Archive for Politics

When equal isn’t equitable

Budget season is upon us and as a first time board of education member, it has a different meaning this year. As a consultant, I often deal with the aftermath of city or state negotiations. As a taxpayer, I pay the bill, sometimes disagreeing with how effectively some of those dollars are spent. Now, as a consultant, taxpayer, board of education member, and a mother – the discussions and negotiations have a whole new impact.

(Heads up for Norwalkers reading this – I will not discuss politics, the “he said, she said,” or the blame game that is so easy to get into. This piece is about the higher level realities of the term equity and what a budget represents.)

The Background: Like many states, Connecticut is not in a great financial situation – revenue is stalled or is declining, contractual obligations are rising, and costs for everything continue to increase. In Norwalk, which lies along the “Gold Coast,” essentially the far-reaching suburbs of New York City, we receive a disproportionately low share of the state’s education cost sharing formula (long story about the history of ECS and how high real estate prices make it seem that our community has more wealth than it actually does). The city and the state have underfunded the school district for decades.

The school system is finally on a successful trajectory, there is a Strategic Operating Plan (SOP) guiding the work of the district, a Superintendent and Board of Education that believe in and are actively working to fix many of the structural systemic legacy issues, while also moving the district forward to increase college and career readiness for all students. The results of the first few years of SOP implementation have been profound. The district jumped to the top of its district reference group (comparing “like” districts), and the new state accountability metrics, which value student growth, demonstrate major improvements.

Then, budget season comes around. Without going into the nitty gritty of politics (which don’t really matter for the point of this piece, and noting that similar situations occur across the country every year), the bottom line is that the district’s original budget request will not be fully funded. There is a desire to limit tax increases (legitimately so), tax payers want to limit spending while also wanting more and better services, increasing unfunded state and federal mandates cost more each year, and limited state grants add to the complexity of the situation. The result will be the delayed implementation of many of the SOP initiatives, along with some major reductions to current district spending as well – which will include removing staff and cutting programs – when combined, will inevitably impact academic growth and social-emotional learning. Which, eventually impacts property values and the cycle continues…

Is equity equal? In this city, we often compare our per pupil costs to our neighbors – all of whom spend more than us. While I fully support the sentiment of this approach, it is not the entire story. We not only compete with surrounding towns that fund more per student for staff and for families, but we also have a student population that costs more to educate. We have higher rates of English Language Learners, students eligible for free and reduced price meals (approx 50%), and students that require special education services than many of our competing neighbors. This valuable diversity is a huge advantage to our city and the very reason that many families (including mine) move here in the first place, but it does come with a cost. Our assets increase our liabilities. It is our reality.

Nationally, we talk a lot about equity. But, what does equity mean? Equity does not mean equal resources. Equity is more about the outcomes of those resources. When two students start in different places, they may require different resources to achieve the same outcome. Equal funding for Norwalk students does not necessarily equate to equitable educational opportunities.

A Budget’s Significance: I first heard the statement “a budget is a moral document” when I was in graduate school studying public administration. I don’t know who first stated it, as it’s been attributed to many politicians and community activists (including MLK Jr), but that mindset has stuck with me. A budget truly is a moral document. Where we put our resources demonstrates our priorities. Our priorities should reflect our needs (hat tips to good data collection and root cause analysis to determine those needs!) and the values of our community.

Should we throw money around? Absolutely not. I have seen millions of dollars of federal funds used ineffectively in the school improvement world (often due to lack of fidelity of implementation, lack of alignment between programs and needs, lack of monitoring, and the absence of performance contracting). More money does not necessarily fix a problem. Money that is used efficiently and effectively to target improving systems and structures, and provides appropriate supports to students (and staff) does transform the educational opportunities for students.

Takeaways: There are few easy solutions here and my city is not isolated in this struggle. I see similar scenarios play out across the country. That said, this district has made tremendous growth in just a few short years and I hope that we can continue to value and support that growth. Aside from local politics and the cuts that my fellow board members and will have to make over the next few months, my lasting takeaways include: 1) budgets are moral documents that represent our values and priorities, and 2) equal does not always mean equitable.

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The teachers who fall through the cracks

We often talk about trying to save the kids who fall through the cracks, but what about the teachers? There are good teachers out there, who truly love teaching and believe that all of their students can learn, but their voices are rarely heard. With the rise of teacher quality organizations (Teach Plus, National Center for Teacher Quality, The New Teacher Project, Educators for Excellence, etc) it’s getting better, but not fast enough.

A blog was recently posted on CNN from a teacher who is in SUPPORT of merit pay, career ladders, differentiated pay, and stronger evaluations. She accurately recognizes the problems within the current education system and embraces healthy competition and the continuous improvement of teachers.

But, she doesn’t discuss the reasons why these things aren’t being implemented any faster.

Policy reformers (BOTH democrats and republicans) are hampered by politics. The unions remain incredibly strong and it feels like one step forward two steps back during the implementation of every (and any) reform. The unions protect the status quo and this teacher (and most of the great teachers out there) challenge the status quo.

