Sunday, April 13, 2014

School Boards: Do they matter?

Arnold F. Shober (a St. Lawrence University assistant professor of government) and Michael T. Hartney are authors of a new study, Does School Board Leadership Matter? (March 2014 - Thomas B. Fordham Institute) 

Thought-Provoking Questions Posed by the Study:

~ Are school boards leading school districts effectively?
~ Do board members have accurate information about the condition of their districts?
~ Is there a link between school boards and student achievement?
~ Are voters "choosing candidates with an overriding commitment to student learning?"

School Board Members - Educational Leaders or Petty Politicians? 

According to the study, some believe school boards are vital because local board elections compel district leadership to be responsive to community sentiments. "Others maintain that the notion of a board member as a leading citizen committed to protecting the public good is outdated, replaced by aspiring politicians, single-issue oligarchs, representatives of employee groups, and aggrieved former employees or community members with grudges to settle." Which is it?    

A disinterested public?

The authors point out the voter turnout in school board elections is extremely low. They note that only one in ten voters casts votes in board of education elections. It is my opinion that if board of education members are to be truly representative of their communities, voter turnout must increase.

Does your school board have a "vision"?

The study contains the following statement: " board members should possess a particular vision for the schools that they oversee. Here, we include their support for improving student learning - what we call an academic focus... After all, it is critical that board members prioritize educating students over the needs of adults and other political considerations if they are to fulfill their responsibility to provide students with a high-quality education."
During my two stints on the PCS Board of Education, I recall long-time member Judith Rich repeatedly pressing for the board to discuss and develop a vision for the education of students. Her efforts (and mine) were met with ridicule and disdain. She only half-jokingly said to me that every time she brings up the the vision thing, they decide, instead, to build something. (In other words, bury the Board in minutiae about drainage, heating problems, and co-axial cables so they could avoid the vision discussion. So they could avoid discussing how to improve learning.)

One of the study's conclusions is that "boards with members who have an academic focus and exhibit certain work practices are associated with better student achievement than expected, given their district conditions. They beat the odds."

There is much more to read in this important study. Read it at:

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Do Charter Schools Pose a Risk to Public Education?

Should the public be worried about the expansion of charter schools? Until recently, I wasn't. I thought most of these schools were handling students who were not having success in the public school setting. However, I recently saw a PBS show (Moyers and Company) with a segment called "Public Schools for Sale." The guest, Diane Ravitch, was interviewed by Bill Moyers about charter schools. See: 

Ravitch addressed the issue of how public education monies are being targeted by those who see dollar signs in the privatization of America's public schools.
"As Rupert Murdoch put it after purchasing an education technology company, 'When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone.”' Given Murdoch's  run-ins with the British government due to the predatory invasion of people's privacy by employees of his newspaper, News of the World, and given his vast wealth and media empire, he is not someone I like to see targeting education monies in the US.  Other wealthy businessmen are also looking at this emerging market and Bill Moyers described it as a gold rush [to privatize pubic schools].

I was taken aback when I learned that Netflix's CEO, Reed Hasting, had given a speech in which he stated that within the next 20-30 years he hoped charter schools would have 90% of American (K-12) students. See:

Education historian Diane Ravitch made some interesting points. She has written, "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools." 

