”  Id., 347 U.S. 483, 493, 74 S.Ct. 686, 691, 98 L.Ed. 873 (1954) (emphasis added).
The Supreme Court found that the evidence presented in the trial court established that Kentucky's educational system was plainly deficient:
The overall effect of appellants' evidence is a virtual concession that Kentucky's system of common schools is underfunded and inadequate; is fraught with inequalities and inequities throughout the 177 local school districts; is ranked nationally in the lower 20-25% in virtually every category that is used to evaluate educational performance; and is not uniform among the districts in educational opportunities. When one considers the evidence presented by the appellants, there is little or no evidence to even begin to negate that of the appellees. The tidal wave of the appellees' evidence literally engulfs that of the appellants.,,,The achievement test scores in the poorer districts are lower than those in the richer districts and expert opinion clearly established that there is a correlation between those scores and the wealth of the district. Student-teacher ratios are higher in the poorer districts. Moreover, although Kentucky's per capita income is low, it makes an even lower per capita effort to support the common schools.  Students in property poor districts receive inadequate and inferior educational opportunities as compared to those offered to those students in the more affluent districts
Moreover, the court found,  "most of the witnesses before the trial court testified that not only were the state's educational opportunities unequal and lacking in uniformity, but that all were inadequate. Testimony indicated that not only do the so-called poorer districts provide inadequate education to fulfill the needs of the students but the more affluent districts' efforts are inadequate as well, as judged by accepted national standards."

The defendants in the case argued that the State had met its responsibility to provide adequate funding by granting local districts the opportunity to impose additional "permissive taxes," which could provide additional funding beyond the funding provided by the state.   These permissive taxes, however, were subject to local referendum repeal, and many districts were unable or unwilling to implement these supplemental taxes.  The Court explained:
The Court ordered  the legislature and executive to implement comprehensive and sweeping relief:
A child's right to an adequate education is a fundamental one under our Constitution. The General Assembly must protect and advance that right. We concur with the trial court that an efficient system of education must have as its goal to provide each and every child with at least the seven following capacities: (i) sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization; (ii) sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable the student to make informed choices; (iii)  sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation; (iv) sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness; (v) sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage; (vi) sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and (vii) sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market. ......Lest there be any doubt, the result of our decision is that Kentucky's entire system of common schools is unconstitutional. There is no allegation that only part of the common school system is invalid, and we find no such circumstance. This decision applies to the entire sweep of the system-all its parts and parcels. This decision applies to the statutes creating, implementing and financing the system and to all regulations, etc., pertaining thereto. This decision covers the creation of local school districts, school boards, and the Kentucky Department of Education to the Minimum Foundation Program and Power Equalization Program. It covers school construction and maintenance, teacher certification-the whole gamut of the common school system in Kentucky. 
Following implementation of the Rose reforms, NAEP test scores on nationally normed reading and mathematics assessments increased substantially.  Critics of the decision argue that possibly these increases might have occurred even without the fundamental changes in funding and the structural and accountability changes that accompanied those funding changes, but the consensus in Kentucky is that the Rose litigation shocked the system, woke up legislators and the executive branch to their fiduciary responsibility to education, and resulted in groundbreaking reforms to Kentucky's educational system.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

School District Considers Self-Financing Energy Savings Projects

On Thursday, the Board's finance committee listened to a presentation from a consultant who has been evaluating our school facilities and assisting us in preparing a long term maintenance plan.  (Every school district must prepare and update long-term facilities plans to assure the State that we are not allowing our facilities to deteriorate and also to assure that we use our facilities improvement budget responsibly). 

Our consultant is recommending that we consider implementing about $1 million dollars in energy-saving projects next year.   We spent most of our finance committee time listening to his recommendations and asking probing questions.   The selected projects supposedly will pay for themselves, literally, out of the savings in energy costs.  

Let's use lighting fixtures as an example.   In many of our buildings we have very old, energy inefficient lighting, dating from the days when energy was cheap. Today's newer fixtures use far less energy, and if you buy the new fixtures, allegedly you can recover the cost of the fixture (including installation) in under ten years with the savings.  The idea is that the vendor leases the electrical fixtures on a lease-to-own basis, and promises that the lease payments will be lower than the energy cost savings.  Under the plan, your payments never exceed the actual energy cost savings realized by the improvements, guaranteed.  