Unions are definitely a major issue to this type of reform, but the capacity of principals and teachers are barriers as well.

Principals and other school administrators need strong training to understand how to use data effectively and how to evaluate teachers for 1) evaluation purposes and 2) observations for the sake of creating a teacher’s professional development plan. These are two very different reasons for a principal or teacher leader to observe a classroom and they must be trained to do the actual observation properly, and to know what to do with that information once it’s gathered.

The capacity of teachers is also severely lacking across the country. Many schools of education are graduating teachers who have no real classroom experience, don’t know how to differentiate learning for students, and don’t understand how to manage a classroom. In effect, schools of ed are essentially setting up their own graduates for failure. As reformers, how come we’re not putting more pressure on the schools of ed to better teach their teachers? To track how their teachers do in the classroom, upon graduation? How long they stay in education? Teachers major in education believing that they’ll be taught how to teach, when that’s not the case.

On another teacher capacity note, if we have merit pay and better evaluation systems. Do we have enough good and great teachers to fill the positions of teachers who will be removed from the profession? We can’t effectively implement the solution without addressing the pipeline gap.

 

 

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Moving teachers out of the box

A great EdWeek Commentary piece by Bryan Hassel (Public Impact) and Celine Coggins (Teach Plus). Lots of really good points in here, along with some new and different ways to staff schools, so that students get the best teachers at the right times.

Click on the above link for the entire piece, some excerpts are below:

Expanding the Impact of Excellent Teachers

Published online: Aug. 16, 2012

Why is this time unique? Two crucial trends are at play. First, the United States has begun to act on the compelling data showing great variation in teachers’ success in helping students learn, as well as the monumental impact this variation can have on the life chances of students. As states and districts work to build better teacher-evaluation systems, schools will have increasingly accurate and useful data to identify which teachers are exceptionally effective.

Second, we are experiencing a major generational change. For the first time in memory, a majority of teachers have fewer than 10 years of experience. In the coming decade, they will decide whether to stay in the classroom or move on. Opportunities for leadership and compensated professional growth will weigh heavily in their decisions.

Possible examples of how to do this:

  • For example, excellent elementary teachers can reach two to four times more students by specializing in their best subjects, while less costly paraprofessionals supervise students during noninstructional time, such as recess and transitions between classes, and complete paperwork.
  • Alternatively, teachers at all levels can reach substantially more students by swapping teaching time, as little as an hour daily per student, with personalized digital instruction supervised by paraprofessionals. With the right schedule changes, teachers can collaborate, reach more students, and maintain personalized instructional time. The charter school network Rocketship Education provides one example of schools that combine subject specialization and digital instruction to achieve stellar results in high-poverty elementary schools while keeping teacher pay within budget.
  • Teacher-leaders can bring excellence to multiple classrooms by leading teams. Of course, some schools already have grade-level or department leaders. But rarely do these teachers have accountability for other teachers’ student outcomes, authority to select and evaluate peers, and enhanced pay that is sustainably funded. With full accountability for all students in a set of classrooms and explicit authority to lead teams, teacher-leaders have an enormous incentive to develop others and help all of them do their best. Lastly, master teachers can teach larger classes—within reason and by choice—allowing other teachers to have smaller classes.

Second, schools must couple collaboration with teacher leadership. Professional learning communities are not new, but their developmental potential is squandered when individual teachers are unaware of which of their peers achieve the best outcomes and when excellent teachers are isolated. Moreover, schools find scheduling a challenge and paying teacher-leaders unsustainable. Teams that acknowledge excellence openly give great teachers license to lead and good teachers license to learn.

Third, schools must empower excellent teachers to shape school cultures. Expanding these teachers’ impact will require them to influence not just classrooms, but also school values and policies. Excellent teachers should play a prominent role in determining peer selection, instructional practices and materials, evaluation methods, and retention decisions.

More needed policy changes and implications are discussed in the complete article as well.

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Districts blocking partners from getting the job done

I just saw this posted on EdWeek.com – I don’t know the back story here, but if the article is true, this is exactly the type of issue that prohibits successful turnarounds. Lead Turnaround Partners can’t do their jobs if the districts won’t work with them.

But, what are the consequences for the partners? They will be fired or their contracts will not be renewed. For the districts? In many states, district staff will keep their jobs and will continue to run the failing school year after year. That makes sense, right?

Turnaround firm sues Gary schools to get records

Published Online: July 26, 2012

GARY, Ind. (AP) — A company appointed by Indiana to run and try to turn around a troubled Gary high school is suing the Gary Community School Corp., demanding that it turn over student records it needs to run the school.

EdisonLearning Inc. senior vice president Todd McIntire told The Times of Munster for a story published Wednesday that the lawsuit requires the district to release student records and provide the for-profit firm with services as required by law, including those associated with student transportation and school maintenance.

The Indiana Department of Education appointed the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company last summer to operate Gary’s Roosevelt College and Career Academy, one of seven Indiana schools approved last year for private takeovers after poor student scores on standardized tests placed them on continued academic probation. The school had been on probation for six consecutive years.