  • Entrepreneurs are trying to profit from the public education "industry." (Ms. Ravitch said she does not look at education as an industry.)
  • Business interests want to takeover pubic schools.
  • She has changed her mind about charter schools because they started out as entities to help and work collaboratively with public schools to try different approaches with students who were not succeeding in public schools. Now she believes they have become competitors with a goal to take over.
  • Charters gained power when the federal government offered over $4 billion in competitive grants to the states. One proviso was that the states had to lift their caps on charter schools. (This drove the increase in the numbers of charter schools.)
  • Other drivers of the expansion of charter schools were the political forces of wealthy hedge fund managers who saw there was money to be made. In addition, charter money is going to political contributions so those elected  may view charter expansion in a positive light.
  • Ravitch said she believes the charter schools will take the successful students and leave public schools as a dumping ground for problem students.
  • While some claim charter schools are public schools, Ravitch pointed out that when they go to court they declare they are private corporations that have contracts with the government. In NYS, a recent court decision stated that charter schools could not be audited by the NYC Comptroller because charter schools are not a unit of the government. Thus, charter schools cannot be held accountable by the public. 
  • Charter schools are not doing a better job educating students.
  • Ravitch said education leaders should aim for equity and excellence will follow. In other words, all public schools should provide an equally strong education. 
  • The societal problems associated with poverty must be addressed in order for schools to prosper. 
  • Finally, Ravitch does not defend the status quo. She stated that there are many problems in public schools that must be addressed but said privatizing public schools will be a detriment to our democracy. She said "The public is not yet ready to relinquish its public schools to:
          ~ speculators
          ~ entrepreneurs
          ~ ideologues
          ~ snake oil salesmen
          ~ profit making businesses and
          ~ Wall Street hedge fund managers."

Maybe it's time for all of us to learn more about the potential impact of the growth of charter schools.

"Charter School Refugees," The New York Times

"Protections for Charter Schools Threaten DeBlasio's Education Goals," The New York Times

Today's ELA Test: Parents Beware!

Today is the last day for testing students in English Language Arts (ELA) - one of the required 3-8 NYS tests to determine...
1. Student improvement/growth
2. Teacher performance
3. Impact of Common Core State Standards

Here is one of the three essay questions for grade 3:

"...the passage is organized by an introduction of a central problem and then its solution. How do paragraphs 8 through 10 contribute to this organization?"  

Does that seem like age-appropriate language for a 3rd grader? A friend said to me, "A large percentage of Americans cannot name the vice-president but Pearson (the test makers) thinks third graders should understand that question."

If Pearson had given an age-appropriate version of the passage above, they could have presented the following:

What is the central problem in the story and how was it solved? 

A central problem with these tests (tied to the Common Core Standards) is not the content but the multi-leveled questioning. If the question is not understood by students, how can they give their best answers?

In addition, in one story (in today's 3rd grade ELA), there was an essay question about why a "chronometer" is helpful. Throughout the story there were repeated references to "time," clocks,"to being in a "sailboat," and to "sailors." In the last sentence of the story, the word "chronometer" was introduced. It read: "We now call marine timekeepers chronometers." Students were exposed to the words "timekeeper" (instead of clock) and "marine" (instead of sailing) both without a single context clue.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that many (maybe most) students are stressed and frustrated with such questions. Some teachers may be wondering if the test maker is purposely aiming to confuse students. Just who is charged with determining if these tests are valid? If the tests are not valid (as many believe), how can they be used to evaluate teacher performance and student learning?

The only winner here is Pearson. It is time to stop diverting extraordinary sums of taxpayer money (intended for education) to private companies only to have Pearson craft tests that many would characterize as invalid and unreliable. Opting out  of these tests sounds more and more appealing and one of the few ways parents' voices can be heard.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Chief Information Officers (CIO's) Role in Public Schools

According to the article "Protecting student data in the age of marketing and advertising," District Administration 2014,  school districts need well-informed CIO's in order to protect students. See:

The writer notes:
  1. "District CIO's need to have a complete understanding of a district's legal obligations to protect student data as more information is stored with online, third-party providers and parents' privacy concerns reach new heights..." (How well-informed is your district's CIO? Are Boards and superintendents ensuring the CIO's have this "complete understanding" alluded to by technology experts? Is this topic being discussed publicly by Boards of Education?)
  2. "CIO's and technology staff need to understand what questions to ask vendors before storing information in the cloud." (What are these questions? Do your school district officials and tech staff know them? The answers to the questions are as important as the questions themselves. Can the public find these questions and answers on school district websites?)

