Friday, April 29, 2011

Our local school district's proposed budget increase is highest in region calculated the average of proposed budget increases for the lower Hudson Vally school districts to be 2%.  Our local district is asking voters to approve a 3.9% increase, the second highest increase among all schools.  And when corrected for the fact that Edgemont's capital projects expenses will be paid with funds collected in previous tax years, we rank number one.*

Some facts about our local school district's proposed budget:
  • It is the highest budget-to-budget increase among 53 school districts in the Lower Hudson Valley.
  • The number of enrolled students is not projected to increase.
  • It eliminates at least 6 FTE (Full Time Equivalent) instructional positions, reduces the music program and increases class sizes.
  • $950,000 was pulled from the district's unallocated fund balance in order to offset what would otherwise have been an even bigger tax levy increase.
  • Pension/health/salary costs went up, while all other school costs combined went down.
  • Taxpayer-funded pension costs increased approximately 37% from last year and account for over 50% of the budget increase. ( It is projected that taxpayer-funded annual contributions to teacher pensions will more than quadruple over the next five years.)
  • For their family health insurance coverage, school employees pay only a fraction of premiums paid by state employees (26%) and private sector employees (18%).  Health benefit costs account for 18% of this year's budget increase.

The bottom line is that student programs have been downsized while school employees have experienced negligible changes to their generous compensation packages.  Good teachers should be well compensated, but the trend of escalating cost of benefits means that for the foreseeable future either the quality of our children's education will diminish or substantial tax increases will be accepted by voters.  And given that Westchester leads nation in property taxes again, I predict that our children will be the losers in this equation.  It appears that the real choice we face is either cutting compensation costs or cutting student services.

I'd like to know if our school board asked the union to renegotiate their contract before the budget was finalized.

Related:  Passing the pension time bomb in New York State

* Taxpayers in the Edgemont district face the highest spending increase in the region, 4.5 percent, according to state data. Superintendent Nancy Taddiken said, however, that the $50.7 million proposed budget includes $850,000 for capital projects that was collected from prior years' budgets.
"Our budget-to-budget increase is 2.73 percent," Taddiken said. "The larger number is a result of an accounting requirement."

REMINDER - today is the last day for comments on the New York Teacher and Principal Evaluation Regulations

See more details here:  First draft of New York teacher evaluation regs available for comment by the public

More about tea party involvement in public schools

From Lisbon, Maine, to Rockford, Ill., tea-party groups are arguing, sometimes successfully, against more property taxes, which in many communities largely go to public education. They say schools already spend too much on extras unrelated to core learning and that staffs are bloated, and they challenge the idea that smaller class size equals better instruction.
The Wall Street Journal article features tea party activity in York, Pennsyvlanica and Jacksonville, Florida.  But school officials are pushing back.
School districts say they are already cutting deeply and need more help from taxpayers. The York Suburban district gets just 13% of its revenue from state and federal funding; the rest comes from local property taxes, and state aid could decline further under budget cuts proposed by Pennsylvania's new Republican governor, Tom Corbett.
"It's like they are saying: Cut at any cost—we don't care about the service level and how it's affected," said Dennis Younkin, finance director for the York Suburban school district.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

1 in 5 high school seniors applied to Harvard


The numbers are from last year, but should be similar for this year.  Harvard offers generous financial aid to low- to upper middle-income families, providing incentive for many students to reach for the brass ring of a Harvard degree.

