Friday, February 22, 2013

The Rape of Public Education

Since 2001, David Brennan and William Lager, both  for-profit charter school operators, have contributed over $4,00,000 to Ohio Republicans. (Plunderbund, January 28, 2013) Looking at Kasich's new proposed funding plan for Ohio, Brennan and Lager have received a nice return for their investment.  The proposal provides an additional $11.9 million, according to the Akron Beacon-Journal's projections, by virtue of allowing an additional $100 per pupil for "facilities."  (Media Matters, February 1, 2013)  In the past twenty years, literally BILLIONS of public school dollars have been funneled into charter schools in Ohio, all in the name of "school choice."

Along with this assault on funding, the Ohio General Assembly, under Kasich's leadership, have passed more and more onerous unfunded mandates that apply to traditional public schools, but not to charter schools.  For example, the new Ohio Teachers Evaluation System requires that administrators evaluate every teacher every year in a mandated process that requires many hours and meetings for each teacher.  With cuts in funding, schools have eliminated administrator positions, and do not have the resources to accomplish this requirement. There are simply not enough hours in the day.  In addition, there is no REASON to evaluate every teacher every year.  Educators don't become much better or much worse suddenly from year to year. In order to comply with the mandates of this law, schools will be forced to hire outside evaluators, emptying an already depleted general fund, and further driving up class sizes.  In contrast, charter schools are exempt from this requirement, which is ironic because, on average, charter schools spend roughly twice the amount per pupil on administration as traditional public schools do.  In fact, White Hat Management, owned by David Brennan, has a per pupil administration cost nearly 4 times that of traditional schools.  (OEA, A Brief Update on Charters)

The long anticipated school funding plan rolled out by Kasich this month adds insult to injury.  No matter the rhetoric, the actual data proves that only 36% of public districts get ANY increase at all, and yet 44% of the schools ranking in the top 10% of median income get an increase. (See my blog, A geek digs the data) Yes, you heard that right.  Of the top 10% most affluent district in the state, 44% get an increase, and many of them sizable increases, leaving the most of the bottom 90% of the schools receiving nothing.  Zero.  Zip.  Nada.

None of this would be quite so alarming, but while 92% of our traditional public schools produce excellent results as measured by performance index on state testing, only 26% of the charter schools reach this level of achievement. (Public record, ODE web site)  Charter school average achievement falls in the bottom 8% of the state and literally every single school in the bottom 5% of the state is a charter school.  The charters just aren't cutting it.  The concept of a "for profit school" is an oxymoron.  Schools either exist to fill the pockets of their CEO/operator OR they exist for the benefit of student learning.

Not only that, but Kasich is boasting of his increase in education funding.  The $1.6 billion additional dollars are temporary - the "guarantee funds" disappear after two yeas - and don't restore our education budget to where it was 2 years ago when Kasich slashed $1.8 billion from the budget.  The intent, to me, seems clear.  Force the property-poor districts to close down and funnel more money into the pockets of David Brennan and William Lager and their ilk who, in turn, send several million back into the pockets of Kasich and other leading Republicans.  Do this while protecting the school districts of the wealthiest among us.  Decrease the property tax of the wealthy and increase it for the poor districts, many of them rural where the owners of property are American farmers.

The net result is that those who have the most need receive the least benefit.  Schools educating children for under $10,000 per pupil, the cost of basic child care, are eliminating art, music, phys ed.  They are working with few administrators, inadequate technology, and large class sizes.  Parents are paying money for school athletics, depriving many of the opportunity to compete. High school students have little choice beyond basic English, math, science, and social studies courses.   Teachers are discouraged and feeling the stress of being blamed for everything from the state's economic woes to national security issues.  All this in stark contrast to wealthy suburban districts where students have access to natoriums, libraries, updated technology, field trips, and courses in computer programming, sculpture, orchestra, the arts, adanced placement, etc, etc, etc.... and more state funding in the new budget.  Something's gotta give. But as long as charters and testing companies are paying millions to politicians to enrich their campaign coffers, I fear that the rape of the American public school will continue.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Kasich's Proposed Funding: A Geek Digs the Data

