For What it's Worth


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Act 1 redux ----Wednesday, Jan 25, 2012

Posted by hutch153 on February 13, 2012 at 2:45 PM Comments comments (36)

"That makes no sense whatsoever," said Hutchinson.


That statement begs for an explanation, which, to be honest, I was not fully prepared to give at Monday's board meeting. I did not anticipate having to defend a practice widely used by school boards in the era of Act 1, and I certainly didn't expect to have to defend the ethics /morality of that decision.


A little history on school budgeting is in order. Once upon a time, although school budgets were developed over a period of months, the actual tax rate wasn't determined until fairly late in the process - usually not until June - by which time you would have a much clearer picture of the most important factors impacting the budget, such as:

the cost of health care for the coming year

the number of retirements, and (most significantly for many districts)

the amount of the state appropriation

Then came Act 1, under which school districts are required to submit preliminary budgets when all of those numbers are no more than educated guesses, and while you are barely half-way through the current fiscal year. Act 1 also limits, by formula, the possible real estate tax increase for the coming year. For next year, that number is 1.7%.


However, for a couple of big ticket items - special education and retirement contributions - if the increase in expenses is significantly higher than the index (approximately, the rate of inflation) districts are allowed to raise taxes to cover the difference (how nice of the legislature!) on the reasonable premise that these expenses are beyond local control.


This is a fairly simple calculation for the retirement contribution rate, which is already known for next year. But your special ed budget is not so easy to predict. It is not unusual for a particularly high-needs student to unexpectedly transfer into your district, and there is a moral and legal obligation to provide that student with appropriate services, regardless of whether there is money in the budget to do so.   


So instead of permitting a district to raise taxes to pay for future special ed costs - which are unknown - this number is determined by looking backwards, essentially allowing districts to recoup expenses that have already been paid - a fairly reasonable idea in an otherwise unreasonable piece of legislation.


But there's a catch. School boards have to decide now, in January, whether or not to apply for these exemptions. Keep in mind that this merely establishes the maximum tax rate; there's no requirement that we use it. But the opposite is not true; if you don't apply for the exemptions you can't change your mind later. So the prudent course is to apply for the exemptions, maintain flexibility, let the process play itself out, and hope for a less-than-worse-case-scenario.


But to suggest that it is immoral and unethical for the district to recoup expenses that the district was legally required to make (and has already made!) makes no sense whatsoever.



p.s. I should once again point out that Act 1 is a deeply undemocratic (unethical, immoral? - who's to say?) piece of legislation.  Local citizens already had an effective way to control local school spending.  If a majority of citizens believe that their schools are in need of additonal community resources, they can elect board members who agree with them. If citizens believe that taxes are too high, they can elect people who agree with them. It's really that simple.  Why state legislators think they are a better judge of each community's values is beyond me.


And to beat the poor horse one more time, school districts are legally required to pass their budgets on time, but the state legislature, not so much.

Relationships, Relevance and Rigor ----Thursday, Jan 12, 2012

Posted by hutch153 on February 13, 2012 at 2:45 PM Comments comments (0)

Back before I joined the school board, my first education conference was Bill Daggett's Model Schools Conference.  He made an impression on me, as did his mantra - which he still uses: "rigor, relevance and relationships".  A recent interview in Education Weekly gave me reason to think about it again.


It's hard to find an education 'reformer' today who isn't advocating for greater 'rigor' in our education curriculum - everyone seems to be calling for 'higher standards'.  (It's no surprise that not many people are calling for 'lower standards'.)  The problem is that most of the rhetoric has it backwards.


As Daggett reminds us in the interview, "relevance makes rigor possible - when students find their studies relevant, teachers can increase the rigor to meet the needs of students."


For generations (at least) we've heard calls to make education more relevant. But in the decade since I first heard Daggett, a fair amount of research has been produced that backs up Daggett's thesis.  As pointed out by John Medina in "Brain Rules", human beings do not pay attention to boring stuff.  Allow me to repeat that:  human beings (including kids) do not learn that which is not interesting to them.


And how do we know what is interesting to kids?  Daggett's third R, relationships.  "It's important for educators to know their students. Educators need to know what is interesting to them... those are the ways to engage students."


