Wednesday, March 17, 2010

NJ Left Behind: Doing the Math

NJ Left Behind: Doing the Math

Princeton Township Public Schools offers a template on what will most likely occur across many districts on the heels of Gov. Christie’s budget: an effort by school boards to cajole local unions into accepting contract concessions. With cuts of up to 5% of total school budgets, increases in health benefits, and annual salary increases ranging in the mid-4%, there’s no other way to find the money. Other costs – supplies, utilities, transportation – are not fungible.

A few quick facts about Princeton, a 3,500-student school district with sky-high test scores. The annual cost per pupil there is $18,340 compared to a state average of $15,168. (These are 2008-2009 figures from the state database.) The median teacher salary is $69,829 plus benefits. The state median salary is $59,545 plus benefits. Costs of benefits in Princeton come to 23% of each teacher’s salary.

So last week Princeton Superintendent Judith Wilson sent a letter to the Princeton Regional Education Association asking for concessions. (Here’s its 2008-2011 contract.) The union then issued what theTrenton Times calls an “ambiguous statement” saying “they would not be willing to discuss contract concessions but leaving the door open to ‘continuing discussions.’” That’s better than a flat “no,” though School Board President Alan Hegedus noted that “the union was putting its head in the sand in response to the fiscal emergency that the state is in."

While every high-spending district in NJ may not be able to boast Princeton’s academic achievements, every high-spending district in NJ will be able to commiserate with Princeton’s fiscal problems. There’s nowhere else to go but teacher salaries, which is precisely what Gov. Christie had in mind with Proposition 2.5%, and precisely why NJEA Boss Barbara Keshishian is in a lather. NJEA could show some real leadership right now by allow their local affiliates to reopen contract negotiations so that we maintain educational standards in Princeton and elsewhere. Imagine the fount of goodwill erupting from an over-taxed public, the outpouring of gratitude in store for a Union that demonstrates an unequivocal compassion for kids and an astute comprehension of fiscal necessity. It’s just math.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

ESEA/NCLB Blueprint

Since I wrote about the NCLB overhaul two days ago, there has been a lot going on in the world of education. The Obama administration new education plan will drastically change the NCLB law - even the name will change. The most significant change will be moving away from the strict guidelines that use state reading and math tests to identify failing schools. Instead of having every student math and reading proficient, the new law wants to have every kid graduate from high school ready for college and work by 2020. In addition, the Obama administration wants to create a policy to reward successful schools and teachers.

Moving away from the math and reading focus will hopefully broaden the curriculum and allow schools to offer more science, history, and social studies content. Therefore, students would be more well rounded in their education and better prepared for college and work. The Obama administration wants the new law to set the bar high but allow flexibility to reach it. President Obama and Secretary Duncan believe that the federal government should be less involved in decision making and that the decisions should be made at the local level for the schools and the district. 

The Obama administration's $50 billion proposed education budget adds $3 billion in funding to help schools meet the new goals. The money will definitely be needed since the plan would reorganize the nation's education system.  Even if the new uniform standards that have recently been drafted are used in order to meet the new goals, it will take years for the plan to roll out.  In addition, the new plan would measure academic growth and unfortunately many districts are not equipped to monitor this progress as of yet - which will take more time and of course money.

So low performing schools that implement one of the four intervention strategies will be eligible for part of the $3 billion grant. High performing schools will be rewarded with recognition, more money and funding flexibility. But what will happen to the schools that are mediocre? Are those schools left to remain in the middle with no additional funding to make them excellent? 

This isn't the only issue that has been raised. As I mentioned last time, teachers unions are against the Obama administration's overhaul. They believe that the new plan will turn teachers into scapegoats. Randi Weingarten, the head of the AFT, has said that the new plan "appears to place 100% responsibility on teachers and administrators while giving them 0% authority to act". Secretary Duncan has expressed his concern with wanting to work well with the unions and it appears as though changes might be made to make sure that the unions don't completely disagree with the new plan. One change that this plan would implement includes an emphasis on ensuring that school leaders are well prepared and effective. 

From what I've heard about this new plan, it has the same chance of succeeding as NCLB did. In addition, I am waiting to hear how research will play a part in the plan. Research does not get mentioned often in the outline and it doesn't seem to be a high priority for the plan. Hopefully when Congress is vetting out the plan, they will make achieving the new goals realistic. Having all high school graduates prepared for college by 2020 seems a little far fetched to me. 


NJ Left Behind: Mr. Christie Goes to Trenton

The following is from the NJ Left Behind blog:

NJ Left Behind: Mr. Christie Goes to Trenton

Mr. Christie Goes to Trenton

The Governor just finished his budget address. (Full transcript righthere.) First, the bottom line: a $819 million cut in education with reductions in aid of up to 5% of a school district’s budget; a push for Proposition 2 and ½, a constitutional amendment capping the growth of all local and state spending at 2 ½ percent per year; collective bargain reform.