From the Harvard website:
Our current financial aid policy has dramatically reduced the amount families with incomes below $180,000 are expected to pay, and parents of families with incomes below $60,000 are not expected to contribute at all to college costs. We no longer consider home equity as a resource in our determination of a family contribution, and students are not expected to take out loans, which have been replaced by need-based Harvard scholarship. This program has reduced the cost to middle income families making the price of a Harvard education for students on financial aid comparable to the cost of in-state tuition and fees at the nation’s leading public universities. For a more detailed explanation of our program, please click here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Gender differences in middle school clubs

Read these two middle school club descriptions and take a quiz on how boys and girls in this school are treated.
History Club – Mr. X
The History Club runs the annual National Geography Bee, as well as other activities during the year. We have "Historical Movie" nights where we show movies based on historical events (Pearl Harbor, The Alamo, etc). During these nights we serve pizza and soda. We have enjoyed Saturday field trips to West Point and other historical places.
International Club – Ms. Y and Ms. Z
The International Club is designed to promote sensitivity, understanding, and an appreciation of one another and what makes all people so special. The members are involved in activities such as discussion sessions on cultural topics, culinary lessons, and excursions to museums, theaters, special libraries, and the United Nations.
  1. How many gender stereotypes can you find in the club descriptions?
  2. Which club attracts more boys, and which attracts more girls?
  3. Do you think the clubs are designed to target specific genders, or does this just occur by happenstance?
  4. Is it a good idea to organize these club around specific interests that may appeal to one particular gender?  If not, what changes would you make to these clubs?
  5. What came first, the chicken or the egg?
I'll hold my opinions, but . . .

Gender disparity at the geography bee

From Mark Perry:
National Geographic Bee - GW law professor Jonathan Turley reports that Minot State University professor emeritus Eric Clausen has been battling the National Geographic Society (NGS) in federal court over his claims that the national contest discriminates against girls because virtually no girls have won the national title.... 
According to Professor Clausen only 2 out of the state winners in 2009 were girls and only one girl advanced to the national finals in 2010. Clausen also claims that the “NGS knows and has known since the Geographic Bee competitions began that the contests do not provide girls with an equal opportunity to participate in the higher-level competitions.”
It appears that only five girls won state competitions in 2011, so the trend continues.

Related to this story are my observations during a recent 8th grade class field trip to Washington DC.  During our visits to the museums and other attractions, the boys appeared significantly more interested than the girls in history and politics.  They asked many more questions, including plenty of inappropriate ones.  Last time I checked, the middle school history club was mainly boys.

It could be that one of the reasons boys are drawn more to geography and history is that they tend to be the gender with a stronger interest in wars.  A quote by writer Ambrose Pierce comes to mind:  "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography."  Curiously, the trend in history social studies classes seems to be to downplay the military details of wars in favor of an increased focus on the human suffering and victimization aspects.  This causes me to speculate it might be a conscious strategy designed to draw more girls into the subject of history.

On the other hand, take this quiz about two middle school clubs to consider another way our schools might be dealing with gender differences when it come to the study of history.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dumbing down tests for insurance agents

About 80% of Primerica recruits don't actually become insurance agents, often because they flunk state licensing exams, according to filings and interviews....
So Primerica recently came up with a novel solution: Make the tests easier. It asserted to state regulators that the exams aren't only too hard in some places, but might also be racially biased, putting African-Americans and other minorities at a disadvantage.
After reviewing its licensing test, Virginia made it easier.  A handful of other states have looked at their tests, with particular attention to the possibility of racial bias.

Insuring Fairness?
Primerica and the American Council of Life Insurers say the alleged racial bias in licensing exams has to do with such issues as whether questions are overly complicated and if they gauge a person's test-taking ability rather than his or her knowledge of insurance products. Below is a question from a Florida study guide, which the ACLI says is typical "of how answering a basic insurance question can be made hard merely because of how the question is phrased."
All of the following statements regarding basic forms of whole life insurance are correct EXCEPT:
A) generally, straight life premiums are payable, at least annually, for the duration of the insured's life
B) the owner of a 30-pay life policy will owe no more premiums after the 30th year the policy is in force
C) limited payment provides protection only for the years during which premiums are paid
D) a single-premium life policy is purchased with a large one-time only premium"
(The correct answer is C.)
Primerica and the ACLI say a better question for assessing a test-taker's knowledge of whole life insurance might be:
Which policy is designed to mature at age 100?
A) term policy
b) whole life policy
c) annuity
d) endowment policy
(The correct answer is B.)
Shouldn't we expect good reading comprehension skills from our insurance agents?  From the comments section of the story:
The test questions may be convoluted, but certainly no less so than the insurance documents the agent candidates will have to be able to understand. Ever tried to read your policy?
If you cannot pass a basic insurance licensing test you have no business selling insurance.