So let's make sure we have the horse before the cart: relationships first, then relevance and rigor.  Let's emphasize the importance of building supportive relationships throughout our school communities. (And not just student to teacher - in order to have a vibrant educational community, everyone needs to be engaged and constantly learning.)


Out of those relationships we'll figure out how to make school relevant.  And then we'll really be on to something.

Vouchers and 'competition' -----Wednesday, Nov 16, 2011

Posted by hutch153 on February 13, 2012 at 2:45 PM Comments comments (0)

The cornerstone of the pro-voucher argument has been that vouchers encourage 'competition between schools' and that competition improves quality - as it does in the marketplace (that is, under certain conditions, as any economist would tell you).


But when voucher proponents cite the 'evidence' that supports this claim, that's not what they're talking about at all. To my knowledge, there's not a shred of evidence that the quality of education in public schools is improved by the competition brought on by vouchers. It's an intellectual bait-and-switch.


What they're talking about are the students who use the vouchers, which is something else entirely. But even that evidence is spotty, which is somewhat surprising, considering: You're giving vouchers to students to allow them to move out of schools that have been identified as "failing", and putting them in schools that are - one would assume - at least 'average', statistically-speaking. (Certainly better than 'failing'!)  Many of of these schools are private and some of them are expensive. These kids have parents who are involved and motivated concerning their education. Wouldn't you expect these students, on average, to do better?


But what happens to the 95% of students who would remain stuck in the so-called 'failing' schools, which now have even fewer resources than before? This move towards taxpayer support of private schools not only ignores the historical lack of equity in educational opportunity, it exacerbates it.


If the supporters of vouchers were serious about improving the quality of education in our struggling schools, they would be promoting strategies that have been used successfully. Unfortunately, the following* doesn't fit on a bumper sticker.


1. Create a shared vision in the school and build a sense of school community

2. Develop and nurture connections with the broader community

3. Focus on healthy students who come to school well-fed and ready to learn

4. Create a safe environment for students: physically, emotionally and intellectually

5. Focus on making students feel connected to school

6. Appropriate use of data for district, school, and classroom decisions

7. A school environment in which collaborative, shared leadership is encouraged

8. Empower teachers and and create opportunities for them to learn from each other

9. Require frequent and meaningful assessment for all students

10. Focus on academic rigor and implementation of appropriate curriculum

11. Outreach to, and training for, parents

12. High expectations for students and staff, including how everyone is treated

13. Link teaching to established curricular standards


The core argument of voucher proponents - about the value of 'competition' - hasn't been validated, hasn't been tested, and upon scrutiny, doesn't even make sense.  But taxpayers are being asked to spend many millions of dollars on it.


To quote from Rick Hess' recent blog post: "If 'reformers' think it's a winning strategy to push awkwardly constructed, ill-designed programs that are going to create entirely foreseeable problems, then I'd encourage them to check out the history of NCLB."


*Adapted from the PSBA white paper: Raising achievement in underperforming schools

Does 'value-added' add value? -----Monday, Oct 17, 2011

Posted by hutch153 on February 13, 2012 at 2:40 PM Comments comments (0)

A couple of months back, the Center for Public Education (the research arm of NSBA) came out in support of "value-added" teacher evaluation models that track student standardized test scores, tied to individual teachers. The issue has become particularly relevant in Pennsylvania, where such a model is being piloted state-wide.  However, their arguments strike me as unpersuasive and frankly, somewhat disconcerting.

Their central point is that the current system "is lacking" - as they see it, almost by definition - because only about 1% of teachers nationwide are identified each year as "unsatisfactory". Therefore, their argument goes, as flawed as "value-added"  might be, anything would be an improvement over current practice. In fact, they directly acknowledge the unreliability of value-added data - only about a third of teachers ranking in the top 20% one year are similarly ranked the following year - but, well, it's better than what we've got.

"It's better than what we've got" sets the bar pretty low, don't you think?  One thing that's overlooked is that the current, flawed system is doing exactly what it was intended to do:  it identifies the small percentage of teachers who are performing so poorly that they deserve to be fired. It was not designed for the purpose of improving instruction and student learning.

