Sunday, December 1, 2013

Homework & Grading & Mastery

The theme of the December 2013 edition of EL (Educational Leadership) is student mastery of subject matter. What is not surprising is how often the educational experts contributing to the issue referred to grading and homework in their writings about mastery.

Among the comments:

  • "Teachers need to allow students to work on tasks repeatedly, without penalties, until they achieve mastery." [The takeaway? Evaluate homework with students and reteach when necessary but do NOT grade practice homework.]
  • "...I have found that most teachers merely come up with an algorithm for calculating grades rather than ensuring that their grades link to larger, defensible standards. The fact that such norm-referenced, individualistic grading is a time-honored education custom fails to justify it." [The takeaway? How to best grade students should be studied by teachers and should be examined in-depth in schools of education.]
  • "To see the harm in the current approach to grading, imagine a teacher who, like most teachers, gives As or Bs to her better students. But suppose that the school is one of the weakest schools regionally. She is thus giving grades determined by familiar local norms and low expectations, not measured against standards. Although, the teacher is well-intentioned, she is unwittingly setting up her students for heartbreak." [The takeaway? Rigorous statewide standards are needed so students can see how they compare to a standard that is much wider than their local schools.]
  • "...remediation rates in college average 40 percent of incoming students (Wiggins, 2010) .  As a result, it's hard to feel confident about local performance standards." [The takeaway? College and university officials have been complaining for some time about too many incoming students not being college ready. The grade inflation that goes on at many, possibly most, high schools keeps students and parents content and quiet but masks truth and sets students up for failure.]
  • "We owe each student the facts as to where he or she fits in in terms of wider-world standards."
  • "Education has a long-standing practice of turning worthy learning goals into lists of bits." 
  • "A march through facts and sub-skills, dotted with numerous quizzes, is not a path to true mastery."
  • "The practice of reducing mastery to accurate recall of discrete facts and skills is tempting, common, and harmful. [The takeaway? Students should be taught how to think deeply. American educational content has often been characterized as being a mile wide and a millimeter deep.]
    • "Too often we opt for uniformity over individuality because it's easier to manage." [The takeaway? Compliance, conformity, uniformity are prized in too many classrooms and school districts. The recent insult to student privacy, via data collection and sharing,  illustrates the extent to which these traits are expected of parents as well as their children. Going along to get along can come at a great price.]

    Sunday, November 24, 2013

    What's Wrong With the NYS Mandated Tests? Principals Weigh In.

    The following letter is worth reading. In it a group of respected principals have shared their concerns with parents about the 3-8 testing that is generating so much data and controversy.

    Among the many points made by the principals:
    • Too much testing
    • Tests too long
    • Ambiguous Questions
    • Negative Reaction by Students
    • Benchmarks Irresponsibly Inflated
    • Many parents confusing the testing with the Common Core Standards. Negative reactions to the former are leading many people to criticize the latter - which the principals support.
    What are your children's principals writing to you about the mandated 3-8 tests? 

    Thursday, November 21, 2013

    NYS Assembly Paying Attention to Student Privacy

    According to the Albany Times Union, members of the NYS Assembly are investigating student privacy risks brought about by the student data collection and sharing that is occurring.

    Local control of private student data seems to be a thing of the past. Parental rights to have input and influence over the use of their children's private student information also seems to be disappearing. 

    It was reported by the Union Times that Assembly members of the Education Committee held a hearing yesterday to discuss the risks associated with "the creation of a vast trove of student data..."

    The following information, and more, is being collected by NYS:
    • student names
    • test scores
    • special education designations
    • attendance records
    • disciplinary records
    • health records
    • ethnicity
    • parental income (on parents of Free and Reduced Lunch recipients)
    It appears that members of the Education Committee are looking into the notion of having parent OPT-IN. It would be nice to see parental oversight authority given back to them. 

    The much written about data collection and storage company called inBloom, Inc. did not send a representative to attend the Assembly Education Committee hearing. Kudos to Education Committee Chairperson Cathy Nolan who recommended that inBloom, Inc. representatives be subpoenaed. 

    Wednesday, November 20, 2013

    Time for the Education Commissioner to Visit the North Country

    Most states in the US have embraced the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and it seems only logical that a similar educational standard be set for schools in the country. Most people seem to agree that raising standards in US schools is necessary.

    The controversy seems to rest on the tests that, in NYS, are mandated to be given to students in grades 3-8 (in addition, of course, to the Regents examinations NYS students have taken for years).

