Posts Tagged 'education policy'

Drop Educator Effectiveness: an Exercise in Common Sense

By Claudia Felske – If you lose 50 pounds, do you buy some new clothes you’ll look great in, or walk around in saggy, baggy old ones?

If you finally pay off your car, do you spend that money elsewhere, or do you keep sending in that $500 check every month?  

If your engagement is broken off, do you move on, or do you spend the rest of your life sitting in your wedding dress in front of your uneaten wedding cake, Miss Havisham style?

If you’re driving to Disney for a family vacation, do you stop when you reach Orlando, or do you keep going because there’s still gas in the tank?  

If the federal government revokes Educator Effectiveness (an ineffective, time-consuming mandate that makes teachers feel like dogs chasing their own tails) do you revoke it at the state level as well, or do you keep it in place because, well, it’s in place?

So, here’s the thing. As you may have guessed, this last hypothetical is not a hypothetical.

In December, the United States Congress reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act (now called the Every Student Succeeds Act). The re-authorization includes revoking the federal mandate for the Educator Effectiveness System.  Yet, thanks to Wisconsin legislators, this highly problematic initiative remains law in the State of

My question (and I believe the question of many Wisconsin educators) is: Why not buy new clothes, stop sending in extra car payments, take the wedding dress off, stop in Orlando, and why not bow out of a failing Educator Effectiveness System, which yields negligible results and diverts enormous amounts of time and resources that could be better spent in Wisconsin schools?  

Anything less is nonsense.

Some Honest Truth from a Charter Teacher

5.2-Apples.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – Telling people that you teach in a charter school can elicit a wide range of reactions.

Usually, people simply ask me some innocent questions to try to figure out what charter schools actually are. This is completely normal because the vast majority of us grew up at a time when school choice meant the option between public and private schools; charter schools didn’t even exist. Because so few people have had experiences with these types of schools, it should be expected that they may have some reservations, or at least questions, about them. Sadly, this unknown world is too often demonized as the world renowned rapper Macklemore has said so plainly because “we fear what we don’t know.” After spending the past seven years teaching at three different charter schools in two different states, I’d like to think that I know a thing-or-two about the topic and would like to offer my honest thoughts on charter schools and the school choice movement.

Let’s first clear up the most common misunderstanding that people have about charter schools. Charter Schools ARE public schools. Students at charter schools do not pay tuition. They do not have to take a test to get in. Students in charters can live in any part of the city to attend, and charters are mostly funded using taxpayer money (alongside some private donations–to be discussed in a future blog).

I do not believe that charter schools are some sort of saving grace in public education because not all charter schools are good schools. Some struggle mightily and do a disservice to many of the students. Some are outstanding and are making huge strides towards closing the achievement gap. Many are just mediocre.

Of the three different charter schools which I’ve taught in, one has been middle of the road and in a suburban area, and the other two have been in high poverty urban areas, one which did no better (and possibly worse) than nearby schools and the other which significantly out-performs the neighboring schools. The spectrum of quality in charter schools is as wide and varied as neighborhood public schools. So, let’s please move past the “good vs. evil” narrative, which is too often injected into the school-choice discussion and collectively reflect on what can be learned from the differing models to provide better learning opportunities for students.

Another common sentiment among those who are anti-charter is the idea that school choice cherry-picks the best students and leaves the neighborhood public schools with the most disadvantaged students, with a disproportionate share of students with special needs, and the least involved parents. By skimming the cream from the top, charters are dooming neighborhood schools to chronic failure. In my personal experiences, I haven’t found these arguments to be particularly true.

In regards to special education populations, the school which I teach at now has had a comparable or higher rate of special education students compared to the nearest neighborhood high schools. In Chicago, charters average special education populations of 13% compared to the 14% average in neighborhood public schools. When teaching at a more suburban charter, I saw a different problem. In a disturbing trend of “school hopping,” parents of students with disabilities would leave one school for another once the school had referred their child for special education testing as a way to avoid a label being placed on their child, which ultimately had a negative impact as their student didn’t receive the services they needed.

