Wednesday, October 31, 2012

More Fiscal Problems for Public Schools?

The NY Torch today published an article announcing that school districts' bills for the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) will increase from the current 11.84% of total teacher salaries to 15.5% - 16.5% for the 2013-14 school year.   According to the article, "Teacher pensions costs have nearly doubled since 2009-10."

School district taxpayers pay a percentage of teachers' salaries each year to the Teachers' Retirement System. NYS Comptroller DiNapoli is one of ten board members who oversee the $90 billion dollar teachers' retirement system.

NYSTRS’s 10-member Board is composed as follows:
• Three teacher members elected from the active membership.
• One retired member elected by a mail vote of all retired members.
• Two school administrators appointed by the Commissioner of Education.
• Two present or former school board members, experienced in the fields of finance and investment,
elected by the Board of Regents. At least one of these individuals must have experience as an
executive of an insurance company.
• One present or former bank executive elected by the Board of Regents.
• The State Comptroller or his/her designee.
(Board trustees are elected/appointed to three-year terms (except the Comptroller or his/her designee) and serve without compensation.)

DiNapoli's overestimating of the return on the $90 billion TRS fund (he anticipated 8% but it came in at 2.8%) will result in two things:

  1. Teacher pensions will be significantly underfunded.
  2. Taxpayers will have the pay the gap between what Mr. DiNapoli guessed would be the return on the $90 billion in the fund (8%) and the actual return (2.8%).  


Of course this will mean more problems for fiscally strapped public schools whose budgets are being stressed by state aid cuts since 2008, the 2% tax cap, and the significant costs associated with mandates (which few to no politicians want to address). In point of fact, Gov. Cuomo, despite forming a Mandate Relief Commission (that traveled all over NYS this past year), was quoted in a recent article as being annoyed by local governments and schools for pressing so hard for mandate relief. Some have speculated that he wants some schools to become insolvent so that NYS can take over, nullify contracts, and force mergers.

When will school districts stop making retirement promises, via contracts, that they cannot keep and that will ultimately undermine the entire retirement system?


Monday, October 29, 2012

"Lazy" students getting something for nothing?

Is making 50 a baseline for failing in school really giving students something for nothing? Some have complained that making 50 the baseline (lowest failing grade) encourages students to be "lazy."

First of all, effective and empathetic teachers knows that there are many reasons why a student might not do homework and being lazy encompasses few students in the group. Any number of students are grappling with serious problems in their lives (poverty, divorce, learning disabilities, abuse, etc.). These students need support, not zeros and insults from people who are quick use derisive terms like "lazy".

Secondly, good teachers want to reach the segment of the student population that is struggling. Grade recovery is a necessity. For example, without a baseline grade of 50, students could receive a report card grade of  0 or 10 or 20, etc. Once that student realizes that it will be close to impossible to pass the course, why would the student even try?

In most high schools in this area, students are graded on a 0-100 basis. Thus, there is a ten-point spread for A's, another 10-point spread for B's and so on until one gets to failing (F). In that case, there is a 64 point spread that puts students in the failing category.

The whole argument that students are getting something for nothing (if 50 were to be the baseline) would be solved if our schools went to a different scale. For instance, why not use the grading scale used at the colleges? (1.0 - 4.0) Why not go to an A - F grading scale? In those scales, there is hope for recovery from a failing grade. A college student who fails a course can still pull his/her average up to an impressive level. However, when a school district gives out zeros, this puts too many students in a situation where they feel hopeless.

Additionally, do we really want to label any student as a zero?

In my first year as a high school English teacher, my mentor teacher discussed grading and homework. He wisely said that I should assess all practice homework with comments and check marks (+, -, or ND not done) and get a stamp that said, "Under Construction." He advised that I put that stamp atop homework assignments that were of a very poor quality. Students would be told that the "Under Construction" stamp means that they need to conference with the teacher. This mentor told me that it was important not to defeat students. They need support to move ahead, he said, not a paper laced with red ink and a failing grade.

Teachers have the power to shore up students' self-concepts or damage them. High school has an inordinately significant impact on what students think of themselves. Let's make sure we do our best to make all students feel respected, supported, and hopeful (of a productive future). Students should know that they have many skills to offer society that high schools never teach or measure.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sen. Ritchie on Mandate Relief to Schools

Clarkson University’s Communications and Media Department, the St. Lawrence County League of Women Voters and the St. Lawrence County branch of the American Association of University Women have united to present a series of conversations with candidates for elective office.

