Friday, March 11, 2011

33 local school districts have joined in calling for mandate relief from New York State

Be it Resolved by the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association that Legislative and Unfunded Mandate Relief Must be Included in any NY State Property Tax Cap Proposal.

WHEREAS, New York State leads the nation in local property taxes, in large part because New York leads the nation in imposing unfunded state mandates upon our local municipalities and school districts; and

WHEREAS, state mandated pension fund contributions are one of the largest components of every school district and municipal budget over which local officials have little control, and are increasing at exorbitant rates annually such that bills from the State Retirement System (ERS) will increase 40% and bills from the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) will increase 33% in the 2011-12 school year; and

WHEREAS, state laws such as the Triborough Amendment, pertaining to the collective bargaining of contracts between school districts and employee unions, impede the ability of local officials to reasonably control the costs that such contracts impose upon local property taxpayers; and

WHEREAS, as a solution to New York’s property tax crisis, the Governor of New York and members of the New York State Legislature have pledged to consider enactment of legislation imposing a cap on the annual growth in local property taxes; and

WHEREAS, any property tax cap must be accompanied simultaneously (1) by ending the practice of pushing State costs onto local school districts and municipalities, and (2) by a repeal of current underfunded or unfunded state mandates that require local municipalities and school districts to significantly increase spending and therefore local property taxes; and

WHEREAS, a property tax cap without repeal of costly underfunded and unfunded state mandates will inescapably lead to drastic cuts in essential local school district programs and services, as well as significant layoffs of school district employees;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, which represents 54 school districts serving over 165,000 students and their families, that the Governor of the State of New York and the members of the New York State Senate and New York State Assembly must reform the cost drivers that lead to high property taxes in New York – including mandate relief, pension benefits and the collective bargaining process – as the central element of any effort to provide property tax relief to the residents and businesses of New York State.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a copy of this resolution be forwarded to the Governor, Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, Assembly Speaker and Minority Leader, and the members of the State Senate and Assembly representing Westchester and Putnam Counties.

School Districts that have approved the Resolution as of 3/10/2011:

College application essay camps

After finding this CollegeConfidential thread, I read a little more about college application camps.  Here are a few examples.
A fun, invigorating, and productive week for high school juniors and those getting ready to apply to college….
Over the course of the week, you'll brainstorm topics and ideas, write first drafts and incorporate feedback to write a second or third draft. By Friday, you'll have met the challenge of writing your essays, leaving you and your family to concentrate on other college decisions. Craft these pieces this summer and avoid first-semester anxiety as admissions deadlines loom.
Location:  Chicago
Course Fee: $1250.00

Overland’s College Essay Program offers rising seniors the chance to spend a week and a half on the Williams College campus producing the essay needed for their college applications. Each of our students will have the time to create, revise and polish his or her essay while enjoying the natural beauty of the surrounding Berkshires.
Location: Williamstown, Massachusetts
Cost: $1995 (airfare not included)

Mornings and some evenings will be spent researching colleges, small group discussions of the merits and myths of various programs, individual consulting time, reviewing application procedures for your colleges and department choices, developing an individual timeline calendar and writing and editing the initial drafts of your essays -- all under the guidance of our consultants. Afternoons will be spent touring college theater, dance and film and digital media departments in the Southern California area. A Q&A will be held with each department we tour.
Location:  Los Angeles
Tuition:  $2812

Description:  High school seniors and community college transfer students will have the opportunity to develop thoughtful, personal, powerful admission and application essays for colleges, universities, and other post-secondary programs.
La Jolla, CA
Fee of $300

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What ever happened to elocution instruction in the public schools?