I admit to being a bit of a geek.  Maybe more than a little.  At any rate, numbers fascinate me and I love data.  With that in mind, I created a spreadsheet using information from the percent of increases for each school district in Ohio under Kasich's new proposed funding formula, and then entered the median income for each district, the percent of students living in poverty, and average per pupil expenditure from the most recent Cupp Report (ODE official report).  I knew that, at least for districts I know around here, the funding simply makes no sense.  Rich districts appeared to be receiving huge increases while those struggling to offer even basic education received nothing.  Coincidence? Maybe.  I wanted to find out, and here are some of my results:

Of the districts in the top half of the state for median income, 24% are receiving a significant (greater than 10%) increase under Kasich's new funding formula while only 14% of the districts in the bottom half for median income receive a significant increase.  Looking further, I found that about a fourth of the districts in the top quartile for per pupil expenditure get an increase while only slightly higher, 28% of the bottom quartile for per pupil expenditure receive a significant increase.  Eighteen percent of the districts with the lowest poverty rates, many of them affluent districts,  receive a significant increase.

To make it more personal, look at some examples:
Olentangy Local has 7% poverty rate and over $71,000 median income and is slated to receive a 331% increase.  New Albany Local has 7% poverty and $68,000 median income with an increase of 181%.
Avon Local has 7% poverty and median income of over $55,000 with an increase of   about 100%.
The Orange School District in Cuyahoga County has the highest per pupil expenditure in the state with over $21,000 to spend for each pupil with relatively low poverty (14%), but they will receive an additional 25% from the state.

In the meantime, Fairport Harbor has a median income of $27,000, spends just over $9000 per student and gets nothing. Clay Local, $29,000 median income, $8600 per pupil expenditure, zero increase. East Holmes, $24,600 median income, 36% poverty, $9555 per pupil, no increase. Tuslaw spends only $7400 per pupil with 26% poverty, $32000 median income, no increase.

Four hundred forty districts receive zero increases, or increase less than 5%, which doesn't even make up for the 8% cut  in funding from Governor Kasich's first budget.  Unfortunately, I could go on with these statistics and examples for the over 600 school districts in the state.  Over 2/3 of them get no help, and of the ones that do, more of them are affluent districts already spending more per pupil than those that are left behind.

To put these numbers into perspective:  The average child care provider in Ohio charges $250-$275 per week for one child.  Multiply times 36 weeks school is in session, and $9,000-$10,000 per year is about what one would pay for a babysitter.  Three hundred eight-six districts in the state of Ohio educate your child for about the cost of a babysitter or less. Sixty of them (about 15%) get an increase of 10% or more in Kasich's budget.  Fify-four get a minimal increase of .06% to 9.6%.  Two hundred seventy-two districts in the state of Ohio educate your children for no more than you would pay a babysitter and yet get zero funding increase.  These districts are still reeling  from an 8% cut and an unbelievable number of unfunded mandates in the past two years.

I'm not sure on what planet this resolves constitutional funding issues, but Kasich is still touting that "Our new schools plan gives the lowest wealth schools 400% more than the highest wealth ones."  I'm going to have to see the data on that one.  You know me.  I'm a geek.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Student Growth Measures: A Lesson from Nature

Growing up on a farm, I'm quite familiar with growth.  We grew all kinds of things in rural central Ohio - corn, wheat, cows, chickens, you name it.  And so it is interesting to me that we are now talking about growing student learning.  A few observations that we learned on the farm  may help us understand student growth better.

Farmers know that the seed matters.  They select the right seed with the right fertilizer to get the best yield for their crop.  Next, you need to know how to prepare the soil.  Good farmers go out and pick up large rocks that might stunt the young plant's growth, tilling the soil until it is fine and ready for the implanted seed.  Once the soil is ready, you have to know just the right time to plant the seed, when and how to cultivate it so that weeds are removed.  All of this is a lot of work and takes a lot of knowledge and skill.