The following is a link to the conversation with Senator Patty Ritchie:

While a wide variety of topics were covered, one of my central interests is in what can be done to fund education adequately in a time when there are tax caps and several years of severe cuts to education.
My education question to Sen. Ritchie, below, was on unfunded mandate relief.

"Yesterday, The Watertown Times reported that Canton Central is on course to run out of money next year.

A statewide survey indicated that 5% of districts will run out of funds within one year, another 22% in two years, and 39% within three years.

Insolvency looms… along with State takeover of schools… and the nullification of employment contracts that would have to be re-negotiated with the State.

The Governor’s Mandate Relief Council is in the process of identifying whether a mandate on a school or local government is unsound or unduly burdensome.

Potsdam Central has asked for a cap on employer contributions to health insurance premiums capping the percentage the employer pays and requiring employees and retirees to pay a set percentage.

 Other school districts are asking for repeal or revision of the Triborough Amendment – which guarantees pay raises even when contracts expire and guarantees that all provisions of a former contract remain in tact until a new contract is agreed to.

We all know that NYS has a $1 billion deficit. Therefore, we understand that funding cuts are inevitable. However, mandate relief should balance the other side of the equation for fiscally strapped North Country schools many of whom are on the cusp of insolvency.

1. Will you support mandated copays on health insurance premiums by employees and retirees while capping the employer contribution percentage and
2. Will you support the repeal of the Triborough Amendment?"

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Video: Is a sound basic education for students a civil right?

The Rockefeller Institute presented a forum entitled, "Safeguarding the Right to a Sound Basic Education in Times of Fiscal Constraint" in June of 2012. The three speakers were:

  • Michael Rebell, head of The Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers' College, Columbia University
  • John Faso, lawyer, former minority leader in the state assembly, and the Republican candidate for Governor in 2006
  • Robert Lowry, Deputy Director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents (NYSCOSS)
The forum is worth viewing especially for those who are committed to doing something about the state cuts to education. As many read today, Canton Central is on the cusp of insolvency. Other North Country districts cannot be far behind. Many politicians do not want to discuss unfunded mandate relief - even as they cap taxes and cuts funding to schools. The Watertown Times reported that "the Governor , stinging from an increasing chorus from localities that an array of state mandates is hurting finances of communities...."  It is true that NYS has a $1 billion deficit and so it is clear that cuts must ensue. However, why won't the Governor and many other politicians at least ease the burden on schools by relieving very costly mandates? Political considerations, as usual, seem to be trumping our obligation to provide students with their Constitutionally guaranteed right to a sound basic education.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Does Homework Help?

There’s a thought-provoking article about homework in The Washington Post.

One of the central questions posed is whether the US should engage in education reform to move away from “endless homework and inadequate high stakes testing.”  The writer, Vicki Abeles – director of the documentary entitled “Race to Nowhere,” wonders if most of the homework assignments given to students are stressing out students and families, failing to nurture intrinsic motivation and curiosity, and failing to provide the hoped for academic results. 

One of the problems in many school districts, including Potsdam Central, is that even though Board policy places limits on the total amount of time students should spend on homework per night, just who is policing this policy?

Is anyone checking to see how long it is taking students to complete assignments? Are teachers asking this of students? Do administrators know if the time limitations on homework are being adhered to? Isn't the highly capable math student going to spend far less time on practice homework than students with less capability? The proficient writer will be able to wrap up an essay far more quickly than students with average or below average ability. It seems obvious that the less skilled students are likely to have to devote significantly more time into completing homework assignments. Does anyone consider that a problem? 

The thing with homework and grading is that they are little studied in most schools of education; there is conflicting research about the impact of homework; there is little consistency and too much subjectivity in grading;  and daring to open this pandora's box usually results in controversy, a turf war, and push back to return to business as usual. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Grading Homework

It is hard to discuss the worth of homework assignments without writing about grading as well. They are inextricably interwoven.  Many parents and students misunderstood the grading and homework policy approved by the PCS BOE two years ago. It was a progressive policy that was student and parent friendly.

Those who opposed the policy often said they had not read it and this included an Education professor who spoke in one of his classes against Potsdam Central's policy - a policy he was too academically lazy to read in advance of his critique.

Unfortunately, too many people had run with rumors instead of facts. Here are some of the facts:

~  Homework was encouraged by the new policy - so nothing changed there. However, it was made clear that homework should bring learning forward... otherwise it was busywork.