I wish I knew more history, but it does seem as if elocution (or oratory) is a skill mostly dropped from the public school curriculum.  Here is a description from our recent history.
If you were in school in the 1890s, and you wanted to impress your friends, you worked hard at oratory. Good speakers were heroes, even more than good athletes. Schoolchildren memorized Daniel Webster's speeches, and Abraham Lincoln's , too. They learned long poems and recited them at school assemblies. Boys and girls joined debating teams. They learned to speak out - loudly and clearly - and to make their speeches interesting.
A History of US, Book 8, Chapter 13, Joy Hakim
From Wikipedia:
In Western classical rhetoric, elocution was one of the five core disciplines of pronunciation, which was the art of delivering speeches. Orators were trained not only on proper diction, but on the proper use of gestures, stance, and dress. (Another area of rhetoric, elocutio, was unrelated to elocution and, instead, concerned the style of writing proper to discourse.)
Elocution emerged as a formal discipline during the eighteenth century. One of its important figures was Thomas Sheridan, actor and father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Thomas Sheridan's lectures on elocution, collected in Lectures on Elocution (1762) and his Lectures on Reading (1775), provided directions for marking and reading aloud passages from literature. Another actor, John Walker, published his two-volume Elements of Elocution in 1781, which provided detailed instruction on voice control, gestures, pronunciation, and emphasis.
With the publication of these works and similar ones, elocution gained wider public interest. While training on proper speaking had been an important part of private education for many centuries, the rise in the nineteenth century of a middle class in Western countries (and the corresponding rise of public education) led to great interest in the teaching of elocution, and it became a staple of the school curriculum. American students of elocution drew selections from what were popularly deemed, "Speakers". By the end of the century, several Speaker texts circulated throughout the United States, including McGuffey's New Juvenile Speaker, the Manual of Elocution and Reading, the Star Speaker, and the popular Delsarte Speaker. Some of these texts even included pictorial depictions of body movements and gestures to augment written descriptions.
Here's more, from the Wikipedia article on McGuffey Readers, reminding me that spelling and vocabulary instruction may also be downplayed these days.
McGuffey believed that teachers should study the lessons as well as their students and suggested they read aloud to their classes. He also listed questions after each story, for he believed that asking questions was critical for a teacher to give instruction. The Readers emphasized spelling, vocabulary, and formal public speaking, which, in 19th-century America, was a more common requirement than today.
I remember reading that President Johnson was his mother's star pupil.  This was circa 1920.
President Johnson's mother, Rebekah Baines, was one of the few college-educated women in the area. Education was her passion. It was in this home that she taught elocution lessons and debating techniques to the neighborhood children. Lyndon must have listened well to her instructions, for he too taught debate strategies for a school team.
Today, I can think of at least one or two existing courses in our public schools that I'd like to drop in favor of reinstating elocution instruction.  It remains a valuable skill, one that could benefit from formal instruction.

I like this explanation of elocution.
Broadly speaking, the word “elocution” refers to one’s manner of speaking or oral delivery. Elocution can also refer to the study of proper public speaking, with particular attention paid to pronunciation, grammar, style, and tone. is particularly used in reference to an orator’s manner of speech when speaking or reading aloud in public.
There is more to elocution, however, than a tidy definition. During the 1700s, elocution was considered an art form, and a formal discipline. In this capacity, elocution has common ties with pronuntiatio, the art of public speaking, which was one of the five integral disciplines in Western classical rhetoric. In following the syllabus of this art form, academic orators would have studied diction, dress, stance, and the appropriate use of gestures. It seems that in the study of speech delivery, the communications of the unspoken word were equally important to those of the spoken word.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

82% of U.S. schools are failing says Arne Duncan

An estimated 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled as "failing" under the nation's No Child Left Behind Act this year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday.
The Department of Education estimates the number of schools not meeting targets will skyrocket from 37 to 82 percent in 2011 because states are toughening their standards to meet the requirements of the law. The schools will face sanctions ranging from offering tutoring to closing their doors.
No Child Left Behind was unrealistic, so they want to change the law.
The current law sets annual student achievement targets designed with the goal of having all students proficient in math and reading by 2014, a standard now viewed as wildly unrealistic....
The Department of Education said its estimate was based on four years of data and the assuming all schools would improve at the same rate as the top quartile.

People are starting to pay more attention to what is "behind the curtain" in our public schools

I caught a few minutes of a school board budget meeting in the school district next to mine.  Residents were complaining about what they considered outrageous compensation packages given to school administrators. Some speakers expressed surprise about the way that school employees are able to carry forward so many personal/sick days and bump up their compensation during their last year of employment. Of course, the incentive to do just that lies in the fact that lifetime pensions are based on the last year or so of pay.

A couple of speakers compared their situation to that of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, as they were only now learning what was "behind the curtain".