There is some validity to the argument that charters have more involved parents. For a parent to become aware of the educational options for their child takes some effort on their part. But, simply enrolling your child in a school doesn’t mean that you are an involved or particularly good parent. The “better parents” argument is based on a large assumption that parents know what makes a good school. Sadly, especially in low-income homes, parents don’t necessarily have the expertise to make informed decisions about their child’s education, which takes away this supposed competitive advantage for charter schools. Market systems depend on informed consumers and the lack of clear, easily accessible information about schools for parents is a large flaw in the school-choice theory, both for those who are in favor and against charters.

For example, I’ve had plenty of parents who have expressed to me that their child is “the school’s problem,” have hung up on me over the phone, and one who has threatened to break my fingers for giving their child a detention. Too often, I’ve seen parents withdraw their child from a charter school because it is “too much work” or because the school’s “doing too much.” Students sometimes even enroll in charters because they’ve been kicked out other schools. The “cream” which charters skim hasn’t always matched the rhetoric that I’ve heard people use regarding school choice.

I’ve had lots of great parents too, but this brings me to a larger point about the purpose of charter schools. The original idea behind charter schools was to allow freedom for teachers to get creative and find innovative ways for schools to educate students that were falling through the cracks in the traditional system. It has also become a way to inject a bit of competition into the field of education as a way to spur innovation. The reality is that many students are leaving the traditional system in search of better educational opportunities at charters and, according to research by Stanford University, they are finding them, at least in the cities. In order to avoid getting into a “who’s better” argument, (the research on charter vs neighborhood schools is generally very inconclusive) I’d like to point to another study of the highest-performing charter networks in the country that can bring charter successes back to their origins – to be the laboratories for potential education reform.

In 2012, the Brookings Institute and Harvard produced a report which determined the common factors associated with high performance in New York charter schools. Their findings shouldn’t be that surprising and can seem to be common sense. Schools which had the highest levels of achievement and growth had the following characteristics:

1)      Teachers receiving frequent observations and quality feedback
2)      Data-Driven Instruction Practices
3)      Providing High Dosage Tutoring
4)      Increased Instruction Time (or time on task)
5)      Creating cultures of high expectations

I encourage you to take a further look at the report and explore their findings. There are excellent charter schools around the country doing amazing things for students using these practices. So, instead of getting caught up in the partisan battle of the school-choice debate, I hope that we can step back and take an honest look at the good that can come from the charter movement and leverage that knowledge to better serve all students–no matter what type of school they go to.

What I would have done with my powerball winnings…

download (35).jpgBy Nick McDaniels – As you may have guessed from the fact that I have not become a daily contributor to the Marquette Educator as part of my retirement schedule, I did not win the powerball, though I did buy a ticket, because, well, if buying a ticket was good enough for Alex Ovechkin, it is good enough for me.

But if I had won… here are a few broad statements (my pet education projects) about how I would have helped public education.

200 million dollars (about a third of the after-taxes winnings, because I would probably have taken the cash), would go immediately to a nationwide, state-by-state campaign to cap ALL public education class-sizes at 20 students.

200 million dollars would go to a campaign to end the privatization of public schools, bolstering unionized work-forces, and cutting the legs out from under the text-book/testing machine.

100 million dollars would go to supporting youth advocacy and civics initiatives so that we can begin again to invest in the civic literacy and the voices of students.

That would leave me with me with about 100 million dollars in cash.  I am pretty sure I could live on that.


The Financial Unpredictability of Pay-for-Performance

money-73341_640By Nick McDaniels – There are very few things that are predictable in education any more. And budgeting for education in a rapidly changing education regulatory climate is becoming increasingly challenging. Perhaps this is why it is so perplexing that some of America’s most cash-strapped districts — often big, urban school districts –have shifted or have tried to shift to pay-for-performance structures of teacher compensation (I work in one of these districts).

And while innovation in the areas of educator compensation may be important in a nation of shifting priorities, creating more financial instability seems far from wise. Where pay-for-performance structures exist, districts struggle mightily from year to year to predict the coming year’s expenses. This hamstrings programmatic funding streams, and, in turn, creates more unpredictability regarding which services can actually be offered to students.

It seems to me now, in fact it always has, that creating a predictable system of school funding could cut down on highly criticized levels of inefficiency in public schools. So why do school systems pursue such pay-for-performance structures? Perhaps the school reform bug bites even the wisest of chief financial officers. I will affirmatively say that if I was in charge, on either the labor or the management side, I would bargain for the most predictable staffing pay scale possible so that the district’s year-to-year programmatic expenses could be far more intentional and calculated.