    Some questions keep surfacing about the 3-8 tests.
    1. Are they valid? Too hard? Age and grade appropriate? 
    2. Must these tests be given every year 3-8? High stakes testing now starts in 3rd grade and ends with high school Regents examinations.
    3. Why aren't past 3-8 tests made public, just like Regents examinations? This secrecy keeps the test maker from facing accountability for the quality of the tests.
    4. Unless these tests face public scrutiny, why is teacher job performance being judged by student results on the tests? 
    5. Are students being treated like guinea pigs in an experiment? The duration of the tests is highly inappropriate for many of the age groups being tested.   
    The NYS Commissioner of Education will be in Schroon Lake today to address the public's questions. That's a 2.5  hour drive for those who live in the North Country. Would people in NYC be expected to drive to Montauk Point to see the Commissioner (another 2.5 hour drive) or would there be an outcry if that occurred? Maybe it's time for an outcry from this region. 

    Monday, November 18, 2013

    PCS Not Concerned About Student Data Collection?

    While many national and state leaders (as well as NYS Boards of Education, superintendents of schools, parent organizations) are alarmed about risks to student privacy posed by the student data collection and sharing that is going on in NYS, PCSD officials appear to support such data collection and apparently see no need to alert the public about possible risks.

    When the district was recently FOIL'ed for a list of the categories of student information being sent to the State Education Dept.(like student names, addresses, test scores, special ed. designations, disciplinary records, etc.), they said no such document exists at PCS. (The BOE should have requested such a document already.) Instead, they sent a 246-page NYSED document entitled 2013-14 SIRS (Student Information Repository System) Manual. In addition, they sent two documents from DQC (Data Quality Campaign) - a national group touting the value of student data collection to inform instruction.

    The district was also FOIL'ed for any correspondence between school officials and the public in which school officials warned the public of possible student privacy risks related to the massive collection of student data that will ultimately end up stored in a cloud and shared with certain for-profit private companies. School officials responded that no PCS documents (alerting the public) exist.

    When public officials support transparency, they make information easily accessible to the public and they put it in a user-friendly form. When they want to be opaque, they bury the public in mounds of information that most do not have the time to sift through. In addition, the DQC documents can surely be construed as reflecting the district's pro data-gathering position since no other documents were forwarded that presented an opposing point of view to DQC.

    Given the importance of student privacy, adults (elected officials, administrators, and community members) need to be aware of facts so they can take action to protect children. Board members must insist on transparency and ensure it is occurring. When only one side of an issue is made transparent by officials, ostensibly in order to sway public opinion or keep the public quiet, then trust is lost and advocacy efforts are thwarted.

    Friday, November 15, 2013

    Will NYS Pass a Student Data Privacy Law?

    It has been reported (in that NY State Senator John Flanagan, "plans to propose legislation that addresses school leaders' and parents' concerns about student data privacy."  

    In addition, a group of NYC parents filed a suit against the State Education Department to prevent it from releasing private student data to for-profit companies like inBloom, Inc.(contractor for the statewide data base) and Pearson (creators of those much-criticized 3-8 grade mandated state tests).However, the judge in charge of the case refused to grant the injunction but did give the plaintiffs a hearing date (Dec. 6th).

    Who is voicing concerns about risks to student privacy?
    • NYS Senator Flanagan (Education Committee Chair)
    • US Senator Markey (Massachusetts) 
    • Randi Weingarten (President of the AFT - American Fed. of Teachers)
    • Many NYS Superintendents of Schools
    • Advocacy Groups like Class Size Matters
    What has your school district done to make you aware of risks to student privacy? And...just what information is being sent to State Ed. for distribution to inBloom, Inc. and Pearson? This is something all parents should know.

    Sunday, November 10, 2013

    The Homework Saga Continues at PCS

    The Watertown Times article "Potsdam School Limiting Homework - Parents Complained - 30 Minutes of Math Deemed Enough" re-ignites the homework/grading controversy that just never seems to go away. Why? The inherent problems with how homework is handled have not been eliminated. There is no overarching district-wide philosophy on homework that fosters student learning.

    Unwise and ineffective homework/grading practices have been noted and discussed between BOE members and administrators in recent years and yet little seems to change. Among the problems...