The quote from the movie is, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." Well, people are certainly starting to pay attention now.

(Cross-posted at Kitchen Table Math)

"pipelines" vs. knowledge in the classroom

In the debate between skills-focused vs. content-focused, cognitive psychology tells us that content wins.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. says:
”a coherent and cumulative early curriculum will raise in a systematic way the knowledge and the language of our students to a much higher level, and greatly narrow the unacceptable achievement gap between blacks and whites and between other demographic groups.” 
Not this so much:
“Rather than a common curriculum, learning platforms to come will support not just ‘multiple pathways’ but customized playlists.  Customized learning will be facilitated by comprehensive learning platforms surrounded by application and service ecosystems. Learning platforms will replace today’s learning management systems (LMS) that run flat and sequential courseware.  Like iPhone and Android, these platforms will unleash investment and innovation.  --  Tom Vander Ark
A "coherent and cumulative" curriculum is often lost in the push to employ the latest technology in our schools.

Robert Pondisco in The Core Knowledge Blog


Arne Duncan, class size and champion teachers

David Brooks writes that Arne Duncan espouses the idea of "Gold Star" teachers.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a superb speech in November called the New Normal. He observed that this era of austerity should be an occasion to increase productivity and cut the things that are ineffective. Duncan is a fountain of ideas to make more with less.
For example, he says, if we have to increase class sizes, we should put more kids in with the best teachers and then we should pay those teachers more to compensate for the extra load. Most of us parents would rather see our kids in a class of 30 with a great teacher than a class of 25 with an average one.
As a parent, I agree. But I don't think our schools can do this now, because they will not acknowledge that some teachers are better than others are.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Trying to keep school costs down, even in wealthy Bronxville

This echos the comments I heard at our local schools community forum last year.
“You hear people say they want Mandarin taught in the sixth grade or they want smaller class size or some other enhancement,” said Julie Meade, president of the Parent Teacher Association and mother of two school-age children. “But they don’t talk about raising taxes to pay for what they advocate. I haven’t heard anyone say raise taxes to pay for quality.
Some advocate for addressing the compensation issue.
Some residents argue that the town should be more businesslike, cutting other costs to offset the outlay for smaller classes. Peter P. Pulkkinen is one. A 40-year-old investment banker . . . wants small classes . . . But rather than raise taxes, he would restrict the compensation of existing teachers — particularly their benefits.
Displaying a sheaf of charts and projections that he and a friend prepared for a school board meeting, Mr. Pulkkinen said in an interview that if property taxes continued to rise in Bronxville at roughly the trajectory of the last decade, they would double by 2020 — and by 46 percent in the unlikely event the “austerity budgets” of the last two years continued through the decade. “I think it is a false paradigm to have to choose between radically diminished services or exponentially higher taxes,” he said, “without first addressing the structural issue of teacher compensation.”
The choices given to taxpayers are limited, with the compensation issues "off the table".
So far, he said, Dr. Quattrone and the school board have not done so. Instead, they have chosen “soft targets.” One hour a week of Spanish instruction to grade-school students, for example, was eliminated last year.
School employees' compensation has continued to increase, but that doesn't reflect what has happened in the private sector.
“You are looking at a community of people who saw their property taxes go up for years, and now their incomes aren’t going up,”
Even in Wealthy Towns, Schools Feel the Pinch - NYT, 3/8/11

NY Times advocates to curb wages, pensions and health benefits for government employees

The New York Times editorializes on our state's fiscal crisis, with some recommendations that surprise me.  This famously liberal newspaper criticizes state employees' overly generous wage, pension and health benefits won by strong unions exerting heavy political pressure on our legislators.
At a time when public school students are being forced into ever more crowded classrooms, and poor families will lose state medical benefits, New York State is paying 10 times more for state employees’ pensions than it did just a decade ago.
That huge increase is largely because of Albany’s outsized generosity to the state’s powerful employees’ unions in the early years of the last decade, made worse when the recession pushed down pension fund earnings, forcing the state to make up the difference. 
Although taxpayers are on the hook for the recession’s costs, most state employees pay only 3 percent of their salaries to their pensions, half the level of most state employees elsewhere. Their health insurance payments are about half those in the private sector....
To point out these alarming facts is not to be anti- union, or anti-worker....
Here are the three most expensive areas of spending that need to be addressed:

2011 ABCs of School Choice

2011 ABCs of School Choice, published by The Foundation for Educational Choice, is a resource for the latest on school choice developments across the country. 