But alas, I’m not in charge. I’m just a teacher hoping I get my pay-for-performance raise that is now months overdue.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Slovak_referendum,_2015,_portable_ballot_boxBy Peggy Wuenstel – There is a piece of proposed legislation making its way through the Wisconsin state house that every free-thinking Wisconsinite should be aware of. Bill 355 seeks to put significant limits on the ways in which local school districts can ask for financial assistance from their taxpayers through referenda. It is a drastic move away from the traditional local control of schools to the state government assuming the authority to determine what kinds of schools our children attend. Why should the lack of local control of Wisconsin schools concern you?

  • There is a reason that local governing bodies that direct the policies and funding of schools are called school boards or boards of education and not boards of tax control. The charge of these bodies is to determine the needs of local students and their families and the willingness of the community to meet those needs. While some members seek office with the intent of reducing tax burdens, the majority are motivated by their desire to direct and support education within their political, social, and personal point of view. The service of these individuals is often direct democracy at its best, with these public servants attending meetings, making decisions and meeting directly with constituents in ways that far outpace other representative bodies.
  • School expenses continue to rise as costs of materials, insurance, energy, security, and staffing to meet expanding student needs grow. There are state and federal mandates which much be met. Even after exploring supplemental funding sources like grants, charitable donations, naming rights, and expanded student fees, the gaps remain between what it costs and what state and federal governments provide.
  • State funding has been slashed in Wisconsin over the last few budget cycles. With rising costs, and shrinking state support, local districts are forced to go to property owners to make up the difference. The overall cost of educating children does not go down, the responsibility just shifts from one level to another. Property taxes are often a very unfair way to apportion support for schools.
  • Wisconsin schools are diverse and proudly so. While a common set of standards drives the curriculum and content of instruction, local needs, strengths, and preferences vary widely. Areas of the state have different priorities. Some districts highlight athletic programs. Others demonstrate patronage for the arts. Agricultural programs might meet local community needs and closely bond schools, industry and community governments. The varied cultural and socio-economic needs of home districts require local control to understand, direct, and make these visions reality. Some districts are large and urban in nature serving tens of thousands of students. Some boards of education govern a single school. Wisconsin education has historically been the antithesis of one size fits all.
  • Schools are often the heart of a community, its social life, and its hope for the future. Leadership in government, civic, church, and are connected, nurtured and directed by schools and school personnel. Our buildings, staff, facilities, and initiatives are rich resources for cities, towns, and villages all over Wisconsin. They deserve, and thankfully often receive, community support.
  • The Wisconsin system for financing schools contributes to significant inequities between districts. Property rich districts are well-funded and offer superior facilities and outstanding educators due to the ability to attract and retain employees with salary, benefit, and continuing education packages that support professionals in their work with children. Rural and revenue-challenged districts face the dual challenges of smaller labor pools and limited tax bases. Providing quality education statewide should be the goal of every parent, local community leader, and school official regardless of where they live.

The current proposal before the legislature seeks to reduce how often, what time of year, and how frequently school boards ask their communities for support. It seems to be another example of fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. The ability to ask at a local level for support for education gives that say to voters, not state senators who want to centralize control of Wisconsin schools. One has to wonder if this attempt to limit “the ask” of local school boards is a reaction to a recent up-tick in positive outcomes of local referenda.  An administration that hangs its political hat on the promise of tax reduction might find it hard to convince citizens that shifting responsibility to local school boards from state tax revenues saves anything except politicians’ reputations as being tough on tax increases or as advocates for centralized, depersonalized education for Wisconsin’s children.

In my three decade career I have trained and worked in large districts and small. My own children have attended urban and rural schools. I have had the opportunity to compare per pupil spending, student to teacher ratios, course offerings and extracurricular offerings, all before the expanded school choice system. I have been employed by districts that never passed referenda, and those who have graciously supported the schools every time they were asked. I hope we continue to live in a state where the ask as well as the answer remain local decisions.

L’École, Xuéxiào, La Escuela

images (1)By Noel Hincha – School is school is school. Education is education is education. From the cavemen, since the Greeks, and to modern day, learning proves to be important – if not essential – to developing decent human beings and cultivating intellectual advancement. However, not all schools or educations are equal, and so vary from city to city and country to country.

