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

Friday, September 6, 2013

Superintendents & Cuomo Respond to Low NYS Test Scores

It's interesting and sometimes confounding to read differing responses to the NYS 3-8 assessment results. (Only 31% of NYS students who took the English and Math assessments passed.)

Gov. Cuomo is calling for a "death penalty" option to deal with failing schools. Of course, he will have to define "failing" as most schools in NYS saw their students fail the most recent round of tests.  NCPR reported that the Governor said, "Whether it is by take-over by the State, or mayoral control or take-over by a charter school, there's going to have to be a death penalty, so to speak." Unlike so many politicians, he was unequivocal regarding where he stands on the matter.

The thoughts of two superintendents, who sent out letters explaining what they thought about the testing results, was quite a counterpoint to the Governor's thoughts.
Joseph V. Rella, Ed.D., Superintendent for the Comsewogue School District (in Port Jefferson) wrote to State Senator LaValle. He wrote:

  • Our scores... have dropped significantly - 30 - 35 percentage points.
  • The test scores are not connected to student learning in any way.
  • What changed this year was not our students' intelligence or the talent and skill of our teachers and administrators. What changed was the curriculum and the tests. 
Rella goes on to note that SED officials predicted last year that student scores would drop by 30+ percentage points. He mentions that the Commissioner of Education (Mr. King)  wrote, "I want to make it very clear that the change in test scores (including, possibly, on in your child's score) does not mean that students are learning less or that teachers and schools are performing worse than last year." 

Rella referred to Carol Burris (who was quoted in the Washington Post): The bottom line is that there are tremendous financial interests driving the agenda about our schools - from test makers, to publishers, to data management corporations - all making tremendous profits from the chaotic change. When scores drop, they prosper. When tests change, they prosper...There are curriculum developers earning millions to create scripted lessons to turn teachers into deliverers of modules in alignment with the Common Core...This is all to be enforced by their principals, who must attend 'calibration events' run by 'network teams.'"

Supt. Rella goes on to say to his State Senator that he (the senator) should remove Supt. Rella from his position overseeing the school district ..."if this assessment system is truly valid, then during my tenure as Superintendent, our students went from about 90% proficient to about 30% proficient. At best this is gross negligence. At worst, this is willful malpractice."

Superintendent Fuhrman (Croton-Harmon School District) sent out a newsletter to parents and community members. He writes, " is important to remember that unlike with previous NYSED tests, teachers and parents are not allowed to review the new tests or the questions for the purpose of data analysis to inform instruction. This makes it virtually impossible to analyze the test results for student progress."

For those of us watching from the sidelines, the testing results and the responses from the Governor and well-respected superintendents are confounding. Who is to be believed?
~ The Governor appears poised to take drastic action against failing schools based on these test results.
~ The SED approved new assessment tests before NYS school districts had a chance to implement new curricula (that align with the new Common Core Learning Standards).
~ The Commissioner of Education predicted the staggering drop in the passing rates for the latest round of 3-8 ELA/Math tests.

 This all looks like a bureaucratic nightmare but it is not a nightmare for all. Follow the money. Business interests are making huge sums of money from taxpayer dollars which are being diverted from schools to the testing industry. A man cannot answer to two masters. Will politicians stand up for what is truly beneficial for the education of students or will deep-pocket corporations have an undue influence decision-makers in Albany?

The following is a great site to locate NYS school district scores:

Thursday, September 5, 2013

What a teacher is...

The following is from the book Wounded by School by Kirsten Olson - a great read.

~ A teacher touches individual students.
~ A teacher teaches individuals, not classes.
~ A teacher sees the possibilities in her (his) students.
~ A teacher gives hope.
~ A teacher gives voice.
~ A teacher navigates.
~ A teacher explores.
~ A teacher is patient.
~ A teacher learns with his or her students.
~ A teacher discovers.
~ A teacher is a parent.
~ A teacher accepts children as they are, not as he or she would like them to be.

by Bernard Gassaway, superintendent of alternative schools in NYC