January 2011
Much has been made of the changes 2011 will bring in government in the United States—from local communities to state capitols to the halls of Congress. It is undeniable that Americans have had enough of the waste, inefficiency, and lack of accountability on display in Washington and in all 50 states. 
But the fundamental ideas that many in our nation have embraced with renewed zeal are not really new at all. The principles of human freedom, limited government, responsible spending, and the power for individuals and families to make their own choices were articulated passionately half a century ago by Milton Friedman.
Those same principles have been championed by advocates of school choice for decades. Their hard work is paying off across the country, as legislators respond to calls for choice and the enactment of new voucher, tax-credit scholarship, and educational tax credit programs.
No single, one-size-fits-all approach to education can meet the unique needs of the country’s diverse students, families, and communities. People deserve options and the right to choose what’s best for them and their children. That diversity of options can be overwhelming. And the rate at which government leaders from coast to coast are finally taking action to provide more choices can make it difficult to keep up.
That’s where our annual publication, The ABCs of School Choice, comes in. It provides all the basic information you need to grasp the state of school choice in the U.S., as well as specific details to update you on every school choice program across the country.
The gains of recent years are heartening. Because families’ options are increasing, more kids are receiving the motivating, challenging, effective education they deserve. We have come a long way—but there is still much to be done. The opponents of choice will only increase their efforts to maintain the status quo. That’s why we are committed to continuing to provide you with up-to-date, accurate information about successful school choice programs throughout the country.
We at the Foundation for Educational Choice hope you find this guide to be an essential aid as you continue working to give parents the choices they desire—and the education their children deserve.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Informative Q & A about school budget issues - compensation and benefits

These FAQ are posted at the Mamaroneck school district website.  It appears they are from last year's budget period, but many are relevant today.  Here are some selected questions from the

Q:  Please explain the teachers' salary structure, including raises and step increases.
A:  The teachers salary structure in Mamaroneck, which has been in place since the first contract in the 1960's, is structured similarly to teacher contracts throughout New York State.  The salary chart is a grid, comprised of a series of rows referred to as "steps," which are tied to teaching experience, and a series of columns referred to as "lanes," which represent levels of education.  New teachers are hired onto a "step" within a "lane," based on experience and education level.
Each year, ALL teachers receive the contractual cost of living increase; the current contract provides 3.8% for the 2010-11 school year, a rate that was competitive at the time the contract was settled.  In addition, a teacher progresses by a step each year, until s/he reaches the maximum step on the salary schedule.  If a teacher completes enough additional coursework, the teacher is also eligible to move over a lane. There are lanes for each 15 additional units of credit, from a bachelor's degree through a doctorate. Thus, a teacher can receive an increase for the cost of living, for an additional year of experience, and for additional education.
Q:  Why does this structure make sense? 

Transparency is appreciated

When I recently requested some detailed information from our middle school principal, he provided it all, even though it appeared to take some effort to gather it.  This transparency is greatly appreciated, and should be the norm in our school district.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Extracurriculars are important

I believe that the core academic coursework should take precedence over almost everything else when school budgets are being tightened.  But students lose out on so much of educational value when extracurriculars are cut due to lack of funds.  Our local high school drama instructor explained it so well in describing how students benefit from participating in school plays.
Best reason to join the musical:
"I think being in a show makes you a stronger, more fearless person," he says. "Your skills improve; what you think you can do improves.
"I tell everybody, you should join the musical once, just to see what it's like," he says. "In my experience, more often than not kids say they wish they had joined earlier. It just seems to round out a person."
How the musical changes kids:
It puts kids on the right path.  "There are high standards to being in the play," he says. "You have to keep your marks up. If you're not coming to school, you're not (allowed) at rehearsal. Every director would like to say there's a giant emotional change and everybody's going to suddenly start reading epic Russian novels, but I honestly think that they get in the play and they like it and they don't want to screw up and get thrown out."
Review Press: Talking high-school musicals with some of the area's directors