Friday, April 8, 2011

"News flash: It's raining. Double news flash: It's pouring."

I agree with New York Governor Cuomo when he describes the public school funding crisis this way.
"News flash: It's raining. Double news flash: It's pouring."
The Wall Street Journal writes about what school districts are doing to address crisis conditions:
  • tapping deeper into reserves to avoid layoffs and cuts to programs and sport
  • 200 of the more than 700 public school districts in the state have agreed to concessions in recent years
Some examples of "innovating" and "cooperating":
— Rockland County's Ramapo school district, where teachers agreed to increase their contribution into their health benefits, along with a two-year pay freeze, saving $2.4 million over that time.
— Albany County's Bethlehem schools, where every employee accepted a pay freeze for at least most of the coming year, saving $1.3 million.
— Oneida County's Adirondack Central Schools board, which adjusted schedules so fewer buses were on the road at the same time and bought three buses instead of four, while reducing the number of positions that were to be cut.
— Jefferson County's Sackets Harbor schools, where every employee will go a second year without a raise.
Nobody seems to be increasing spending to a point where taxes will rise more than a few percentage points. 

Update:  Average school budget increase in New York expected to be at or below 1.4%

Informative Q & A about school budget issues - tenure is mandated by New York State

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 explaining tenure.  I previously posted about compensation and benefits Q&A.
Q:  Why do we have tenure in our school district?
A:  Tenure is governed by New York State Education Law (Sections 2509, 2573, 3012 and 3014) and is not optional for NYS public schools.  Teachers are eligible for tenure in their third year of employment, unless they have been granted tenure in a previous district, in which case the probationary period is two, instead of three, years.  A tenured teacher has a legal right to his or her job unless a school district can prove just cause for dismissal or discipline in a due process hearing. 
Q:  If we have to lay off teachers, how do seniority rules apply?
A:  Seniority rights are based upon appointment in a particular tenure area and apply to both tenured and probationary teachers.  Should a teaching position be abolished, districts must use seniority to determine the order in which teachers are dismissed.  Thus, within the tenure area in which the position was abolished, the teacher with the least seniority would be laid off, even if there are other teachers with less seniority in other tenure areas.

Tenure areas are defined by the NYS Education Department and include Elementary (Pre-K through sixth grade), academic subject areas for grades 7-12 (English, social studies, mathematics, science and foreign language), as well as 15 other special subject areas.  In the case of elementary school teachers, teachers from all four elementary schools are in the same tenure area; thus, seniority is looked at district-wide, and not by school or particular grade level.
Q:  Can we stop awarding tenure?  What happens if we do?
A:  Tenure is mandated by NYS law and is not optional.  We are not permitted to hire teachers on a year-to-year contract past the state-defined probationary period. If we continued employing a teacher past the probationary period, the teacher could be considered by law to have been granted tenure "by estoppel" anyway, even without board approval.  It is also not legal for a board simply to dismiss all teachers after their three-year probation is over.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

One parent's suggestion for "21st century skills" curriculum

Our schools say their focus is on teaching "21st Century Skills", incorporating digital devices into the classroom and offering several computer technology courses by the time a student reaches high school.  However, as a parent, I wonder why a certain 8th grader never learned about the risk of viruses from free gaming sites or how to avoid accidentally buying $9.99 ring tone subscriptions for her cell phone.  That would seem to be a critical "21st century skill" - how not to be scammed by the Internet!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Career day at school

A plastic surgeon took breast implants to show Shady Grove elementary students at a career day presentation in Virginia.  Some parents felt that this was inappropriate.

I don't think it was a particularly good idea to let 5th graders feel breast implants in a classroom "show and tell" presentation, but it would probably have been a disastrous laugh-fest if this had occurred in a middle school.

