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.