Additional savings come from taking advantage of a variety of rebate incentives that will make a contribution to the cost, and some federal tax credits that are available to the vendor for offering and implementing an energy savings project.   Now the lighting is just one example.   If an old school has a door system that is not energy tight, that door system can be replaced as well, and potentially paid for out of the energy savings.  When all is said and done, the consultant claims, our school district could implement $1 million in energy savings projects, completely paid for by energy savings, guaranteed. 

The concept seems attractive.   We retrofit our facilities, for free, as it were, paid for out of reduced energy costs, and when the lease period is over, we have continued energy savings and newer improved facilities fully paid for.   But there is significant due diligence left to be done.   The finance committee recommended that the administration begin that due diligence process by obtaining a detailed proposal on the items that could benefit from this approach.  Then, if the administration recommends that we continue, we would develop a request for proposals, to assure that we afford competing vendors with an opportunity to submit competing proposals.   We must assure ourselves that the work, if authorized, is done by the best qualified vendor for the lowest possible price.  

Care is required in implementing these projects.  Because they are self-financing, it is important that one doesn't think of them as "free."  Public money is involved: scrutiny should be applied to assure that the best value is being obtained for the money expended.  Also, scrutiny is required to assure that the method of calculating savings is legitimate.  The vendors who facilitate these transactions have expertise, and they are surely motivated to prevent themselves from taking an undue risk.   It is important to make sure that the formula only recognizes legitimate savings arising from the project. 

Resources:
Easy Access to Energy Improvements in the Public Sector
Energy Star
Lease and Lease Purchasing for School Facilities
Learning by Design 
Minneapolis Tribune Article "Schools Learning to Save"


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Washington Cuts Montana Schools a NCLB break

Education week reports in this week's edition, that the State of Montana was allowed retroactively to revise its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) proficiency targets downward so that 155 more schools would make "adequate yearly progress" this year. What's going on in Montana?

The underlying assumption of the NCLB law is that all children can reach an arbitrarily set standard of proficiency by 2014.  Each state sets its own standard designated arbitrarily as the proficiency cut score.  There is no basis -- none whatsoever -- for setting the standard at any particular level.   The level set is totally political.  Whatever the level, it will be too high --unattainable-- for some children, and too low to challenge others.  Some states have very high proficiency cut scores, and some much lower.  But no matter what level is set, there is no research that suggests that all students can reach the proficiency level set by any of these states, and in fact, whether you send kids to good schools are bad schools, public schools or private schools, some of them are not going to pass the proficiency level, no matter what it is, because by golly, children are not all the same.

But here's the problem.  NCLB says that all students must reach the State's NCLB standard by 2014, and that is not possible.   At the beginning, states could set the AYP (adequate yearly progress) level at some low percentage of students proficient.   So for example, it might have been acceptable for 65% of the students in any school to reach proficiency in math.   But each year, the percentage is supposed to increase, until eventually, in that utopian year, 2014, all students, 100%, must be proficient, even though everyone knows that's not possible.   If a student has various ethnic or racial groups then each ethnic or racial group of 20 or more students counts separately.  So, an all white school with few disabled students only has one way to fail AYP, but a school with 5 ethnic groups and students with disabilities has six different groups who have to pass the cut score level separately.  

Now as years went by, schools with higher disadvantaged populations started to fail AYP first.   That was no problem, at first, because the school districts who made AYP kind of bragged about it and pretended that their teachers and their curriculum were superior, really.   It was sort of fun, really,  to beat up on disadvantaged kids in disadvantaged schools.  But as the AYP cut scores went up and up, year after year, more and more schools were branded as failures, until the vast majority got "dinged" by AYP, even the schools where the children of bankers, lawyers, and doctors attended.  Not because they were doing worse than before, but because no matter how well you did, the passing scores kept rising and rising.  NCLB was either designed purposely  to make all public schools fail, or it was designed by total blithering idiots, or  a little of both. Even the children of doctors and lawyers and bankers can't all pass an arbitrary proficiency level, because by golly their kids aren't all the same either.