~ Secondly, the policy made a distinction between two types of assessment students face. The first, called formative assessments, determine how much students have learned and how much they still have to learn. Formative assessments can include question-and-answer sessions in class or practice homework or pop quizzes that are intended to assess ongoing progress. These assessments enable the teacher to gauge how well students are learning the material, which students need extra instruction, and which should move ahead to more challenging material.

These assessments also put a lens on the quality of instruction. If many students are not comprehending a topic - as evidenced by a poor showing on homework or classwork- the teacher may decide on different approaches to teaching.
(These types of assessments should not be graded. They should be closely evaluated by the teacher so meaningful feedback is given to students during the phase in their learning when they are not yet expected to "have learned" the material. In essence, students should have time to practice before being tested and graded.) 

~ Summative assessments, on the other hand, should be graded. Why? Because these assessments encompass the knowledge students should have learned about that subject already. These assessments are more formal and include tests, quizzes, essays, and projects. Essays are generally done at home...projects are generally done at home...thus certain types of homework were still to be graded.
 (To reiterate, when students are given homework on material the teacher believes the class should have learned already, then it is this type of assessment that should be both evaluated and graded.)

Why was the homework and grading issue focused upon by the BOE?  First of all, it made no sense to grade homework when the purpose of that homework was to practice (in order to learn or master a concept). For instance, it was commonplace for math students to be instructed in new math principles and then given practice homework. The homework was collected the next day (not gone over), graded, and returned some time afterwards. Students knew that their practice homework was really a test so they...
* could ask their parents for help if they did not understand the lesson. (This gave students from higher socio-economic families an obvious edge.)
* could ask friends for help (which often meant copying answers and still not understanding the material).

This, of course, created problems:

  1. The teacher did not know the true impact of his/her teaching because parental instruction skewed the results. 
  2. The teacher did not know how many students were struggling because some, possibly many, were getting homework assistance from friends. 
  3. The grading of practice homework encouraged cheating.
  4. Many students felt they could not show up to class and simply declare that they did not understand the material. A zero on heavily weighted practice homework assignments was not an option. 
No teacher can know for sure who is doing a student's homework. In a place like Potsdam, where there are so many professors per capita, it is clear that any number of students are going home to parents who have higher academic degrees than high school teachers. This, of course, provides an advantage to those students. Some feel that students from all socio-economic backgrounds should operate, in school,  on as equal a playing field as possible.

When the Homework and Grading policy was first approved a few years ago, a reporter spoke to me and said that he was not giving much ink to a few of the highly vitriolic complaining parents because it was clear to him that these parents were interested only in making sure their children received high grades while giving little thought to the needs of students who struggle.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

BOE/Staff Mixer?

I saw on the Potsdam Board of Education's October 9th agenda that President Cowen listed "BOE/Staff Mixer" under his portion of the agenda.  I wondered what this was about so I asked another BOE member and was told that President Cowen is suggesting that there be social events with members of the staff in the future.  This appears to be an attempt to formalize an activity that has been going on for a while with some of the BOE members.

I think that I have mentioned before that many of the BOE members have connections to the staff at Potsdam Central.  The Board President's wife is a teacher, the Board Vice-President's wife is a secretary, one BOE member is a teacher in another district and a fourth BOE member has a daughter teaching in the district.  The Superintendent must be getting quite concerned that BOE members and Staff members are going to go right around him relative to making decisions about what happens at Potsdam Central. 

I am sure that the purpose is to get to know each other more personally with the expectation that there will be more "trust" relative to decisions made by the BOE.  But that is not how it works.  The Board of Education acts upon recommendations of the Superintendent, who is responsible for providing enough information to the Board members so that a decision can be made.  After nine years on the Board of Education, I can tell you that, by and large, most of the issues a Board deals with are personnel issues. With the tough budgets from the last few years and the tough ones that are to come, the last thing that a BOE should be doing is having people whisper in their ears about the way the school operates.  The person the BOE should be trusting is the Superintendent whom they hire to manage the school district. 

Staff will know that the Board of Education members support the educational programs offered by the district when they attend school functions.  How many BOE members go to events not attended by their own children?  Do those BOE members with elementary children go to the high school Open Houses or athletic events, or do those with high school children go to the Third grade play or the 8th grade USO show?  When I was on the BOE, there was an effort made to make sure at least one BOE member attended every function at the schools. 

I am actually secretly hoping that the Board of Education does make plans to have a mixer with the staff.  Since this would be a pre-planned activity of the BOE, it is likely that a majority of the BOE would be in attendance, and may discuss topics which could be coming to the BOE in the future, these events would have to be publicized and open to the public.  Any other scenario would be a violation of the Open Meeting Law. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

ELA: Testing Children at School

When all public schools in NYS have to rely on standardized tests, mandated by NYS and crafted by a private corporation [Pearson], and when these tests are used to determine student learning and the quality of teachers and principals, well...the tests should be valid and reliable assessment tools.