It’s no secret America does not place considerably high in education rankings; when compared to the rest of the world our system is not the best, but it is not the worst. On a global scale, countries simply possess different educational systems that produce different educational outcomes.

Here is a mirror and pair of glasses:

  1. Freedom: Perhaps the basis of Americanism, but some students find the very aspect a major – no pun intended – difficulty in college when figuring out the meaning of their life endeavors at the ripe age of 18, especially within liberal arts. Almost incomprehensible to the American mind, other countries allow their students to choose a career pathway from as early as middle school age. France, in high school for example, sorts students into social studies, literature, or science concentrations where they consequently focus on their desired path. A system like the French may decrease “undecided-major-young-adult-crisis” stress. But what is better: depth or breadth?
  2. Language: Arguably, the most integral aspect of culture and a vital factor in an increasingly interconnected world. Of course, immersion and bilingual schools exist throughout America; however, numerous countries normally and absolutely require the learning of English as well as another foreign language. Some schools in France require two languages at a minimum: English and Russian, English and Spanish, English and Italian, English and Chinese – the list continues indefinitely. Then, in China and many Asian countries, English is a rigorous requirement. So, back to the mirror: most American high schools require only two years of a foreign language, and Marquette only requires a minimum of foreign language up to the intermediate level depending on one’s major.
  3. Price: In a most informal manner, all I’m saying is that Marquette’s collegiate expenses are about the equivalent of the America’s median household income while Germany’s tuition costs an acceptance or rejection letter – free; I’ll just leave this here, ponder the politics.
  4. Time: The allocation of time varies from culture to culture across the world, and the educational system feels the impact. In China, students take a noon nap to rejuvenate lost energy. In France, students take an hour to two hour long lunch break to appreciate cuisine and socialize. In Niger, students walk miles and miles to find water and bring it back to their home before school. In Israel, students attend school from Sunday to Friday. In America, students spend hours before, during, and after school working on extracurricular activities and part-time jobs. Schedules vary from sunrise to sunset. Priorities differ and a war between interest and requirement evolves, but in summary: every culture aptly uses their time.
  5. Tests: Sometimes grades cannot be the highest priority; sometimes grades are the only factor. In an ideal world, students are not their test scores and GPA; however, the world is less than ideal in this regard. An indefinite, ever-growing means of quantifying human intelligence persist throughout the international scene. In consequence, the stress and well-being related to such means persists. A question up to the leaders of education: what is better? Testing students consistently to adjust curriculums, stimulate competition, and conduct analytics? Making one test’s grade determine the future of a student’s career, socioeconomic position, and honor? Or, something in between?

With a capitalistic mindset, it is easy to make education a competition; with a stubborn attitude, it is easy for education systems to consequently lag behind others. There is not a simple answer as to what makes one country’s schools better than another’s; there is not a simple plan detailing how to advance American education. Infinite factors exist that contribute to the advancement or decline of a country’s educational system. What works in one country might not work in another without severe political and socioeconomic changes. So, where does one plant their roots or take a leap of faith?

A Proposal for Teach for America

change-671371_640By Nick McDaniels – Hey, TFA. I’ve got an idea.

As you know, good teachers are important and class size matters. As you also know, your bloated budget allows you to have hundreds of employees who don’t actually teach students, but, rather, support teachers who teach students. And as you also know, despite this amazing level of support, your teachers perform at about as well as traditionally trained teachers who don’t have this support.

How about this? How about you take all these supporting cast members, and put them back into the classroom. Instead of having your best teachers working out of your offices, supporting your teachers, put them into schools, where they can teach students, and offer support to your other teachers, and newer teachers from other backgrounds.

Would this diminish the level of support that new teachers could get from these supporting crew members? Absolutely!

Would this also allow your best teachers to be directly in front of children? Absolutely!

Would this allow all students in schools to enjoy smaller class sizes? Absolutely!

So why don’t you do it? Why don’t you do what you do best? Fundraise! Generate the funds to put your best teachers back into the classroom. Donate the money to school districts to hire back your support teachers. And then use the remaining funds to pay your support teachers for additional “Teach for America” branded support, complete with all the lingo and a copy of Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion.

The impact could be huge if you shifted your organizational strategy to have as much direct contact with students as possible. It’s certainly worth a shot, if you really want to have a positive impact on children.

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