    • Many teachers were grading practice homework - not a wise educational strategy. (While practice homework needs to be gone over and corrected in class, it should not receive a grade. Why? Students are still learning the material and students learn at different rates. Grading comes once teachers believe students have had the time and practice to master the material.)
    • The Grading of "practice" homework clouds reality for teachers: Grading practice HW encourages students to get answers from parents or more able students and then not feel free to tell the teacher that they did not understand the assignment. Teachers will feel their lesson must have been highly effective because so many students did well on the HW when, in point of fact, this may not be true at all.
    • Teachers Had No Idea How Much Time Was Being Spent on Homework: While a very able student might fly through an assignment, other students would surely struggle with it (and spend much more time on it) - leading to high levels of frustration and defeat for the latter group. The time limitations on homework could not possibly work for this reason. 
    • In lieu of effective classroom management strategies, some teachers had implemented irrational and punitive grading practices. (Ten points off for students who failed to put their names on the assignment, more points off or a zero for leaving the HW in a locker, detention for failing to pick up the HW assignment that is left by the teacher in one place in one class and another place in another, etc.) Students had to live up to a standard that the teachers could not. It would be interesting to see what would occur if principals implemented equally harsh penalties for teachers who forgot their pens, who came a little late to a meeting, who chatted quietly with a neighbor during a meeting, who forgot to pick up needed paperwork for a meeting, etc.) 
    • Social Inequity: Some students were going home to highly-educated parents who could give great help with homework assignments. On the other hand, many students went home to households where parents had a more limited educational background and, thus, the parents were in no position to assist their children with difficult HW.
    • Completed HW Assignments Not Returned to Students in a Timely Fashion or At All. 
    Years ago, school officials knew of the homework and grading problems, now exacerbated by the Common Core and student testing requirements, and did nothing until the Grading and Homework Committee I formed forced the conversation. (The then BOE deserves credit for unanimously voting for policy change that was beneficial to students.) Basically, I told the supt. that we were either going to study homework and grading (with all constituent groups) or we were going to discuss publicly the many problems surrounding it that had been shared with various BOE members.

    It is rather astonishing that last month a BOE member asked if students who failed to complete their assignments were being punished. Board members should know this especially if they've had children go through the system. Another BOE member didn't know students' HW was, by policy, limited in the amount of time students should devote to it.

    The problem with Boards of Education is that they can be like that old toy, Etch a Sketch. All former work done can be erased in no time - just like it never occurred - putting Boards, time and time again, back at the starting line - which, unfortunately, is just where some people want them...uninformed and ineffective. An experienced BOE member once said to me, "Every time we try discuss how to improve education for students, they embark on a building project so all the Board is discussing is roofing materials and leaky faucets." While capital improvements are necessary, educational improvement is vital.

    Thursday, October 31, 2013

    BOCES Wins Million Dollar Grant

    This region's BOCES (St. Lawrence-Lewis) was the lead agent in winning a $1.47 million "Strengthening Teacher/Leader Effectiveness Grant." According to Stephen Todd, Assistant Superintendent at BOCES, "We were the only recipients in the state north of the NYS Thruway, and only three recipients in the state received higher awards."

    The grant monies will be divided among 14 of the 18 school districts in St. Lawrence County. (Four districts were ineligible.)

    What will the grant be used for? Mr. Todd explained that it will be used to help implement the Regents Reform Agenda - which refers to:
    1. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
    2.  Data Driven Instruction
    3. Teacher/Principal Evaluation
    The Assistant Superintendent noted, "We will use the money to build a cohort of over 100 teacher and principal leaders who will serve as coaches and mentors for their peers throughout the region."

    Mr. Todd specifically acknowledged the efforts of Jennifer French (Senior Supervisor for School Improvement at BOCES). "She wrote the grant single-handedly and will be the leader of our implementation team."

    Given the significant reductions in NYS funding to schools in recent years, it is great to hear of some money heading to the North Country.

    Monday, October 28, 2013

    NY Principals Write Open Letter to Parents about Testing

    The controversy surrounding what many see as too much required NYS testing of students in grades 3-8 continues to swirl. Accusations that the only real beneficiary is the corporate testing industry resonate with many. A group called NY Principals just released the following letter to parents to explain the principals' perspective on student testing.

    Among the assertions:
    1. Too much testing
    2. Tests are too long
    3. Poor questions
    4. Tests putting financial strain on schools
    5. The achievement gap is widening
    It is worth taking a look at the full letter to read, in more detail, the concerns being voiced.

    Saturday, October 26, 2013

    Superintendent Alarmed About Student Privacy...BOE votes to opt out of RTTT

     The following is part of a memorandum sent by a superintendent of schools  to employees in his school district. In it he expresses his concerns about student privacy risks in light of the massive collection of confidential student data by NYS. He writes...

    "I am very proud to report that...our Board of Education took a stand against sharing student data with third party vendors.  The Board unanimously approved a resolution to withdraw our district from the Race to the Top and thereby enabled us to opt of selecting a required data dashboard that would house student data. (emphasis added)

     The result of this resolution is that the district forfeits the final $2500 of RTTT* money that we use to support our APPR work, but more importantly it sends a clear message to the State Education Department that our student data must be protected locally. (emphasis added) Unfortunately, this action does not release us from any of the other state mandates.