Almost certainly, there are far better ways to accomplish those goals than to rely on test scores that don't even attempt to measure much of what's really important. (Note: no mention is made of how we're going to evaluate teachers of subjects that aren't currently tested - let's not give them any ideas - or teachers on teams, or kindergarten teachers...) I bet that if we asked teachers, they could suggest evaluation models that would actually help to make them better teachers!

A related argument that seems to be gaining credibility is that overall teaching quality would be greatly improved if the 5-10% of our worst "performing" teachers were cycled out of the profession every year. (i.e., fired)

Really? I'm not sure we've thought this all the way through. Are we also in favor of "firing" 5-10% of our doctors every year? How about policeman? An organization that needs to fire 5% of its employees every year is not doing a very good job of professional development, or of hiring the right people in the first place.

The case for "value-added" violates a fundamental rule of research: you cannot use a measurement tool that was developed for one purpose (student "achievement") to measure something else (teacher effectiveness) unless you have validated it for that purpose. (A pet peeve: why do we say we're measuring student "achievement", when what we're measuring is a relatively narrow range of student 'knowledge' and/or skills? But I digress.)

Another point they make - presumably in support of their argument -  is that "improving teacher effectiveness can dramatically impact student learning". Well, duh!  The rather important missing link is that there's no evidence that using value-added scores improves teacher effectiveness!  Astonishingly, they also claim that "teachers have the single greatest impact on student performance, more than family background, socioeconomic status, or school."  What's astonishing is that the statement is flat-out wrong.

Finally, they actually say "there are ways to improve value-added models" - also allegedly in support of their main argument. Here's a thought: why then, don't we try improving the models before we go about implementing something that could easily do more harm than good?  It makes my head hurt.

The conventional wisdom among many so-called education reformers has been that teachers resist all kinds of evaluation, but in fact they're open to a number of ideas - especially if they're designed to inform and improve instruction, and not used as swords of Damocles.

The Public speaks Friday, Sep 16, 2011

Posted by hutch153 on February 13, 2012 at 2:35 PM Comments comments (0)


The current issue of Phi Delta Kappan contains their annual national poll on education issues. Several items struck me as worth noting.


Do you think high-achieving high school students should be recruited to become teachers? (76%, yes)


Well, of course.  Who wouldn't want some of our smartest students to go into the teaching profession? But I think it's worth noting that 'high-achieving' isn't clearly defined. I suppose by that we mean good grades and/or high test scores, which measure a rather narrow spectrum of intelligence and potential. We can't overlook two important attributes that may not show up in test scores: the desire to be a teacher, and the ability to connect with other people. I know a lot of smart people who wouldn't be particularly good teachers.


Is the ability to teach more a function of natural ability, or college training? (70%, natural ability)


The public may be right about this, but they shouldn't be.  I expect that in the experience of most people, the handful of really good teachers were 'naturals'. But that doesn't mean that good teaching can't be taught and developed - which is what happens in good schools.  In fact, we had better figure out how to do this because there aren't enough 'naturals' to go around.


Should education policies require teachers to follow a prescribed curriculum - or give teachers flexibility to teach in ways they think best?


Nearly 75% of the public believes that it's important to give teachers flexibility. Someone should tell the politicians and policy-makers who appear to be heading in the opposite direction.


By a 52 to 44% margin, the public sides with teachers' unions over governors who have actively opposed them - even though 47% see unions as hurting the quality of public education. I suspect the public sees this as an issue of fairness and views these governors as bullies.


How important do you think these factors should be in determining a teacher's salary?  Strongly agree: academic degree, 38%; experience, 38%; student test scores, 29%; principal evaluation, 38%.


Again, I think the public has it about right. But I would feel better about rewarding experience if I had more confidence that every teacher had sufficient opportunities for collaboration and meaningful professional development. I would feel better about principal evaluations if all principals were required to demonstrate their ability to recognize and evaluate good teaching, and I would feel a lot better about test scores if those tests actually measured something useful.


91% of the public believes it is very (61%) or somewhat important that we provide internet access to all students in school. 95% believe it is very (70%) or somewhat important that all students have access to computer technology. 74% believe that schools should invest more in computer technology.