The story below was provided to schools by NYSED as an example of the type of passage (and difficulty level) that would be expected of students at a particular grade level. Try to guess the grade level.

The Gray Hare  by Leo Tolstoy

    A gray hare was living in the winter near the village. When night came, he pricked one ear and listened; then he pricked his second ear, moved his whiskers, sniffed, and sat down on his hind legs. Then he took a leap or two over the deep show, and again sat down on his hind legs, and looked around him. Nothing could be seen but snow. The snow lay in waves and glistened like sugar. Over the hare's head hovered a frost vapor, and through this vapor could be seen the large, bright stars. 
    The hare had to cross the highway, in order to come to a threshing-floor he knew of. On the highway the runners could be heard squeaking, and the horses snorting, and seats creaking in the sleighs.
    The hare again stopped near the road. Peasants were walking beside the sleigh, and the collars of their caftans were raised. Their faces were scarcely visible. Their beards, moustaches, and eyelashes were white. Steam rose from their mouths and noses. Their horses were sweaty, and the hoarfrost clung to the sweat. The horses jostled under their arches, and dived in and out of snow-drifts. The peasants ran behind the horses and in front of them and beat them with their whips. Two peasants walked beside each other, and one of them told the other how a horse of his had once been stolen.
    When the carts passed by, the hare leaped across the road and softly made for the threshing-floor. A dog saw the hare from a cart. He bagan to bark and darted after the hare. The hare leaped toward the threshing-floor over the show-drifts, which held him back; but the dog stuck fast in the snow after the tenth leap, and stopped. Then the hare, too, stopped and sat up on his hind legs, and then softly went on to the threshing-floor.
    On his way he met two other hares on the sowed winter field. They were feeding and playing. The hare played awhile with his companions, dug away the frosty snow with them, ate the wintergreen, and went on. In the village everything was quiet; the fires were out. All one could hear was a baby's cry in a hut and the crackling of the frost in the logs of the cabins. The hare want to the threshing-floor, and there found some companions. He played awhile with them on the cleared floor, ate some oats from the open granary, climbed on the kiln over the snow-covered roof, and across the wicker fence started back to his ravine.
    The dawn was glimmering in the east; the stars grew less, and the frost vapors rose more densely from the earth. In the near-by village the women got up, and went to fetch water; the peasants brought the feed from the barn; the children shouted and cried. There were still more carts going down the road, and the peasants talked aloud to each other. The hare leaped across the road, went up to his old lair, picked out a high place, dug away the snow, lay with his back in his new lair, dropped his ears on his back, and fell asleep with open eyes. 
Bolded words could be defined for students.

According to NYSED, this is an appropriate passage for the 3rd grade ELA test. Remember, the test is 3 hours long. Special education students may stay even longer.

A few observations:
  1. Having too many unknown vocabulary words impedes a student's ability to read fluidly and with comprehension. 
  2. Hearing the definition of a new word once (and, in this case, students would want any number of words defined) does not automatically translate into comprehension. 
  3. How many passages, like the one above, can most third graders try to read (and answer questions  about) before having a meltdown? 
  4. Would most experienced third grade master teachers ever pick such a passage and believe it to be grade and age appropriate? 
  5. Would they think it was wise to use this passage as part of a very lengthy test? 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Teacher Evaluation - Part 2

APPR is the relatively new teacher (and principal) evaluation system that is now mandated in NYS public schools. What is concerning to many is the fact that student performance on standardized tests is central to a teacher's evaluation and, thus, whether the teacher will receive an "ineffective" rating which could lead to dismissal.

Today I listened to radio show "Stand Up! with Pete Dominick" that featured an interview with National Center on Education and The Economy (NCEE) President Marc Tucker. 

I was struck by Mr. Tucker's take on education in the U.S. and the need for reform. Tucker stated that education reform policy in this country is primarily focused  on identifying the worst teachers and then getting rid of them. However, said Tucker, "A country can't fire its way to a first rate teaching force."   

Singapore, Canada, Japan, Finland, Australia, and New Zealand are among the countries that are outperforming the US (currently ranked anywhere from 17th to 27th place) in the quality of education provided to their citizens (as determined by international tests). These countries have all come to realize the same thing...that no first class schools exist without first class teachers. According to Tucker, leaders in these countries also believe that they can not compete in the global economy unless all students, not just kids in elite schools, have great teachers. 