But of course, there is more.  If all it took were the knowledge and skill of the farmer, we would have bumper crops each year.  Sometimes, a blight or mildew get to the crop and keep the seeds from growing.  Sometimes there's too much rain at an unfortunate time in the cycle, or not enough rain. Infestations of insects or a neighbor's herd of cows can wreak havoc on the growth that the farmer so carefully planned.   Sun, temperature, rainfall - lots of variables outside the farmer's control also influence how that seed will grow.

As a Value Added Leader in Ohio and one trained by ODE as a trainer in the new Student Learning Objective process, I can speak to the issue of student growth measures with some authority.  I understand the numbers better than most and have worked with dozens of schools to analyze their data.  From my knowledge of math and my personal experience working with school data, let me tell you without equivocation: you can NOT use these numbers as part of a teacher's evaluation.  Period.

Like the farmer, a good teacher has skills and knowledge about how to reach students and cause academic growth, but also like the farmer, there are many factors outside of a teacher's control that impact these numbers.  Truancy and mobility issues definitely impact student growth.  Alignment of the district's curriculum can affect the growth.  Length of time on task is another important factor, and is generally outside of a teacher's control.  Some districts provide 90 minutes of math a day - others have 45 minutes.  Guess which one will be rated a more effective teacher?  The size of your class can impact growth.  Excellent teachers with 22 students in a class may be effective one year only to be told that they are ineffective the next when they have classes of 32 students.

Analyzing data with school personnel from dozens of Ohio schools has convinced me of this:  only the educators working inside the system can really interpret the data and use it to make decisions.  Legislators in Columbus positively, absolutely, under no circumstances can use this data to make a judgment on the effectiveness of a teacher.  Period.  Exclamation point.  End of story.

I'm not going to rate a farmer on the success of one crop, and we should NOT evaluate a teacher on the results of one test.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Tale of Two Districts: Why Kasich's Plan Fails

Ohio's school funding system has been ruled unconstitutional for fifteen years, and yet remains the same inadequate system.  The disparity between rich and poor districts prompted a documentary with Bill Moyers, garnering national attention.  Governor Kasich recently announced his new formula which was to fix the system.  "The rich won't get as much, and the poor will get more," he told an audience of school superintendents earlier this month.  Now that the preliminary budgets have been revealed, educators across the state are disappointed to find more of the same.  The rich get richer and the poor get nothing while the only winners in the deal are the charter schools who get a hefty increase.

New Albany Local Schools is an affluent district on the north east side of Columbus.  The average income for families in New Albary is $143,877.  When you drive into town, you will be impressed with the imposing colonial style brick buildings that make up the school campus.. They recently completed a new Elementary Phys Ed Building with rock climbing walls among the facility's offerings.  A natatorium and extensive library are on campus.  Schools are equipped with functional, modern technology.  The average teacher's salary is $64,553.  With a per pupil tax evaluation of $9717.71, one mill in New Albany raises $206.30 per pupil, and the district spends $12,250 per pupil to provide an excellent education with many choices for students, like programming, robotics, orchestra, and several world languages.  Percentage of students living in poverty is 6.97%.

Head north from New Albany, and you will reach a rural district called East Knox.  Average income, $45,462.  At East Knox, students don't get the opportunity to have art, music, or physical education class until they are in high school due to budget cuts.  The middle school principal serves as the transportation director, as well as her principal's duties, and the one elementary principal is also the communications director for the district and serves as the building's IT support.  Average teacher's salary is $47,498 with wages frozen for so many years nobody remembers a time they received a different salary.  In fact, with insurance costs and STRS contributions going up, their paychecks have steadily shrunk over the years.  One mill in East Knox raises $169.36 per pupil, but taxpayers have voted 'no' on every levy proposal and so even more cuts are imminent.  Students have the choice of required subjects with very few electives.  Per pupil expenditure at East Knox is $8674.  Percentage of students living in poverty is 38.86%.

I chose these two schools not because New Albany is the most elite school with the highest per pupil expenditure, nor is East Knox the school with  lowest income and lowest per pupil expenditure.  These schools are notable simply because they are typical.  This pattern is echoed across Ohio hundreds of times, and it was this type of inequity that we were hoping would be resolved by the new funding formula.