Wow. Are they willing to pay for it, too?


Another area in which I agree with the public's perception: schools are not doing a very good job of teaching financial management skills.


51% of respondents give their local school an A or B. If they have a child in school, that number goes to 79% - yet only 17% give those grades to schools overall.


What's interesting is that the public understands the reason for this discrepancy: people tend to know a lot more about their immediate community and local schools. It probably also says something about the preponderance of negative press and political rhetoric that education, in general, receives.


I'm going to report this finding without comment: 69% give teachers in their local school an A or B (up from 50% in 1984), but only 36% give local parents an A or B.


Finally, a finding that I've talked about a lot lately: only 34% (and going down) of respondents favor allowing parents to choose a private school at public expense. How is this issue still alive in Harrisburg?

Vouchers revisited Wednesday, Sep 7, 2011

Posted by hutch153 on February 13, 2012 at 2:35 PM Comments comments (0)

About a month ago I wrote about the theory of charter schools, and how they haven't lived up to the promise of becoming "laboratories for reform". I come back to this because several recent commentators have noted a shift in the political/philosophical argument used in support of vouchers - no doubt in response to all the research that has shown charter schools to be no more effective, and often less effective, than traditional public schools.


The emerging argument is one of 'choice', that is, parents have the right to make educational choices for their children, regardless of whether or not those choices result in a better education.


That's an intriguing argument, but I'm not inclined to debate it. While the deference we give to parental decision-making is not as universal as it once was, for better or worse, our society continues to give a great deal of latitude to parents in how they raise their children.


In that light, I'm even willing to consider (shocker alert) a modest, limited voucher program. The point at which I draw the line, however - and where the line should be drawn - is the point at which charter and private schools begin to siphon resources from traditional public schools, which have, and which will continue to have, the responsibility for educating the vast majority of our children.


Of course, that proposal wouldn't please anybody, and it's not what has been suggested in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. None of the 'take-the-money-with-you' plans make any allowance for the substantial fixed costs in education (primarily in facilities), and none of these proposals hold the charter and private schools that stand to receive this windfall to the same academic or administrative standards.


For many voucher supporters, this has become a crusade, an attack on the idea of public support for universal education - which has been our country's single greatest engine for economic success and a democratic society. As Dana Goldstein writes in Slate, "The standards-and-accountability movement has been superseded by a view of education in which public schools are not engines for economic growth but potential corrupters of the nation's youth." 


We appear to be fixin' to re-argue the 19th-century debate on the public's responsibility towards education for all - and there's a lot of money (and money to be made) on the pro-voucher side of the debate. But the good news is that 'public money for private schools' remains unpopular by substantial margins.


A p.s. -  Two recent articles on this topic: Mike Hanna's op-ed, School vouchers would hurt taxpayers and Elmer Smith: Freedom from public education?

To continue the math conversation

Posted by hutch153 on September 2, 2011 at 4:32 PM Comments comments (1)
Dear Readers: last week I shared with a few friends on Facebook and elsewhere an interesting commentary in the Times, How to Fix Our Math Education.

In response, Marilyn, a good friend and retired high school Math teacher of 38 years, writes today�s thoughtful guest blog.

      I always sat with a very unpopular viewpoint among my math educator colleagues. The current curriculum was instituted pre-Sputnik to create a generation of engineers. This curriculum needs to be available to some, but 99% of our students do NOT pursue engineering, and yet we subject 100% of our population to a curriculum which does not suit many of them. Yes, it can be a valuable set of mental exercises, but this can be accomplished through other disciplines in more relevant settings. Furthermore, I think it's criminal that this curriculum is a gatekeeper which, over decades, has prevented some really great minds from higher education.

     Sol Garfunkle, who wrote the article you posted, has a video series (which I used at Delta) on Discrete Mathematics - a series of disconnected topics related to management and information sciences (such as graph theory, cryptography, bin packing, etc.). There are many unsolved problems in the field, because, I feel, young learners are not introduced to these topics. I had the great fortune to study with the top mathematicians in the field through three summer NSF grants in the 90's.