    Yesterday over 60 Superintendents and school administrators met with SED RTTT representatives.  For over two hours, the SED group was questioned about RTTT and student data collection.  Clearly they heard that, in this region of the state, we are not happy and want a delay of implementation and review of all state mandates.  The press has been contacted and there should be an article coming out shortly with more details."                                                                

    The "region of the state" mentioned above is Westchester County. What is being done in other regions of NYS? For instance, in the North Country...
    • Are superintendents publicly voicing concerns about risks to student privacy brought about by the extraordinary amount of student data being shared with third party vendors? 
    • Are Boards of Education discussing this issue publicly at Board meetings and informing the public of risks to student privacy? 
    • Do Board of Education believe student data should be protected locally?
    • Are Boards of Education and superintendents lobbying the Commissioner and the Board of Regents to do something about this important issue?
    The Commissioner of Education is going to school districts in other parts of the state to discuss this and other compelling matters. Maybe he should be invited to visit at least one North Country public school so teachers and the public can share their concerns.

    *Note: Race to the Top (RTTT) refers to the $700 million in federal competitive grants that were offered to states. Among other things, APPR (teacher and principal evaluation) had to be implemented and student academic growth, as shown on mandated tests, had to be a significant part of employment decisions. 

    Wednesday, October 23, 2013

    Leaving Student Privacy at the Schoolhouse Doors?

    School districts are sharing significant amounts of student data with the education technology industry all as part of the mandated testing of students by NYS. Are parents' rights to approve the sharing of information about their children being circumvented by schools?

    Senator Markey (D-Mass), a students' privacy advocate, sent a letter to Sec. of Education, Arne Duncan and wrote, "Such loss of parental control over their child's educational records and performance information could have longstanding consequences for the future prospects of students."

    When I spoke to Robert Freeman, Director of the NYS Committee on Open Government, he mentioned that the FERPA (student privacy) laws had been weakened in recent years.  Sen. Markey refers to this weakening of FERPA in the questions to Sec. Duncan. He writes, "In 2008 and 2011, the Department issued new regulations with respect to FERPA that addressed how schools can outsource core functions such as scheduling or data management and how third parties may access confidential information about students. These changes also permit other government agencies that are not under the direct control of the state educational authorities, such as state health departments, to access student information." 

    ~ Are there strict federal guidelines and standards to protect students' privacy? I doubt it.
    ~ Have parents' rights been trod upon? Certainly.
    ~ Have the possible consequences of sharing so much confidential student information with private corporations involved in an estimated $8 billion industry been fully considered? Not likely.

    Students' privacy should not be sacrificed at the schoolhouse doors.

    Thursday, October 10, 2013

    Student Privacy Concerns- inBloom revisited

    The NY Times article, "Deciding Who Sees Students' Data" (Oct. 5, 2013) draws attention, once again, to the many concerns surrounding student privacy in NYS.

    Some facts about inBloom, Inc.:
    • inBloom, Inc. is a data repository for the copious amounts of student information (data) that are being collected by schools. (Schools often have many information systems "for things like contact information, grades and disciplinary data, test scores and curriculum planning...")
    • inBloom, Inc. basically promises to store the information in a cloud, encrypted, so that the data can be stored in one place, analyzed more easily, and made more accessible to state education departments and school districts.
    • inBloom will not only store data, "it promised to help personalize learning - by funneling student data to software dashboards where teachers could track individual students...and customize lessons in real time."  
    Is student privacy being protected?
    • "We are officially the worst state in the country when it comes to student privacy," said the executive director of Class Size Matters.
    • FERPA, the federal law that protects student privacy, "updated it rules to permit schools to share student data, without notifying parents, with companies to which they have outsourced core functions like scheduling or data management." Once again, parents' rights are trod upon. It used to be illegal for schools to share children's educational records without parental permission.
    • A lawyer has stated, "...there are too few safeguards for the amount of data collected and transmitted from schools to private companies."
    • Due to privacy concerns 6 out of the 9 states that signed up for inBloom this year backed out. NYS is still in.
    • "New York State has already uploaded data on 90 percent of the 2.7 million public school and charter students...into inBloom."
    Education Money...Where is it going?
    • Concerns have been voiced that much-needed education dollars are going to private, for-profit corporations as a result of extraordinary amounts of data gathering.(According to The NY Times, "Education technology software for prekindergarten to 12th grade is an $8 billion market...")
    • Among inBloom's goals is to "streamline access to students' data to bolster the market for educational products."
    Worst case scenario?
    • There are fears "about the potential for mass-scale surveillance of students." 
    • Are schools uploading disciplinary data on students?
    • inBloom does not guarantee the privacy of the information collected. How could they? Governments, themselves, have a hard time keeping up with hackers.
    Do you know what information your school district is sending to inBloom, Inc.? Is anyone sure that all this data collection will improve education for children? Concerned parents should be paying attention. 