Now some pretty smart people have been warning for years, that it was just a matter of time before all schools, even schools that are highly regarded, would be branded as failures.  A few days ago, the Washington Post reported that some of suburban Virginia's highly rated exceptional schools and districts, are no longer making AYP, because the ever rising score requirements have passed them by too.  That shocked lots of people in the Washington elites who had concocted NCLB.  Nobody ever dreamed that their own schools would get penalized; this was supposed to embarrass schools where other kids attended.   Everybody knows that suburban Virginia has wonderful schools, but  still some students in these fantastic schools just can't reach the ever increasing requirements.  It was ok when urban school districts were branded failures, but once NCLB started to brand mostly white suburban districts as failures, well that was just too much.  There was a rising tide of demands for exceptions, waivers, or anything to prevent these districts from having to pay the penalties that NCLB brings.

This year, the State of Montana had way too many schools fail to make adequate yearly progress, and the leadership of the State and its Congressional delegation demanded relief.  NCLB wasn't supposed to penalize Montana kids either.  The state Superintendent of Montana's public schools wrote:
If the game of basketball operated like NCLB, every student, despite her or his athletic ability or interest, must make the team; and then, the only way a student can score points is by a slam dunk. Under NCLB rules, free throws don't matter, lay-ups don't matter, three-point shots don't matter, assists don't matter, and rebounds don't matter. Only the slam dunk matters. And, over time, the basket keeps rising in height.
"Montana schools", the superintendent wrote,  "have steadily increased the percentage of students reaching proficiency or advanced on its state test. Since 2005-06, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in reading has increased from 78 percent to 85 percent this year and, in math, from 61 percent to 68 percent."  But that increasing test performance was not rising as fast as the NCLB targets, which must go up to 100 percent by the utopian year of 2014.  And so, Montana, Utah, Idaho, and South Dakota all applied for retroactive reductions in their NCLB proficiency targets.  And by golly,  somebody in Washington listened, and Montana was allowed to go back and lower its goals retroactively.  Bingo, 155 schools that were going to be called failures are now designated as making adequate yearly progress.

In the meantime, the deadlock over NCLB re-authorization continues.  Nobody is willing to fix the law.  Republicans blame Democrats; Democrats blame Republicans.   We are driving our public schools over a cliff.   We have designed a system that is based on the false premise that all children are the same, as if all we have to do is snap our fingers and eventually all children will be perfect.   In the meantime, instead of fixing NCLB for all children, the schools with powerful friends get waivers and exemptions.

Past Post:
AYP Means Are you phooling

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Replace Lane System with Leadership and Responsibility Compensation

 In this post, I want to suggest that it is time to replace traditional lane compensation --  progression in teacher pay based upon the earning of post bachelor degree credits -- with responsibility pay embedded in a career ladder.

The University of Wisconsin's Consortium for Policy Research in Education has done a lot of work on  strategic management of human capital in education.  Among their publications is a series of papers making recommendations for reform in teacher compensation, and I often turn to CPRE research, because it is is thoughtful and well documented. One of the things that I like about CPRE's work is that it carefully distinguishes among teacher "base pay,"  "base pay progression," and "variable pay". Base pay is the regular pay that you receive in your particular position. It is the pay that you are entitled to as long as you keep your job.   Base pay progression is the way in which your base pay increases. Across the country, in almost all districts, teachers base pay progresses based on steps -- the number of years that the teacher has been employed in the District, and lanes -- a pay increment that is earned by passing post college coursework.    In most districts, the teacher must pay for the credits earned out of her own pocket in order to earn lane credit.   The cost and time commitment required to earn lane credits can be considerable.  A teacher who advances to the highest possible lane  puts in tens of thousands of dollars earning lane credits and numerous hours of class-time and (hopefully) study.  Variable pay is pay contingent on meeting some objective, such as student test score results, and variable pay is almost non-existent in most systems.  Today's post does not argue for variable pay:  it argues that responsibility and leadership pay should supplant the current lane system for base pay progression.

Public teacher compensation provides base pay progression based on  "training and experience."  There is a fair amount of research that suggests that teacher performance and student results improve with experience, although some critics claim that the effect is limited to the first five years of teaching, more or less.  However, because step increases are provided regularly and somewhat reliably (when the State provides adequate funds to pay them), steps attract teachers into the professions at lower salaries than they would otherwise accept, if only base pay, without step progression, were offered.