McIntire said the lawsuit was filed Monday in Marion County Superior Court in Indianapolis because the company is acting on behalf of the state Department of Education.

Gary attorney Robert Lewis, who represents the school district, said his firm received the lawsuit on Tuesday and is still reviewing it.

“I don’t know the basis for any lawsuit. We are reviewing it and will respond accordingly,” he said.

McIntire said the district provided some student records to EdisonLearning on Wednesday morning, and company officials are auditing those records to determine exactly what it has.

“We’re going through them now. Transportation is connected to the records, and we can’t develop transportation until we have all of the student records,” he said.

McIntire said he meets weekly with the school district’s new superintendent, Cheryl Pruitt, and that she has been cooperative.

However, he said the company has had “very little response” from the school district on maintenance issues plaguing the school, including a malfunctioning elevator.

McIntire also said the school’s heating and air conditioning fails on a daily basis, and there are a number of areas with no ventilation. He also said the building also experiencing flooding last week following heavy rains.

“We have not been successful in getting the school corporation to address these issues or a date when they will get to them,” he said.

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Onion point/counterpoint brings up great issues

This week, The Onion published a point/counterpoint series discussing Teach for America (without specifically citing TFA). For those of you who are not regular Onion readers, it’s basically a fake newspaper and usually very sarcastic – so, don’t take it too seriously. That all said, the series brings up some great issues that should  be discussed, both in support of and against TFA-type programs.

Point: My year volunteering as a teacher helped education a new generation of underpriviledged kids

Counterpoint: Can we please, just once, have a real teacher?

Bottom line: kids need good teachers. There aren’t enough good teachers (with traditional teaching certifications who want to work in low-income/high-need schools), so we need alternative programs like TFA.

Any new teacher has lots of room for improvement, and most teachers don’t hit their stride until they’re a few years in…. but, is a recent college grad who knows the content and received some (albeit intense) training in classroom management and instructional strategies any better than a recent graduate of a teacher ed program who doesn’t understand the content or classroom management? The answer is YES. Numerous rigorous research studies have shown that TFA-trained teachers are equally or more effective than more traditionally trained new teachers. So while this point/counterpoint is entertaining, and does bring up some important issues (i.e. the overall issue of quality teachers, especially in low-income/high-need schools & communities), the real question is: does it really matter where teachers trained? If they’re good teachers, they’re good teachers. (And, we sure need more of them.)

 

 

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Analysis of GAO’s SIG report (part 2)

To continue the analysis of a recent GAO report…. See Part 1 here.

Dance of the lemons

Schools implementing the federal turnaround model must replace 50% of teachers, and the transformation model requires replacement of the principal (with a few exceptions), yet how those staff members are removed and replaced is not always done in the best interest of students.

While some teachers or principals in a low-performing school may simply need a new environment, many need significant professional development to improve their instructional and leadership abilities, and a few may need to change careers. The GAO report cites how these requirements are implemented all too frequently, “However, the district officials said they relocated the released teachers to the other SIG schools in their district because those schools had almost all of the vacancies. Similarly, in two states we visited, district officials moved a school’s previous principal into another leadership position on site so that the person could continue to work in the school even after a new principal was assigned.” (Pages 9-10)

Some of these moved teachers may succeed in simply a new environment, but reassigning low-performing teachers, who’ve been teaching in a chronically low-performing school, to another chronically low-performing school will not likely produce the desired student achievement results. Similarly, keeping a low-performing principal in a leadership position undermines the authority of a new principal coming into the building who is trying to make changes.

Districts must put their best teachers and best leaders in their (traditionally) “worst” schools. District leaders must develop the political will and the commitment to put student needs ahead of adults (i.e. acting as an employment agency) and school boards and state education agencies must back up these decisions.

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Conflict of interest vs. quality

The U.S. Department of Education, as well as many State Education Agencies, utilize the peer review process to identify winning applicants to most (if not all) competitive grant funds. In theory, peer reviewers and experts from the field evaluating proposals and grading them against rubrics makes complete sense. In practice, sometimes we’re so concerned about avoiding conflicts of interest that the quality of the reviews suffers.

For example, an upcoming peer review process will include at least a dozen separate competitions, all likely receiving numerous applications from organizations, universities, and partnerships across the country. ED recently contacted me to see if I would like to apply as a peer reviewer for the upcoming review process. I disclosed that while I am interested, I am likely assisting an organization with their application to one of the competitions. In effect, it is likely that I am no longer eligible to act as a peer reviewer for any of the competitions.

I completely understand and agree that a peer reviewer should not be able to review applications in any competition that they have a clear interest in (i.e. I wouldn’t be able to judge any of the applications for same competition I helped write a response for), but what about the other competitions? Based on the scale of this upcoming process, I don’t understand how ED will find enough peer reviewers, with 1) appropriate knowledge in the topic areas, and 2) who have no conflicts of interests to any of the organizations submitting applications to the dozen or so separate competitions.

While eliminating patronage and corruption is critical, ensuring that peer reviewers understand the topic area of the competition, and that applications are judged based on QUALITY, and not how well they can write a response to an RFP, is equally important. There has to be a middle ground.

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