The reality is, instead of helping narrow the opportunity gap between the rich and poor, our governor's new formula gives New Albany an increase of 181.04% and provides the East Knoxes of the state with a flat 0.  In fact 2/3 of the districts in the state are flat funded, with many put on notice that the money they receive from the state will be even lower after the next two years while they are "weaned" from excessive state support.  Many districts struggle to provide a bare-bones state mandated curriculum to larger and larger class sizes while reeling under the weight of the unbelievable number of unfunded mandates that have rolled out under this governor.

I urge you to let your voice be heard before it's too late.  Support your public school while you still have one!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

An Open Letter to Ohio's General Assembly

An Open Letter to the Ohio General Assembly:
Dear Honorable Legislators of Ohio:
You're killing us out here in the public schools, and I thought it was time someone told you.

We have been through budget cuts in the past, and we will survive this one somehow, but in the midst of a recession when our incomes are low and our government is cutting our funds, you are also siphoning off money to the tune of millions and millions of dollars to charter schools. We could see the rationale for this if it really did give students choice and if the charters could serve students better, but have you looked at the results of the charter schools in Ohio? ALL of the bottom 5% achieving school districts in Ohio are charters. Nearly all of the bottom 10% are charters, with a few large urban districts thrown in. 

With cuts in funds, we have been criticized sharply for spending money on central office staff and administration. Did you notice that charter schools, who do not have to operate under the same rules as the public schools, spend MORE per student on administration than we do by a good bit? While you are forcing us into the position of cutting administrators, you are expecting us to totally overhaul our curriculum and teacher evaluation systems, both of which require MORE support and time from central office staff and principals. We are valiantly attempting to do twice the work with half of the staff, but you're killing us.

Here's another thing you should know. The new teacher evaluation system requires every teacher to be evaluated through a lengthy process every year. The teachers I evaluate don't suddenly become a lot better or a lot worse over the course of one year, and so I'm not sure the reasoning behind this, but here's my point: if we're doing three times as many evaluations per year than we have been, where does a principal find the time to do this? Your solution is to use outside evaluators. Have I mentioned that you have cut our funding? And now we have to hire outside firms to evaluate our personnel to meet your new regulations. And here's another question. Why don't the charter schools have to do this? They allocate more money per student for administrators than we do - why don't their administrators have to use this burdensome system? Now, don't get me wrong - the rubric for the teacher evaluation isn't bad. In fact, I kind of like it. ODE has done a great job developing it, but using it on EVERY TEACHER EVERY YEAR is not physically possible. 

Since we're on the topic of the evaluation system, let's talk about the idea of basing any part of a teacher's evaluation on student scores. This is a bad idea. Anytime you evaluate anyone, you should evaluate them on things they can control. As a Value Added Leader in Ohio, I have more understanding of these growth measures than most, and I will tell you that there are other factors besides classroom instruction that impact these scores. The size of a class - a teacher can grow 22 students much more effectively than 32 students. The length and timing of the instructional period - the more extended time on task earlier in the day, the better the student growth. The alignment of the school's curriculum to assessment instruments affects the value added measure. The school climate. Student absences and mobility. All of these factors influence student scores and are beyond the teacher's control. The other reason that you should not use student scores to evaluate ANYONE is because the test scores become the be-all and end-all of instruction. If a teacher knows that her career is dependent upon student scores on a once-a-year paper and pencil test, guess what is going to be going on in the classroom? Test prep. As a former teacher, I can tell you that what I do in the classroom is very different if I'm just preparing a student to pass a test than if I'm allowed to actually teach. The inappropriate emphasis on standardized tests is stomping the creativity and love of learning out of students and teachers alike. Schools are reducing or eliminating time with the arts and music. Teachers are afraid to go off topic and be creative because they might not be able to get all of the information crammed into the little heads so that they can pass a test. Stop doing that.