Tucker believes:
  1. Schools of Education must become very rigorous and must draw their students from the top 1/3 of their high school class. Entrance to such schools should be as competitive as trying to get into law school or engineering school. Mastery of subjects is essential.
  2. Teachers who meet the standards of a rigorous education school should receive the types of salaries given to professionals (like lawyers/engineers/architects). 
  3. There should be career ladders for teachers so they can move up in responsibility, status, and pay, as they move toward becoming master teachers.  
  4. New teachers should receive significant support during their beginning years as a teacher.
Is NYS doing the right thing in engaging in high stakes tests with students as young as 3rd grade and using the test results to measure the quality of teachers?  The Economic Policy Institute issued a report in 2010 about the use of standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. 
According to the report, "The methodologies being pushed as part of the Race to the Top (RTTT) program placed too much emphasis on measures of growth in student achievement that have not yet been adequately studied for the purpose of evaluating teachers and principals."

Is New York State's teacher evaluation system and onerous mandated testing of students helping the state create first rate teachers (and, thus, first rate schools) or are these reform measures just a misguided attempt to fire our way to a first rate teaching force?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

PCS-Grading & Homework: A look back

The PCSD was covered in The NY Times two years ago due to a progressive, well studied, and student/parent friendly Grading and Homework policy. What was not mentioned in The Times article was that the policy came about in the PCSD as the result of an ad hoc committee established by me - the then Board president. However, others, also not mentioned in The Times article, were integral to the study of the issue and the ensuing policy - passed unanimously by the BOE.

Mary Ashley Carroll, long-time PCS Board of Education member, and I were members of the Board’s Program & Policy Committee when Mr. Brady was hired. We brought the topic of examining the district’s Grading & Homework policy to the committee for discussion but it was not embraced by the superintendent because it was a big undertaking. The committee put the topic on the backburner (but left it on committee agendas) because the new superintendent was busy learning his job and was grappling with a capital project. We knew we would get to it sometime.

Why was a Board committee even interested in reviewing the existing Grading and HW policy? We knew it was important to provide students and their parents with accurate information about students' mastery of subjects (or lack thereof) and students' effort/attitude in school. We knew that grades should reflect achievement or mastery of a subject - after all, that is what parents and students already think the grades do reflect. Other important qualities (like student effort and attitude) should be evaluated separately and should not be co-mingled with academic achievement grades. Why?

A parent deserves to know if his/her child's subject mastery is high but attitude is terrible. Conversely, parents should be told if their child's subject mastery is average but attitude and effort are exceptionally good. In the first scenario, one type of intervention is needed but in the second, a very different parental response is called for. Mixing academic mastery with non academic qualities might very likely result in both of the above types of students receiving the same grade (a high achiever downgraded for poor attitude/effort and a more average student upgraded for good attitude/effort.) Finally, we were interested in achieving consistency in grading, as much as practicable, between teachers in each school and between schools in the district.

In addition, the Program & Policy Committee was responding to complaints from some parents and students about certain grading and homework practices that were believed to be unfair, onerous, illogical, inconsistent, and not in the interest of helping students learn.

Then, a confluence of events brought the matter to the forefront. In October of 2008, Mary Carroll and I attended the statewide conference for school board members – something we did annually. It was at this conference that Mrs. Carroll heard Dr. Nicole Catapano (a WSWHE BOCES professional who provides staff development to teachers and administrators regarding student performance data and classroom assessments) deliver a workshop on grading and homework. Dr. Catapano's goal, at the NYSSBA Conference, was to help board members and administrators think about wise and effective grading/homework practices at their school districts and, ostensibly, to revise policy in order to reflect best practices.

Though Dr. Catapano had a central role in the creation of the grading/HW policy, serving as a consultant to the PCSD, her role was never fully credited nor mentioned in The NY Times
article, “No More A’s for Good Behavior” 11/28/10.

One month after the school boards’ conference in 2008, the death of a PCSD middle school student, the day he received his report card, (See "Father Says Soften Homework", Daily Courier Observer 5/26/10
 prompted me, as BOE president, to take action and form a Grading/HW ad hoc committee.

Mary Ashley Carroll, Dr. Nicole Catapano, and author Ken O'Connor deserve to be credited for their crucial roles in helping to establish a policy that was so progressive that The New York Times  deemed it worthy of sharing with a nation-wide audience.

Part 2 will deal with some basics about the policy that were not well understood by the public.