     The NSF has been trying to push for Discrete Math even as early as an elementary school curriculum. It taps both sides of the brain, is very hands-on, and the issues are extremely relevant. I piloted the 1st Discrete Math course in the U.S. for 9th and 10th grades at Delta, using the galleys from the then, unpublished text. I in-serviced the HS math dept., which led to the introduction of a D.M. course as a senior alternative to calculus. It seemed to energize some of the HS staff. As a student in the 60's, I never saw D.M. until I was a junior in college as a math major, and it was presented in a traditional, theoretical way. I was blown away by what I learned from the NFS crowd.

     At Delta, though I taught the traditional curriculum., I created several other "alternative" courses, such as D.M., Personal Finance (checking accounts, investments, leases, car insurance, mortgages, how to do taxes, etc.,) Symbolic Logic, Statistics, Problem Solving (introducing the heuristics of Polya, using games, puzzles, traditional conundrums.) Our kids could meet the HS math credit requirements through a variety of means. But then came PSSA's.

     Over time enrollment dropped so low for some of these courses that we had to drop them from the curriculum - students did not sign up for them because the topics are not tested in the PSSA's. So much for autonomy to use good practices.

      So as Sol says in his article - keep the engineering curriculum for those interested and suited, but give the rest of the kids accessible, interesting, relevant math content.

My 2 cents, Marilyn

Confrontation v. Collaboration

Posted by hutch153 on August 31, 2011 at 1:53 PM Comments comments (0)
There is considerable political rhetoric these days that blames �overpaid� teachers and recalcitrant unions for the so-called �crisis� in education. It�s sad when I hear school board members - who ought to know better - piling on, as I did at a recent state meeting.

(I say �so-called� because educational quality has not declined over the past generation; the reality is that public education hasn�t kept pace with a vastly increased expectation, both in terms of the knowledge and skills we expect students to learn, but also the proportion of students - i.e., everyone - we expect to be successful.)

First, if teachers really are overpaid, how do we explain the fact that half of new teachers leave the profession after five years - three years at inner-city schools - long before they become vested in those �overly-generous� pensions? Second, anyone who believes that a typical teacher works a 35-hour week, with three  months vacation, hasn�t talked to any real teachers lately.

What the rhetoric overlooks is that we have no chance of accomplishing the necessary transformation of our education system unless everyone � policy-makers, administrators, teachers, students and parents � begins to see themselves as on �the same side�; as partners with differing roles. This won�t happen if we continue to pit �sides� against one another. Even the feds appear to understand this: a top DOE official recently told a gathering of state lawmakers: �States need to take a more active role in promoting cooperation between teachers' unions and school districts�.

This is why Joel Klein had little chance of success in New York. As noted in Irving Hamer�s commentary in Education Week (Collaboration Is Essential in Public Education), Klein�s �combative approach �  ignores the reality that reform cannot be something we do to teachers.� (The same criticism could be made of Michelle Rhee.)

It continues to amaze me that it never seems to occur to these so-called reformers to ask teachers what they think could be done to improve education. Trust me, if you ask, you�ll find many teachers who�ve given a lot of thought to this and have something to say.

Instead, it�s often just the opposite: �teachers cite a lack of support and poor working conditions� as the biggest reason for leaving the profession, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.  As Walt Gardner put it (in yet another response to Steve Brill): it�s not about finding �a way to motivate the rank and file. � these teachers are already motivated. What they are not, however, are masochists.�

At worst, a confrontational, toxic school climate will drive away the good teachers (or keep them from coming in the first place). At the very least, it will inhibit the collaboration, risk-taking and creativity that is essential to meaningful organizational change.

Simple solutions to Complex Issues

Posted by hutch153 on August 24, 2011 at 12:00 PM Comments comments (0)
A couple of recent book reviews have shown a lot more insight than the book they reviewed. I mentioned one Monday - Dana Goldstein's review of Steven Brill's �Class Warfare.� Today, I'd like to note Sara Mosle's piece from Sunday's New York Times.

Mosle is particularly critical of Brill's belief that "unions are the primary cause of failing public schools" in spite of the almost total lack of evidence to support that claim.