    Wednesday, October 9, 2013

    Grading: How We Got it Wrong

    The October 2013 "Education Update" (v.55, #10) from ASCD arrived yesterday and I was pleased to see the cover story which is entitled, How We Got Grading Wrong, and What to Do About It.

    Among the ideas presented in the article:

    ~  Grades: Should they reflect effort or achievement?  A common mistake in grading is that teachers tend to reward working instead of learning. "Do the pile of homework and you'll get the grade. Don't do the work - and even if you demonstrate mastery of the skill or content - you won't get the grade." Compliance is a quality often rewarded over achievement/mastery.

    ~  Grades as a means to punish: Grades should give students, their teachers, and their families information about where to make adjustments to achieve the educational goals in each subject area. But, instead of using grading as a "formative process that can be educative" it is too often viewed in a fixed event. "This fixed outlook invites punitive measures that distort an accurate picture of what students know and are able to do."

    ~  Comments from experts:
    • Penalties for late work, zeros, and points off for appearance can trade measures of learning for measures of compliance.
    • Possibly worse is the message sent by grading homework. There are all sorts of professions where you have opportunities to receive feedback without being penalized. When we grade homework we're rewarding students who learn the first time. 
    • We grade kids while they're learning and that penalizes kids for taking risks. It's demotivating and institutionalizes failure.

    ~   Grading: A Broken System? According to the article, "Grading can be so entrenched in the status quo that teachers...are often surprised to realize the ways they've perpetuated a broken system."

    ~   Why Standards-Based Grading is Preferable: Standards-based grading (SBG) provides clear learning targets, eliminates punitive grading practices, and results in better assessments (tests).

    ~   What Grades Mean: "When grades reflect everything - participation, homework, attendance, extra credit, neatness - they mean nothing."

    ~  Old-Fashioned Grading: "Traditionally, all homework, quizzes, and tests were graded and entered in a grade book. However, homework and quizzes should be treated as practice - not points toward a summative score."

    ~ Most Homework Assignments are Practice: "Homework carries no weight except in its worth for practicing for the assessment."

    ~ Decrease in Cheating: "Schools that give feedback for homework instead of points see a decrease in cheating because there is no point to it- it's not going to help you pass the test."

    ~  Re-testing: There are many student-centered reasons to permit re-testing.

    ~ Grading and Social Justice: "We can do an awful lot to alleviate the effects of poverty by what we do with grades. It's time to consider to what extent our grading rules and assessment practices work to alleviate stressors and support students, rather than measuring, measuring, measuring."

    Sunday, September 29, 2013

    Should Students Be Surveyed? Robert Marzano says, "Yes."

     In the October 2013 edition of Educational Leadership (EL), Dr. Robert Marzano (a well-known education researcher) writes about the Art and Science of Teaching: "How to Show Student Learning."

    According to Marzano, "Most teachers agree that measures of student learning should be included in teacher evaluation models, but they want these measures to be useful and fair."

    Just how can student learning be shown? Marzano's two recommendations are:
    1. Use common assessments to created common growth measures
    2. Use common student surveys to create common growth measures
    Dr. Marzano notes that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation published a large-scale study which "concluded that student surveys should be a significant part of an array of assessments used to judge teacher quality." It is suggested that the following statements should be used in the surveying of students:
    • "I've learned a great deal in class."
    • "I've accomplished more than I thought I would in this class."
    • "My teacher pushes us to work hard and think deeply."
    • "In this class, the teacher expects nothing but our best."
    Some interesting points are made by Marzano about using common assessments and using surveys. Leaders in the field of education support the surveying of students, so why isn't it happening?  Boards of Education should exhibit leadership and direct superintendents to conduct annual surveys of students and use the results to improve teacher quality and student learning. 

    Tuesday, September 24, 2013

    PCS: Financial Snapshot Analysis

    What are the major costs facing the PCSD for the 2013-14 school year?
    • $ 17.1 Million.....Personnel Costs (payroll of $8.9M and benefits of $8.2 million)
    • $   1.5 Million.....Special Education (after NYS aid)
    • $      558,000.........Debt Service (after NYS aid)
    • $         -7,000.........Transportation (NYS aid exceeds projected costs - thus a net gain of $7K)
    Transportation is expensive (the total cost is expected to be just over $1 million) but the PCSD usually has 90% of it paid by NYS. This year, the district will receive more NYS aid for transportation than they expect to spend. Why? Aid comes a year after the expense is paid so the aid the PCSD is receiving this year for Transportation is based on last year's costs. Bottom line, about 90% of transportation costs are paid for by NYS - not local taxpayers. Thus, when a transportation employee is laid off, only 10% of his/her salary is saved by the district. 

    Debt Service (principle and interest to be paid) is also aided at a high level. Four years ago, NYS paid 91% of the cost. It appears that this year, NYS is providing aid at a lower level of 82%.)