The problem with lane pay is that there is overwhelming evidence that, with some exceptions, lane pay does not equate to conduct that improves teaching and learning.  The Center for Educator Compensation reform presents a bibliography of studies that make this point:
The preponderance of evidence suggests that teachers who have completed graduate degrees are not significantly more effective at increasing student learning than those with no more than a bachelor’s degree. Five studies reviewed by Rice (2003), which examined student achievement in a wide variety of grades and subject areas, found that teachers having completed an advanced degree had no significant effect on student performance (Summers &Wolfe, 1977; Link & Ratledge, 1979; Murnane & Phillips, 1981; Harnisch, 1987; Monk, 1994). Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor (2007a) also found that on average, elementary teachers who had completed master’s degrees were no more or no less effective than others at raising student achievement, with one exception. Elementary teachers with master’s degrees appeared to be less effective, on average, than those without advanced degrees if they earned the degrees more than five years after they started teaching.
Now there are exceptions to this basic claim.   Secondary teachers surely benefit from advanced substantive training in their field of responsibility.   Biology teachers who know more biology will likely do a better job of teaching biology, especially when they are teaching higher level courses.  Historically, however, Districts have exerted very little control over the kind of courses that must be taken, and districts have demanded virtually no proof that the course taken actually translates into improved instruction.    The question is whether there might be a better use of scarce compensation dollars that would actually attract and retain quality teachers, and do a better job of improving teaching and learning, than the current lane system.  I believe that the answer is responsibility pay -- compensation for leadership and responsibility.

CRPE writes that many young highly motivated teachers come to public education with expectations for advancement that differ from the old training and experience paradigm:
Anecdotal evidence from several sources, however, suggests that once in the system, these individuals want to be successful in the classroom, to be in schools led by instructionally oriented principals, and to be in an organization with high expectations for the achievement of all students and that relentlessly pursues that goal. The individuals also want career ladder structures that put them in positions of responsibility around the instructional program, such as a teacher team leader role, an instructional coach role, a content expert role, etc. They also want a pay system that is based on their performance, taking into account both their level of instructional expertise and improvements in student achievement. They do not want to have to wait several years for a leadership position as an assistant principal, nor wait 20 years to get to the top of the salary schedule. They want a performance-based career ladder and salary structure that lets them move up to higher pay either based on new and increased responsibility or their own performance and/or the performance of their students.
This idea of advancement through leadership, I believe, is critically important to the ability of education to respond to changing needs.  Contrary to the popular belief system, education has too few leaders, not too many, and the shortage of leaders makes it almost impossible for public education to be agile --  that is to respond to changes at the pace necessary to make necessary changes.   We can't add tons of more administrators to solve this leadership gap, and it wouldn't help anyway.   We need to rethink the pyramid of leadership within the teaching profession itself.   In some districts, those few with plenty of resources, the solution is to add specialists in the central office, but these specialists are not part of the district's teaching infrastructure.  They aren't in the school on a daily basis.  They don't eat with fellow teachers in the lunchroom.  They don't teach any longer, and consequently, their ideas are constantly being criticized as being out of touch and unrealistic.  In most organizations, leadership is embedded in the organizational infrastructure.   Leaders have supervisory responsibility as well as productivity responsibility.   But the teaching profession is structured so that teachers as a profession are basically powerless to participate in the management of their own profession.

An army has privates, corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, captains and so on.    Each level of leadership has a direct connection to the persons above and below.  In a school district, there is no pyramidal structure of leadership.  Teachers are teachers are teachers.   This system stifles teachers who have drive to improve their institution.  It turns professionals who would like to see change into cynics instead of active contributors.   We desperately need to reform the profession of education so that young teachers who aspire to display their talents for leadership have a recognized place in the systemic structure: so they can make a difference in what we do.

If the school district wants to improve elementary science instruction --- something that we need to do -- there should be science leaders in each building, teachers with strong science backgrounds who, as part of their instructional leadership role, can be delegated the responsibility to lead their fellow teachers in making that transformation.   If the school district wants to improve the implementation of its use of web-based communication with students and parents -- something that we need to do -- there should be teacher leaders who can lead the implementation of these changes, not as a special assignment, but because they are recognized teacher leaders with operational responsibility.   And the only way that we can make this happen is to restructure the current structure of the profession and provide opportunities for advancement and compensation through leadership and responsibility.