Why some employers value a solid liberal arts education

A comment on a CollegeConfidential thread made a point about the value of a liberal arts education from an employer's perspective.
We'd rather teach a Phi Beta Kappa in History from Amherst what Organizational Leadership is, than have to teach the Beta Alpha Psi from XYZ business program who Mao was and why you need to understand Communism in order to write a business plan for a product launch for our Beijing office. 
I have no doubt that many employers value college graduates armed with a strong understanding of business fundamentals.  However, leaders in all areas would benefit from the knowledge gained by a solid liberal arts education.

The entire comment:
The issue has nothing to do with distribution requirements, number of courses outside the major, etc. Put simply, when we hire an English major from Swarthmore or Williams we know he or she can write. When we hire an Engineering student (for a non-engineering job, by the way) from Cornell or Princeton or JHU we know they won't need remedial math. When we hire an anthropology major from Chicago or Wellesley we know he or she won't need help finding Malaysia on a map. We've hired kids with undergrad business degrees from a variety of schools (public and private) and found the talent pool decidedly mixed. Entrance requirements to the honors societies are weak; GPA's are inflated by classes like "Organizational Leadership" or "Healthcare in Society". And take a 90 page report and create an executive summary of three pages plus two appendices? Forget it.

We'd rather teach a Phi Beta Kappa in History from Amherst what Organizational Leadership is, than have to teach the Beta Alpha Psi from XYZ business program who Mao was and why you need to understand Communism in order to write a business plan for a product launch for our Beijing office.
UPDATE:  A liberal arts education need not be a "a waste of time and money"

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Holland also has "boy problems"

Reported at DutchNews 
Girls outperform boys in school, more likely to go to university
Wednesday 30 March 2011
Girls are performing better than boys at school, are more likely to follow college and university education and get their degrees more quickly, according to new figures from the school inspectorate.
There are now more girls than boys in pre-university and hbo college streams while boys are in a majority in vocational training. Boys also form 66% of the pupils in special education and are more likely to repeat school years.
In higher education, girls are less likely to change their minds about the subjects they study. Of the students who started university in 2001, six out of 10 men had a degree within five years, compared with 75% of women. There is a similar gap in hbo college results.
In terms of subjects, at the end of primary school, girls are better at spelling and reading while boys are better at maths and arithmetic, the inspectors say.
The inspectors will publish more information on the research in mid April.
Found this at Why Boys Fail

Monday, April 4, 2011

Local PTA advocacy

This letter was provided by our local PTA so that parents could easily advocate for their children's schools.  Additional versions were distributed for parents to send to Assemblywoman Paulin and Governor Cuomo.

I'm unsure what exactly this part means:
Revise the way schools are funded to ensure equity so that all children in New York State receive the same high level of education. 

Address _______________________
Address _______________________
Date      ________________________

Dear Senator Klein,  
Our children need your help!
Taxpayers in New York are tax-weary and need property tax relief. However, Governor Cuomo proposes a simplistic solution that may have dire consequences for our schools and our children.   The Governor wants a tax cap.  It sounds like a good idea. 

However, unless a tax cap is accompanied with meaningful mandate relief, the result could decimate the Eastchester Schools. 
Any discussion on tax cap legislation must do the following:
·        Revise the way schools are funded to ensure equity so that all children in New York State receive the same high level of education. 
·        Repeal underfunded or unfunded state mandates that require local municipalities and school districts to significantly increase spending and therefore raise local property taxes. 
·        End the poor practice of passing costs on to taxpayers for unnecessary mandates.  
This is a crucial time in this country.  We must ensure that our children are prepared to meet the requirements to excel in a sophisticated and demanding global economy.  The opposite may occur under the Cuomo approach to education.  It will inescapably lead to drastic cuts in essential local school district programs and significant layoffs of school district employees.  DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN ON YOUR WATCH.
Thank you for all that you do for the Eastchester Community and the Eastchester Schools.

Name: ____________________________________________
Signature: _________________________________________

"Research is mixed on merit pay's success."

The latest report from a New York City teacher incentive plan sheds more doubt on the efficacy of merit pay for educators.  However, this experiment mostly rewarded schools instead of individual teachers.  The successful incentive arrangement cited in the article rewards individual teachers based on student performance.