Let me repeat that. There is almost no evidence to support the belief that unions are the primary obstacle to education reform. Yet a lot of people believe just that, largely because unions are an easy, simplistic scapegoat that conveniently absolves everyone else of responsibility.

Human beings have an understandable affinity for simple answers to complex problems. The particular challenge of education reform is that it is tempting, and fairly easy, to make a simplistic argument about this particularly complicated issue; developing a coherent counter-argument is far more challenging and time consuming.

Brill bases much of his argument about unions on the success of the non-union KIPP charter schools in Harlem, which nearly everyone admires. But even a KIPP founder concedes that the program "relies on superhuman talent that cannot be duplicated in large numbers" - and cites examples of educators who unexpectedly quit, citing burnout and unsustainable workloads. KIPP does great work, but it's not a universal model for reform.

Mosle also makes a point that was emphasized by Goldstein: while teacher quality is the most important variable within schools, "mountains of data, going back decades, demonstrates that most of the variation in student performance is explained by non-school factors: not just poverty, but also parental literacy (and whether parents read to their children), student health, frequent relocations, crime�-related stress and the like." The achievements of the Harlem Children's Zone - another oft-cited success story � are due to the fact that they specifically and deliberately attempt to address those issues.

Does this mean that exceptional teachers cannot make a real difference in the lives of these students, or that teachers shouldn't be held accountable?  No, what it means is that it's going to be extraordinarily difficult to design an accountability system - particularly one that depends primarily on test scores - that accurately takes into account all those non-school factors. And that's precisely what the simplistic reformers are proposing.

Any experienced teacher will tell you that even in a relatively homogeneous district such as ours, one year's class can be completely different from the next year's. How does one account for that?

I particularly like argument Mosle make towards the end: "Brill likens the battle over the nation�s schools to �warfare,� but the better analogy may be to the war on cancer. For years, scientists hoped a magic pill would cure this ravaging disease. But increasingly, doctors have recognized that they will have to fight a multi-fronted war, as cancers (like failing schools) aren�t all alike."

We should be outraged

Posted by hutch153 on August 10, 2011 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (0)
Credit to the Centre Daily Times for running this recent AP story above the fold: "Cutbacks in state aid for public schools hit Pennsylvania's poorer school districts the hardest, slashing nearly three times as many dollars in aid per student compared with wealthier districts."

On the same weekend of that story, I heard the following comparison of the 'top' and 'bottom 50' of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts:

                    Avg. teacher salary    Avg. education    % of students in poverty
'Top 50'                      $74,000          Master's +                                17%
'Bottom 50'                $44,000          Bachelor's                                 47%

Of course, correlation does not imply causation. Higher teacher salaries do not 'cause' better education; it's far more complicated than that. On the other hand, it's pretty hard to say that teacher salaries don't matter, or that level of education doesn't matter - or that poverty doesn't matter.

Which, of course, is exactly what the Corbett administration is saying, has said, and has backed up through action. As hard as the state budget cuts were on every Pennsylvanian school district, poor districts were hit the hardest.

It should also be noted that as part of this year's omnibus school code bill, all reference has been removed of the 'costing-out study' that was developed during the prior administration. The study, of course, acknowledged the Commonwealth's responsibility towards equity in education funding.

As a member of a district that came out of this relatively well, perhaps I shouldn't say anything, but there's no other way to put it: it's unconscionable, and probably unconstitutional.

A post-script:

This article from Dana Goldstein is worth noting.

In a review of a recent book by Steven Brill - he of "Rubber Room" fame - Goldstein  takes issue with the commonplace claim that teacher effectiveness can overcome the  disadvantages of poverty. (The impact of some of these disadvantages - food  insecurity, lead poisoning, etc. - should be hard to ignore.)

Well, no one disputes the value of good teachers, nor - it ought to follow - the importance of "focusing education policy efforts on sustainable teacher quality reforms such as ... requiring new teachers to undergo apprenticeship periods working alongside master educators, and creating career ladders that reward excellent teachers who agree to stay in the classroom long-term and mentor their peers."


"the work of the many researchers Brill cites shows that while teaching is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, family and neighborhood  characteristics matter more. The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student  achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent."

I share Goldstein's frustration that this point has to be made over and over again.