Listen to Tom Burns on the Common Core State Standards

Tom Burns, St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES superintendent, recently visited the studio at WCKN to discuss the Common Core State Standards as part of North Country Matters.  The Common Core has become controversial and Mr. Burns explains why he supports these more rigorous standards and explains the misconceptions surrounding them.

Take a listen as Donna Seymour (AAUW/LWV) and Ann Carvill (Education Blogger) discuss the CCSS with Supt. Burns.


Thanks to Donna Seymour, Prof. Dan Dullea, and the Clarkson University students at WCKN for making this available to the public. Additional thanks to Mr. Burns for his participation.

Autism Center at PCS: Some Facts

Potsdam Central officials have decided to convert the former daycare building (now owned by the district) into a BOCES autism center. After twenty years of daycare use, the building needs to be renovated and converted into a space suitable for such a center.

While this renovations project was going to be voted upon this month, State Education officials have temporarily pulled the plug. Their concern centers around having such students placed in a campus building that is separate from the K-8 building and the high school building - in other words, seemingly isolated from other students. The BOCES and PCS superintendents are appealing the decision and, obviously, are looking for SED approval.

In the meantime, it is worth noting some facts about the proposed renovations project:

  • Renovations Cost:    $350,000
  • Interest Cost:             $118,000
  • Total Cost:                 $468,465
  • State Aid:                   $397,850 
  • Local Share:              $ 70,615
  • Rent/year                  $ 68,000/year  (which increases 3%/year)
  • Rent over 10 years     $700,000 (estimated)
  • Cost of Custodian       $300,000 (est. over 10 years)
  • Bonding Period:         15 years 
  • Proposed Occupancy Date: Sept. 2014
Since the bonding period would be for 15 years and the lease period would be for 10 years, consider the following:
  1. Since school districts, by law, can engage in 10-year leases - as a maximum term, less, of course, is permissible - (a second 10-year lease can be agreed to when the first ends). PCS BOE member Rachel Wallace asked what could occur if BOCES decided not to sign for a second 10-year lease. She was told that there would be very little owed by that time so it would not be a financial problem for the district. 
  2. Since the lease permits BOCES to end the lease with 120 days notice, another question would be, what is the financial risk to the PCSD if BOCES decided, for some reason, to opt out after a year? Two years? 120 days?
  3. $350K is a small amount of money in an approximate $28M PCS budget. Why bond it over 15 years instead of over the proposed 10-years of the lease?
  4. If BOCES opted out, for some reason, would NYS still give the same state aid ratio on a building that is not occupied or is not used for classroom purposes? 

The Feds Weigh in on Student Privacy

An attorney for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) recently summarized the new federal guidelines about student privacy.

The following are just some recommendations to school districts from  the federal government as reported by NYSSBA:
  • "Consider the appropriateness of parental consent even when FERPA does not require such consent." (It is refreshing to read about the importance of keeping parents in the loop especially given the extent to which their rights and role have been ignored.)
  • "Be as transparent as possible with parents and students about how the district collects, shares, protects, and uses student data, as well as the type of information collected when students use online educational services..." (How transparent is your school district? Can you go to the district's website and easily access information about student privacy laws like FERPA and COPPA? About contracts district officials have signed that involve the sharing, storage, deletion of private student information? About the scope of student privacy training required of district employees? About pending NYS legislation pertinent to student privacy issues?) 
  • "Adopt  and enforce policies for evaluating and approving online educational services..." [Emphasis added] (Are your school board members adopting and enforcing such policies?)
Like never before in history, technology now enables the collection and sharing of enormous amounts of private student information. Who can be counted on to be most committed to protecting students' privacy interests? Parents - whose Achilles' heel is that they have limitations in their ability to organize. 

School officials who are willing to sacrifice or risk student privacy in exchange for the purported benefits of sharing vast troves of private student information have their priorities misplaced. Where do your school officials stand on the matter?