Another thing you're doing to us that is destructive is this propensity for legislators to intrude into things that should be decided by professionally trained educators and parents at a local level. With the Third Grade Guarantee, you are telling us which children to retain. Is that your business? Are you going to tell doctors how to treat the flu next? Or dentists how to fill teeth? The parents and schools working together can best make that decision on whether to retain a student. Yes, I know your data about how students who are behind in reading are more likely to drop out. Are you also aware of the data that suggests that students who are RETAINED are more likely to drop out? Not only that, in HB555, you have told us that any child with a Reading Improvement and Monitoring Plan has to have a teacher with at least three years of experience. So, not only are you telling us what children to retain, you're telling us what teacher my child can or cannot have. This decision is only appropriately made LOCALLY by teachers and parents who know the child and the teachers. We have an excellent teacher with a reading endorsement with 1 year of experience who has been working successfully with struggling readers, and yet, as of September 30 when the assessments for reading are scored, you expect us to yank second graders out of their wonderful teacher's classroom and put them with someone else because that other teacher has more experience? I thought you were the ones telling us that teaching experience doesn't matter and we can't RIF (Reduction in Force, ie lay off teachers) based on teaching experience, and we shouldn't give teachers raises based on can't have it both ways. Which is it? Experience is meaningless, or experience is the major criterion deciding who teaches young children?

Along with the Big Brother mentality dictating to educational professionals and parents WHO teaches the children and which children to retain, the Third Grade Guarantee also mandates intervention for students who are not on track. I'm not sure if you are aware of this, but interventions cost money. Have I mentioned that you have cut our funding? We need staff and we need materials to provide interventions. Both of those things cost money. Can you say "unfunded mandate?"

Now there is the issue of graduation rates. You seem to be encouraging students to go to charter schools. School choice, right? Our students withdraw to charter schools where they are in one of the worst-performing schools in the state, as I've already commented, and so guess what? Little learning happens. These same students return to their public school district in high school extremely credit deficient. They don't graduate on time. Guess who gets dinged for this? Local schools. We have no choice even if the student returns to us well into his "senior" year. The charter schools, in the meantime, tell the students that if they want to drop out, they have to re-enroll at their home school first. This happens regularly. Public schools are having graduation rates diminished every year by students who have never been in our schools their entire high school career. Why can charters expel, suspend, and transfer out at will and yet we are required to take these students back and record the failure of the charter schools on our report cards?

Here's another thing that gets me. We are moving to an entirely new curriculum and working hard to be prepared for the new assessments in 2014-15. These tests will require a day for speaking and listening, 2 days for an English performance assessment, 1 day for an English end-of-year exam, a day for a math performance assessment, a day for math end of year exam. This is for every single student in grades 3-11. On computers. Plus another required graduation test and the additional social studies and science tests. I would be curious to know how much of our education money is going to Pearson and AIR and third party vendors of assessments. When budgets are tight and teachers are being laid off and class sizes are in the 30's, do you think maybe we could use this money better in other places?? Not only do we not have enough computers to accommodate this excessive testing, the new tests require operating systems that we don't have now. How are we going to afford to purchase enough new computers and upgrade enough existing computers to be able to test this many students? How will our infrastructure handle all of these students testing? When will we ever have time to actually use the computers for instruction to prepare students for the tests when students are spending weeks of lost instructional time doing the assessments? Another unfunded mandate. Have I mentioned that you have cut our funding? And that NO additional funds come with this mandate?

Now, I know you'll mention the casino money that is pouring in to the schools, right? That's what you would have the public to believe, right? The reality is that most of us don't have a casino in our back yard and the little dab that filters to the rest of us doesn't make up for the amount you've cut us. I see that the governor is suggesting a new funding formula which will solve our problems, right? Problem is, NONE of the small, rural districts around here get one more dime than they're getting now, and this is AFTER the cuts. In fact, Danville Local educates students for $7732 per student. Olentangy Local spends $9460, and yet Olentangy gets an increase in state funds of over 300% while Danville gets NO increase at all. Dublin spends over $10,000 per student and THEY get an increase while Centerburg Local spends $7440 and get nothing. In fact, over 2/3 of the public districts in Ohio get NO new money at all while charter schools receive significantly more. Somehow this doesn't seem right, especially with all of the unfunded mandates that will increase expenditures. And now I hear that the governor is talking about merit pay. Merit pay. The idea is, maybe these teachers would quit slacking and step up to the plate and actually take their jobs seriously if we throw a little more money their way. It works in business, right? I find this to be one of the singularly most insulting things you have done to us. To insinuate that we will work harder, teach better, care more if we are paid more is ridiculous. You saw what happened at Newtown. There's not a teacher I know who wouldn't do the same thing for her students. We would take a bullet for your kids. Put a money amount on that. 