Here are some highlights regarding school finance reform:

On the disconnect between a rotten economy and public employee benefits:
From 2002 to 2008, pension payments to retirees grew 56%, triple the inflation rate. Our benefits are too rich, most public employees contribute too little, and the taxpayers have had enough enough of out of control pensions to public sector unions while they are losing their own jobs, enough of losing their homes, and then being told by the union bosses that they must pick up the tab for rich pensions at the same time.
Description of union leadership:
Political muscle fueled by intimidation tactics, political bullying and smears of public officials who dare to disagree.
The “dual system” between those who “enjoy” rich benefits and those who pay for it:
My proposal is simple: school district employees should pay for a reasonable portion of their health care costs, just like every other New Jerseyan. If we do not end this dual system, state and local government will have to raise taxes endlessly to pay for it. Teachers are not the problem, they get it.
On NJEA’s “Bosses” vs. hard-working teachers:
The leaders of the union who represent these teachers, however, have used their political muscle to set up two classes of citizens in New Jersey: those who enjoy rich public benefits and those who pay for them. That has created a system that cannot be sustained - a system fueled by mandatory dues of more than $700 a year taken out of every one of the nearly 200,000 teachers' paychecks
On Typical Teacher Salary Increases:
Does a child learn more if the union gets 5% taxpayer funded raises every year for its members? This is nonsensical and self-serving - and we all know it.
Biggest Applause Line/Race To The Top Reference:
Just how arrogant has the union gotten? By refusing to accept merit pay and use it to reward their best members, the union may have cost New Jersey $400 million in race to the top school aid from Washington. They did this in a year when they complain about budget cuts; in a year when we could truly use the money. Ask yourself, just who is putting their personal interests ahead of our children's?


Sunday, March 14, 2010

NCLB Overhaul

Tomorrow, President Obama will give an outline for overhauling the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law that was put in place in 2002 by former President Bush. The new education policy would not require schools to meet annual benchmarks as NCLB now requires. Instead, the plan would provide incentives for the best schools and teachers.

President Obama released a video yesterday that addressed the education issues in the United States. As he stated, "the nation that out-educates us today, will out-compete us tomorrow."

The nation's high school graduation rates have fallen behind that of other nations. President Obama said that he plans to prepare every child for a career and college. And according to the Sam Dillion's NYTimes article,  President Obama's plan will retain some key aspects of the current NCLB law - including its requirement for annual reading and mathematics tests - but the new plan will also propose some far-reaching changes.  According to the article:

The administration would replace the law's pass-fail school grading system with one that would measure individual students' academic growth and judge schools based not on test scores alone but also on indicators like pupil attendance, graduation rates and learning climate. And while the proposal calls for more vigorous interventions in failing schools, it would also reward top performers and lessen federal interference in tens of thousands of reasonably well-run schools in the middle. 
The new plan appears to take a fuller approach to evaluating schools. Including other indicators is a great step toward the broader evaluation. I particular like the fact that students' academic growth will be used. However, the plan is already receiving criticism. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi  Weingarten says that the plan puts all of the responsibility on the teachers.

The new proposal would require states to develop new teacher evaluations that are partly based on whether their students are learning. These would replace the current emphasis that NCLB has on certifying that all teachers have valid credentials.

The administration has also added $100 million to the 2011 budget so schools can offer more courses and not only focus on math and reading. It is not clear how effective these proposals will be in broadening the curriculum.

Evidently the President is only providing Congress with an outline and is expecting them to come up with the details. Let's see how this ends up.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Curriculum Standards - Changes and Debate

Finally! Uniform standards across states for K-12 education. The standards do not outline curriculum, only the concepts that need to be learned in each grade. The NYTimes article stated that "a panel of educators convened by the nation's governors and state school superintendents proposed a uniform set of academic standards on Wednesday, laying out their vision for what all the nation's public school children should learn in math and English, year by year, from kindergarten to high school graduation."

While the Obama Administration is endorsing the effort, states are not required to participate in the uniform standards either. But most are, with Texas and Alaska choosing to decline in the standards-writing effort. Gov. Rick Perry (TX) stated that only Texans should decide what children there learn. States who are participating are receiving 40 points toward the 500 points possible for the Race to the Top initiative.  

It's not perfect, but its a start. Ideally, the standards should address all areas of the curriculum, but they are focused on English and Mathematics.  Apparently issues of evolution education would be too touchy to address for science curriculum, and I'm sure that social studies curriculum would face similar issues depending on region. Just look at what Texas has been doing with social studies curriculum and textbook choices.

Yesterday, the Texas Board of Education approved a very conservative social studies curriculum that will effect history and economics textbooks. According to today's NYTimes article, the curriculum stresses "the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers' commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light".  There were various meetings in the past week debating the standards. Conservatives wanted to remove references to Ralph Nader and Ross Perot, and list Stonewall Jackson as a role model for effective leadership.

Obviously not all states are as conservative as Texas, and many would have a big issue with aligning their social studies curriculum with the one that Texas has newly proposed. So, it stands to reason that if common standards are being created that educators would start off with these two subjects.

I am eager to see how the roll out occurs from state to state and if students will in fact benefit from this change. I think it would make transferring schools between states an easier process since schools would all be learning the same standards.