    Special Education is costing the district about $1.5 million for the current year. NYS will pay a large portion of this cost. The district projects a total Special Ed. cost of $3.9 million so NYS will pay about $2.4 million or about 62%.)

    Personnel Costs which are made of of salaries ($8.9 million) and benefits ($8.2 million) are, not surprisingly, the biggest expense facing the PCSD. 

    For Boards of Education to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities, they must examine spending trends that have recently occurred (say over the last ten years) and project forward based on those trends.

    How has spending changed in Personnel, Special Education, Debt Service, and Transportation from the 2010-11 school year to the 2013-14 school year?

    1. Salary costs have dropped from $10.4M to $8.9M. (Layoffs and cuts by attrition)
    2. Benefits have increased from $6.7M to $8.2M. (People are losing jobs due to the alarming increase in health insurance costs. Potsdam has cut positions and laid off employees and HI costs still went up by $1.5 million.)
    3. Special Education has remained approximately the same at about $1.5M.
    4. Debt Service has increased about $150K, from approximately $308,000 (Potsdam's share) to approximately $558K (PCSD share after NYS aid).
    5. Transportation has dropped from $100,000 to -$7,000 (after aid).
    The central concern is the impact of severely escalating benefit costs. Salaries used to cost millions more than benefits. (Three years ago salaries were $3.7M higher than benefits.) This year, the difference between the two is only $600,000. School officials have told the public that next year benefits will cost more than salaries. No other expense in the district comes close to the $17.1 million set aside for this year's salaries and benefits. The next highest cost comes in at $1.5 million (Special Ed.).  Health Insurance costs have been rising at an alarming rate and will bury the district if all interested parties do not address this critical issue. The small changes that have occurred have not had any significant impact. 

    Sunday, September 22, 2013

    PCS - Financial Snapshot 2013-14

    When I was PCS Board president, I had the superintendent create a Financial Snapshot (2010-11) of the district because I wanted to make school finance more comprehensible. In addition, year-after-year at NYS School Boards Conventions, Board of Education members were told that they cannot oversee the fiscal health of a school district unless they know the major expenses facing their districts, how these expenses have changed in recent years, and how they are expected to change going forward. Therefore, I requested a document outlining the top five expenses faced by the the PCSD. They were:

    #1 Salaries
    #2 Benefits
    #3 Special Ed.          (NYS aid received at 63% which means PCS paid 37% of cost)
    #4 Debt Service      (NYS aid received at 91% which means PCS paid 9% of cost) 
    #5 Transportation  (NYS aid received at 90% which means PCS paid 10% of cost)
    (Aid percentages can vary year-to-year. For the current year, Debt Service is aided at 82%.)

     (At the time, I had Athletics and Extracurriculars added to the bottom of the list just to make the point that when it is time to discuss cuts, these are not areas that will save the district any significant amount of money and they are areas that hurt students substantially when cut).

     When NYS pays a huge percentage of any large expense, it is very important to show the cost to PCS, the cost to NYS, and the total cost (which most of the public and inexperienced Board members would likely think is paid locally.)

    When I recently asked for an update of the Financial Snapshot to reflect anticipated costs for the 2013-14 school year, Supt. Brady did provide the information - something I appreciate because it is in the interest of the BOE, employees, and the public to understand the major expenses faced by the PCSD and the percentage of those expenses paid by PCS vs. the percentage paid by NYS.

    PCS: A Financial Snapshot for 2013-14

    (approximate costs to be paid by the PCSD)
    $ 8,900,000...................Salaries
    $ 8,200,000...................Benefits
           This $8.2 million cost is made up of:
               $ 5.2 million..........Health Insurance Premiums
               $ 1.2 million..........TRS (Teachers' Retirement System)
               $    717,000...............Social Security
               $    598,000...............ERS (Employee Retirement System for CSEA)
               $    181,000...............Administration of Health Ins. Plan
               $    125,000...............Unemployment Insurance
               $    101,500...............Workers' Compensation Ins.
               $      27,500...............Workers' Compensation Administration
               $        5,600...............Flex Plan and 403b fees

    $ 1,500,000..........Special Education (Total cost is $3.9 million: NYS pays $2.4M & PCS pays $1.5M)  
    $       558,000..............Debt Service (Total cost is $3.1 million: NYS pays $2,542,000 & PCS pays $558K)
    $     (minus) 7,000..............Transportation (Total cost is $1,068,000: NYS pays $1,075,000 & PCS gains $7,000 -anticipated aid is higher than anticipated cost)
    $     270,000..................Athletics
    $          53,000...................Extracurricular Activities

    An analysis of the change in financial snapshots between 2010-11 and the current year will be part of the next blog posting. To see the Financial Snapshot from 2010-11, go to...