I don't know if you caught my phrase "done to us." That is how we feel. Teachers are having things done TO them. Nobody has asked for us to sit on a committee and help design a plan to improve education. Instead, you are hellbent on taking our money away and giving it to poorly performing charters and to assessment companies. We have been blamed for everything from the state budget crisis to national security problems. I don't want to be cynical or disrespectful, but, the thought occurs to me that these charter companies and assessment vendors are large contributors to some of your campaigns. I'm sure that's just a coincidence. I would hate to think that you are robbing the children of the state by taking money from their public schools and filtering it indirectly into your campaign coffers. But I wonder. 

Something else I have wondered about. We have new very restrictive rules about exclusion and restraint. I am very much in favor of our children being safe and so if safety is your goal here...why aren't the charter schools subject to these same rules? Do you not care whether their students are excluded and restrained? Yet another mandate for us but not the charters. Trying to be supportive and respectful here, but this is starting to look a bit suspicious. It's almost like you're setting the public schools up for failure.

Anyway, thanks for reading all of this. I know your time is valuable because you're busy coming up with new ways to "help" us with school "reform." Good teachers are leaving the profession. Kids are checking out of school and bored silly by all these tests and test prep. You're killing us out here. I just thought you should know.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

TGRG: Parents should be angry

If you are the parent of a student in grades K-3 in Ohio and are not angry, you should be.  Ohio's new Third Grade Guarantee legislation is effective this year and is based on the research which suggests that students who are not reading at grade level before fourth grade are more likely to drop out.  What they don't tell you is that there is also ample evidence to suggest that students who are retained are more likely to drop out, as well.  

The devil is in the details of this law.  Nobody objects to providing interventions to students who are below level in reading.  In fact, most schools districts have been doing that for years, but with limited budgets and recent cuts, direct services like this to students are not what they could be.  This law doesn't help that a bit, because it provides no funding for the provision of mandated services.  There was a relatively small ($13 million) competitive grant awarded to help SOME districts, but certainly not all.  

Besides mandating which children will be retained, this legislation has added onerous requirements for teachers who teach reading in grade 3.  Teachers will be forced to take a Praxis exam  at personal expense OR get a master's degree in reading at personal expense OR obtain a reading endorsement at personal expense.  See a pattern?  Not only that, but if your child is on a Reading Improvement and Monitoring Plan (RIMP), then your child must be assigned to a teacher who meets ever-changing qualifications.  Schools are expected to publish a staffing plan for how we will meet these qualifications, but it isn't entirely clear exactly what the requirements are yet.  

Another concern parents have expressed is the added stress on students in grades two and three.  Eight-year old children should not have to worry about being failures based on an assessment.  Parents of kindergartners are dismayed when one of the first communications coming to them from their school is that little Johnny may flunk third grade if he doesn't get on the ball because a developmentally inappropriate assessment has labeled him "off track."  If you question the appropriateness of the assessments, click here to see what the kindergarten reading diagnostic administered within the first month of school looks like. 

This is where you should start becoming a bit irate.  The General Assembly has taken authority over your child's education.  Whether or not your child repeats third grade and to which teacher your child is assigned has now been relegated to politicians.  This law will not help your child.  Additional resources, intervention materials, literacy specialists, engaging literature would enable schools to help all children learn to read, but adding additional stress and requirements to children and teachers is no answer.

The bottom line is that the General Assembly has far overstepped its bounds with this law.  The ones deciding what child should be retained should be YOU and the educators who work with your child every day.  Not the legislators in Columbus.