Will Khan Academy help make higher education more affordable?

Dramatic changes are needed to reign in the escalating costs of a college education.  Our current situation is simply unsustainable, with tuition increasing nearly four times the rate of inflation over the last 25 years. In this Forbes video, Khan Academy founder Salman Khan expresses confidence that his efforts are rapidly changing the learning part of a college education, and will affect the credentialing part within a relatively short time frame.  While it's impossible to know exactly how higher education will change in the next 20 years, Khan's vision seems quite probable to me, with the potential to offer desperately needed financial relief for families in the coming years.

Khan speaks about hands-on learning and the importance of teachers, as well as the future of universities:

About two minutes into this short video, Khan says the following:
To the point about replacing universities, I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.  But I think it’s an interesting idea and to think about that you have to realize that a university is about two things - it’s a credential and it’s learning.  I think Khan Academy is going to be able to really change how the learning part is done in a pretty significant way.  The credentialing part, getting your degree from Stanford or Harvard, that’ll probably be there for a little while.  I think if you fast forward ten years from now I mean it’s not going g to happen overnight   I mean this is social change happening. 10 years, 20 years, I think an employer would rather see your log from a site like Khan Academy where it doesn’t just get a 3.2 GPA in psychology it gets what you did , when you did it, how well you did it, how well were you able to help your peers, how consistently did you work,  wow, this guy worked 3 hours every day for 20 years on this stuff, this is a persistent kind of guy that I want working for me and we’ll be able to give people that type of analytics.  I think that can be a more powerful transcript than just a high level degree right now.

Jay Mathews' take on misconceptions about value-added measures

All seven misconceptions from Douglas N. Harris' new book are listed below, along with Mathews' thoughtful comments.  Regarding the first misconception, I strongly believe we shouldn't avoid value-added measuring simply because it's "complicated", which could be a reason to avoid tackling all sorts of problems in education.  Also, the team vs. individual aspect of evaluating educators keeps coming up in discussions.  My bias leans towards rewarding individual efforts, which is the hallmark of at least one successful merit pay program
The successful incentive arrangement cited in the article rewards individual teachers based on student performance.
Misconception 1: We cannot evaluate educators based on value-added because teaching is complicated.
Harris says the complex nature of teaching and learning is obvious, but value-added can bring some clarity. Student outcomes are just one factor, but an important one. My problem is that the focus on each teacher’s effect on student academic growth detracts from the team spirit that animates the best schools I know.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Decline in teacher status traced to seniority rules

In a NY Times article titled Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?:
Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy group, said the decline in teachers’ status traced to the success of unions in paying teachers and granting job security based on their years of service, not ability.
“They are reaping a bitter harvest that they didn’t individually plant but their profession has planted over 50 years, going from a respected profession to a mass work force in which everyone is treated as if they are interchangeable, as in the steel mills of yesteryear,” Mr. Finn said. 
As a school principal opposed to LIFO rules expressed to me recently, it's difficult to view teachers as true professionals with these types of work rules.

"Planners base prison cells on pupils' math scores" reports from a panel discussion on the importance of math:
Smikle gave the parents in the room a sobering statistic: people who build prisons determine the number of cells on math scores from local fourth- and fifth-graders. If your child is failing math, he said, "there is already a cell being built for them."
Planners should also use reading scores, since the level of reading skills children develop by third grade may indicate their likelihood of graduating high school.
Wanda Foy-Burroughs, who spent 28 years teaching algebra in Newark, said training math teachers how to incorporate hands-on learning into their lessons is key to students' success.
Hands-on learning can be good, but the overuse of manipulatives can be very inefficient and impede the learning of abstract math concepts.

April is Mathematics Awareness Month.