    Thursday, September 19, 2013

    Help Schools by Fixing Wall Street

    Most North Country schools are high-needs schools and those that not so designated by NYSED often have school leaders who purport that old formulas are preventing schools from receiving their accurate high-needs designation.  Potsdam Central is one such school district.

    Rural high-needs (i.e. poor) school districts across NYS along with urban high-needs schools know what it is like to dismissed because they carry little political clout. Monied interests get to the front of the line, as usual.

    The University of California at Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics, and Oxford University recently released a study stating the the income gap between the rich and the poor hasn't been this wide in 100 years. The top income-earners saw their incomes grow by 31% (on average) from 2009 - 2012 while the incomes of the bottom 99% grew by less than half of 1%. While the very rich have prospered, most people have felt the negative impact of the recession.

    School leaders in the North Country, for instance, have stated that many (most?) school districts are 1-3 years away from insolvency. The dire fiscal situation among schools has compelled the PCSD and the Canton Central School District (CCSD) to begin merger studies. Many teachers and support staff have lost jobs (a big economic hit to them and the region) and many schools have cut academic programs (a big educational hit to students).

    It is in this context that the new Time Magazine cover story, HOW WALL STREET WON: FIVE YEARS AFTER THE CRASH, IT COULD HAPPEN ALL OVER AGAIN resonates. All but the 1%'ers suffered due to the reckless conduct of many "too big to fail" financial institutions. Another recession could occur, according to the author, because "US financial institutions remain free to gamble billions on risky derivatives around the world. A crisis in Europe, for instance, could still potentially devastate a US institution that made a bad bet - and send shock waves through other key sectors, like the $2.7 trillion held in the US money-market funds, much of which is owned by Main Street investors who believe these funds are just as safe as cash."

    Those of us worried about the future of education in the PCSD (and the rest of the country for that matter), might want to think about the bigger picture of why meaningful financial sector reforms still have not been put in place by Congress. (It was recently reported that over 50% of those in Congress head into lobbying jobs when they leave.) Among the reforms suggested by the Time Magazine writer:
    1. Fix the Too-Big-To-Fail Problem
    2. Limit the Leverage
    3. Expose Weapons of Mass Financial Destruction
    4. Bring Shadow Banding Into the Light
    5. Reboot the Culture of Finance
    School funding problems cannot be addressed in isolation. If the public does not demand proper oversight and control of Wall Street financial institutions by calling for an end to the "economics of malfeasance," then failing schools will be the least of our problems and another recession will not surprise those who have been paying attention. 

    Saturday, September 14, 2013

    The Schools-to-Prison Pipeline

    The schools-to-prison pipeline refers to is the notion that if society does not properly fund schools, it will end up funding prisons.

    Frederick Douglass said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

     "Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today,” writes the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. “Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America - more than 6 million - than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”

    Comparisons: For every 100,000 people, the...
    US has.............760 in prison
    Japan has.........63
    France has....... 96
    S. Korea has..... 97

    In light of the severe cuts to education (precipitated by the Great Recession) that unfairly impact high-needs rural schools (and high-needs i.e. poor) urban schools,  maybe it's time to let politicians know where we place our priorities and our votes.

    Thursday, September 12, 2013

    PCSD: Statewide Test Comparisons

    A few observations after reviewing the 629 pages of school district test results for the NYS 3-8 tests:

    For the most part, Potsdam Central's test results were slightly higher than the statewide averages. However, PCS was notably higher than the NYS average in 7th & 8th ELA and notably lower in grade 3 Math.

    NYS avg. for ELA  vs.   (PCS)      NYS avg. for MATH vs.  (PCS)
    (Decimal points are not included.)

    The last hundred pages (529-629) of NYS school district test results contain names of school-after-school with test results at the 10% - 0% passing level. When Gov. Cuomo mentions the "death penalty" for failing schools, one could reasonably surmise that he is referring to the school districts that fall into this very low passing rate category. However, there are so many districts in this category that it is hard to imagine a NYS takeover of all of these schools. For the sake of students in such low performing schools and for the sake of the future of NYS, something needs to be done with schools that are at or near the bottom in performance on the NYS assessments. Are the low performance results on these tests all related to low socio-economic conditions in communities? Are these schools being poorly run? Are good teachers working there? Or, is it a combination of all these factors?

    The PCSD is in line with the NYS average for these tests. Thus, administrators and teachers need not fret about the results. How did Potsdam's results compare with high performing schools across the state?