From The Wall Street Journal:
In 2007, New York City and its teachers union launched an experiment to determine whether rewarding teachers with extra cash would boost student performance.
Four years and $57 million later, the answer appears to be no. Backers of incentive pay are blaming the way New York's program was structured, and school and union officials are pointing fingers at each other....
But unlike traditional incentive programs, New York didn't identify stand-out teachers and shower them with money. Instead, in a compromise reached with the union, the city gave bonus pools to schools that had performed well.
Teachers could vote on whether to distribute the money evenly or to specific staffers. Most schools chose to distribute the money evenly, according to a Harvard University study. Backers of merit pay for teachers say that eliminated the direct link between individual performance and rewards....
Research is mixed on merit pay's success. A rigorous and closely watched study of a Nashville incentive-pay program found it didn't improve student test scores, while a study of Denver's merit-pay initiative found it attracted higher-quality teachers and kept them in hard-to-staff schools.
But there is a key difference between those programs and New York's. Both Nashville and Denver directly linked performance pay of teachers to the performance of students in their classes. The Denver program also considers classroom evaluations as part of the bonus pay and allows teachers in non-tested subjects to get cash based on schoolwide improvements.
From the start, the New York approach had its skeptics. Some said the bonuses needed to go to the teachers whose classes made the biggest improvements, not be spread among all the teachers of a school....
Two studies—one by Columbia University and the other by Harvard—found recently that student test scores at schools that received bonus money didn't improve at any better rate than at schools that received no money. In fact, both studies found that in some subjects and grades, the program resulted in slightly lower achievement.
Researchers posited that because the bonuses were based on how well entire schools performed, and how well they performed compared to similar schools citywide, the money didn't offer much incentive to individual teachers to excel.
"It was clear in 2007 that this plan wouldn't enable the best teachers to earn dramatically more, and therefore would likely be limited in long-term effect," said Bryan Hassell, co-director of Public Impact, a research and consulting organization that is often at odds with the teachers union. He wasn't involved in the studies.
"This plan paid chump change compared to what the best teachers should be earning for reaching more kids successfully," Mr. Hassell said.

Public schools have experienced "negative productivity"

Stephen Moore at The Wall Street Journal:
Where are the productivity gains in government? Consider a core function of state and local governments: schools. Over the period 1970-2005, school spending per pupil, adjusted for inflation, doubled, while standardized achievement test scores were flat. Over roughly that same time period, public-school employment doubled per student, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington. That is what economists call negative productivity.
But education is an industry where we measure performance backwards: We gauge school performance not by outputs, but by inputs. If quality falls, we say we didn't pay teachers enough or we need smaller class sizes or newer schools. If education had undergone the same productivity revolution that manufacturing has, we would have half as many educators, smaller school budgets, and higher graduation rates and test scores. 
The same is true of almost all other government services. Mass transit spends more and more every year and yet a much smaller share of Americans use trains and buses today than in past decades. One way that private companies spur productivity is by firing underperforming employees and rewarding excellence. In government employment, tenure for teachers and near lifetime employment for other civil servants shields workers from this basic system of reward and punishment. It is a system that breeds mediocrity, which is what we've gotten. 
Our local schools are resistant to using technology as a way to measure student performance levels.  This seems to be an obvious area where "21st century skills" could be applied to increase productivity - reducing costs while improving student achievement levels.  Khan Academy, the brainchild of a smart, ambitious man, does this beautifully.


Teachers and coaches can access all of their students' data. You can get a summary of class performance as a whole or dive into a particular student's profile to figure out exactly which topics are problematic. The class profile lets coaches glance at their dashboard and quickly figure out how to best spend their time teaching.
We've put a lot of energy into making sure that the Khan Academy empowers teachers by giving them access to the data they should've had for years. You'll know instantly if a student is struggling in multiplying fractions...or if she hit a streak and is now far ahead of the class.