A teaching structure that rewards initiative, leadership, and contributions to school improvement would transform the profession.  It would be good for teachers, especially those with leadership potential,  and it would create public support for better teacher compensation.

New Teacher Pay Structures CPRE Research Paper (2009)
Lane Improvement as a Cost Component
Arizona Career Ladder
Center for Educator Compensation Reform   Summary of research on link between student achievement and training and experience.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

A word about Matt Damon's Attack on Testing

About a week ago, the media paid quite a bit of attention to a passionate speech in support of public school teachers by actor Matt Damon.  The speech included an attack on the overuse of standardized tests, as follows:
I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.
I've been writing a bit about the widening scope of the standardized testing scandals in which individual schools and even school districts have been alleged to have produced quantum leaps in standardized testing scores through organized cheating by some of the educators themselves.  And in the course of those posts, I've made it clear that I believe in regular use of standardized testing as an important component in teaching and learning.   At the same time, Damon's emotional attack on overuse of testing resonates.   The best teachers do make learning exciting for its own sake.  The best teachers don't engage in "silly drill and kill nonsense" and the best teachers do approach children "like an individual puzzle."   How does one harmonize the truth in Damon's argument with a belief that standardized testing is important?

I think we have to recognize that we don't have to choose between the folks who claim that standardized testing will transform public education through a system sanction and rewards, on the one hand, and the folks who seem to want to drive standardized testing out of education altogether.   Standardized testing --- like the NWEA progress based testing -- provides data that can be used to approach each child "like an individual puzzle."    These new testing systems actually adjust the difficulty of the test to the level of the student, automatically, as the student answers questions.  They provide individualized scaled scores that provide information to the teacher on where the student is struggling.  They reward the student and teacher for the amount of progress.   As we get more sophisticated in the use of these tests, the hope is that educators will become more and more sophisticated in using the results of these tests to help each student progress.

Standardized testing also provides no-nonsense information for parents.   Instead of telling a parent, "Mary is such a hard worker,"  properly read, these tests tell a parent exactly where a student stands on the important skills of reading and math.   If a student is not progressing, a parent finds out immediately, instead of finding out in 8th or 9th grade, when it is way to late to develop a remediation plan.  

Part of the fear of standardized testing is that testing will be used improperly to rate teachers, not based on the quality of their teaching, but on the preparation and intellect of the particular students who happen to be assigned to her classroom.   This issue is not unique to education.     A hospital that handles the most difficult cases fears that ratings based on outcomes may wrongly suggest that the hospital isn't as good as a hospital that  specializes in less difficult cases.  In education it has become customary for school districts serving exclusive neighborhoods with low poverty populations, few immigrants, and few first-generation students, to boast that "our test scores are really high."   Yet, we all know that the most important factor in determining the test scores of students at the end of the year is the test scores that they had at the beginning.  When I taught two classes of the same subject, one after another, my class of high fliers way out performed my other class, even though I worked just as hard to help both classes excel.

The strength of progress-based testing is precisely that it focuses on the progress that the individual student has made.  Properly used, progress based testing rewards a teacher for moving a student a year (or more) ahead, whether the student started behind or ahead at the beginning of the year.

Teachers understandably fear that their evaluations, and perhaps their continued employment, will depend not on their effectiveness, but on a political process that assigns students to their classroom.   This is a legitimate fear, but the solution is not to wage a war on standardized testing, but to use testing appropriately.  The primary purpose of standardized testing is to help teachers do their job better.  Standardized testing like the NWEA can do that by providing meaningful data to teachers and administrators and parents that tell them how well students are learning.  If used wisely, that information can be an invaluable tool in public education.

Prior posts and links on testing
NWEA Provides Window on Student Achievement

Using NWEA for Accountability
RITS, NWEA and Progress Based Testing
Testing Scandals I
the Notebook
Editorial in USA today
National Center for Fair and Open Testing 
Washington Post  article
Los Angeles Charters Accused of Cheating Closed
Testing Scandals II