      Manhasset (Suffolk)           Chappaqua (Westchester)           Fayetteville-Manlius
    ELA range:  61%-73%                           66%-75%                                  49%-73%

    Math range: 57%-77%                           64%-82%                                  58%-78%

    Of note, PS 122 Mamie Fay in Queens, NYC scored at the top of the list. In grades 6-8 in both ELA and Math, their scores ranged from 93% - 100% passing. I noted that grades 3-5 did not do as well as grades 6-8 and guessed, correctly, that after grade 5, students in the area have to compete to be accepted to PS 122 for grades 6-8. That explains the high results. However, how did the 3-5 students (who attend the school because they live in the district) do in this inner city public school in Astoria, NYC?
               ELA             Math        vs.    Potsdam  ELA    Math
    3rd      57%              56%                         3rd    35%    19%                  
    4th      51%              59%                         4th    36%     40%
    5th      47%              46%                         5th    35%     38%

    PS 122 exceeded Potsdam's scores on all the tests. At PS 122, 57% of their third graders met NYS ELA standards while only 35% of Potsdam's third graders met proficiency. Their 3rd graders scored 56% in Math proficiency while Potsdam's 3rd achieved a 19% proficiency score.

    Why this caught my attention is because at PS 122, 64% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. At Potsdam the percentage is about 35%. (The NYS average is 43%.) This school (for grades 3-5) achieved test results that are impressively above the NYS averages despite their socio-economic status (based on free and reduced lunch numbers).  School district officials often point to their poverty level to explain low scores or performance. What's PS 122 (in grades 3-5) doing to achieve such impressive results? School leaders should be interested in the answer to that question.

    Obviously, teachers at the PCSD should always stive for improvement. However, they should not be worrying about student performance on the recent round of NYS tests. The district falls solidly in the middle (slightly above, actually) when compared to all NYS school results - despite a few outliers. For now, the new curricula are being implemented and students will be even better prepared for next year's tests. And, let's not forget, these tests are only one measure of one type of success. There is much a great teacher does for students that is never reflected in tests.

    Post Script:

    About the tests (from PS 122 school website)

    Beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, the New York State Department of Instruction implemented new assessments designed to be aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The new standards for proficiency in these subjects are higher than in previous years and the percent of students earning a proficient score is expected to be lower as a result of this change. See this letter from New York's Commissioner of Education for more information on these changes.

    In 2012-2013 New York used the New York State Assessments to test students in grades 3 through 8 in English language arts and math. The tests are standards-based, which means they measure how well students are mastering specific skills defined for each grade by the state of New York. The goal is for 90% of students to meet or exceed grade-level standards on the tests.

    Tuesday, September 10, 2013

    PCS & Canton: Test Comparisons

        When PCSD officials discuss NYS 3-8 testing results for the district, they need to focus on how the students did in comparison to other students in the county and in the state.

        Examining the percentage of students who met the NYS standards (quite low in many districts) is somewhat unfair because NYS required school districts to administer the new 3-8 tests before districts had the time to implement curricula that aligned with the new Common Core standards. Nothing like putting the cart before the horse.

        Anyway, what is worth examining is how the district did in county-wide and state-wide comparisons. For instance, how did the PCSD do in comparison to Canton Central?

    Potsdam (Canton) - decimals not included

    English Language Arts (Percentage refers to percentage of students meeting new NYS standards)
    3rd   35% (28%)
    4th   36% (28%)
    5th   35% (35%)
    6th   26% (45%)
    7th   50% (48%)
    8th   50% (46%)

    3rd   19% (38%)
    4th   40% (30%)
    5th   38% (31%)
    6th   30% (28%)
    7th   26% (28%)
    8th   37% (36%)

        School officials should be explaining the 6th Grade ELA results and the 3rd Grade Math results - obvious outliers. CPCS, Hermon-DeKalb, Canton, Parishville, Massena, Ogdensburg, Gouverneur, Heuvelton, and Morristown all had better scores in grade 3 Math. In Grade 6 ELA, Potsdam was surpassed by 9 other school districts in the county.  Otherwise, Potsdam's scores are similar to Canton's - with Potsdam slightly ahead on 8 out of 12 of these tests.
        In St. Lawrence County comparisons, the PCSD genrally did well. But that begs the question as to whether the county standard is high enough. Should the district be aiming higher? How did the PCSD compare to other schools in NYS? That will be discussed in a future posting.

    Monday, September 9, 2013

    PCSD: NYS 3-8 Test Result Information

    1.  What website would be useful to parents and community members to learn more about the NYS 3-8 test results?

    2.  What can parents see at the above website? 
         They can see test results for all schools in NYS. One can examine how the PCSD did in comparison to all NYS schools. PCS can also be compared to other school districts in St. Lawrence County. 

    3. What were Potsdam's scores in ELA and Math for grades 3 - 8?  (See below) The significance of these results will be addressed in another blog posting.
    Search Again Search Again   
    School nameCountySchool districtsTest/gradePercentage meeting new state standardsDescending