The Slippery Slope of Bible Distribution

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

The Google feed provided a link to a thought provoking article that appeared in the Independent Journal Review (IJR) titled “The Pamphlet Give Out to Kids in Public Schools, An X-Rated Book: Sex and Obscenity in the Bible” is Unacceptable”.

Here’s the background: The Freedom from Religion Foundation, (FFRF) announced plans to hand out materials at 11 public schools within Orange County, Florida, on January 16, National Religious Freedom Day. The Orange County Board sued to prevent the distribution of the materials, in part because the cover of the pamphlet, depicted below, was deemed by many people to be a smear against Christianity. Andrew Seidel, the FFRF attorney, rebutted this charge by noting that “some of the things that are in the Bible in terms of sex and compare that to the cover [of the pamphlet], the cover is pretty tame compared to anything that is in the Bible”. 

FFRA-BIBLE_1

The article goes on to note that “Seidel contended that despite the fact that the material may offend Christians, it is only fair since atheists feel the same way when Bibles are handed out in public schools.”

In many respects members of other religions should be grateful to the FFRF for raising this issue in a “religion vs. atheism” context because I believe that Muslims would feel as unsettled by the distribution of the Bible as Christians might feel unsettled by the distribution of the Koran. I recall from debates held at school board meetings regarding the provision of an opportunity for the distribution of Gideon’s Bibles on school grounds that we ultimately denied permission on the “slippery slope” argument. Namely, if we granted permission to one religious group we’d have to allow opportunities for ANY religious group to distribute materials…. which is precisely the argument the FFRF is making…. and what is the result?

On January 3, 2014 OCPS and FFRF came to an agreement and on June 3, 2014 a Motion to Dismiss was handed down which detailed that the “defendant unconditionally agreed to allow Plaintiffs to distribute the materials that Defendant had previously prohibited.”

Seidel has concluded that OCPS had backed down due to the illegality that the school could not forbid the distribution of FFRF material while simultaneously allowing the dissemination of the Bible in its schools.

Seidel indicated that the FFRF intends to launch similar actions against other school boards who allow the distribution of Bibles. My continued advice to boards: beware of the slippery slope!

IS Public Education a Deciding Issue?

October 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Education blogger Jeff Bryant asserted in his column yesterday that education policy could be a determining factor in several gubernatorial races in the coming weeks. But, as he notes, in some cases it will result in the election of a “lesser-of-two-evils” candidate as opposed to the election of a candidate who is willing to undo the budget cuts, evisceration of contracts, and emphasis on standardized testing. While polling data indicates that “The top testing turnout message overall emphasizes education, specifically Republicans’ efforts to cut programs for students while giving tax cuts to the wealthy”, the fact remains that several candidates getting hefty support from teachers unions are NOT advocates of increased funding but rather less strident in they opposition to education than their opponents.

As I’ve noted in several earlier posts, I hope that public education advocates will NOT be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils in 2016. Those who seek increased public education funding should rally behind whichever Presidential aspirant pledges to end the standardized testing regimen that has been in place for a generation and the privatization movement that NCLB and RTTT has aided and abetted. If the testing is not stopped the drumbeat of “failing public schools” will continue and the public will be increasingly disinclined to fund a failing enterprise.

Fee-For-Service Redux

October 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Yesterday I wrote a post describing the latest funding scheme advocated by the business community and taxpayers groups whereby schools are starved of funds and private foundations and/or school fundraisers are expected to fill the void. The post was prompted by a NYTimes article by Mokoto Rich describing how this gambit is effectively adding to the disparity between affluent schools and schools serving children in poverty and effectively diminishing the support for increases in broad based taxes needed to increase the base funding for public education.

For readers who might have concluded that this was a problem only in the Northeast because it was reported in the NYTimes, today’s Google feed offered evidence that the same phenomenon is occurring in the heartland by providing a more detailed analysis of the study completed by the University of Indiana-Bloomington that was the basis of Rich’s article. According to the study, private funds for schools have increased but the schools serving lower income students have benefited least and… the increase in “voluntary funds” has not offset the aggregate loss in taxes:

Nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping support public schools have grown dramatically over the past two decades. And they are raising a lot more money than a few years ago.

But the growth hasn’t come close to offsetting the reduction in tax revenues for schools that came with the recent recession, according to a study by Indiana University researchers. And the support is uneven, with students in high-poverty schools less likely to benefit from voluntary fundraising.

This whole gambit of shifting the burden to “end-users” has consequences that match my personal experience as a superintendent during the time frame the study covers:

The researchers analyzed trends and relationships in data from thousands of U.S. nonprofit school-supporting organizations that filed annual IRS reports between 1995 and 2010. Findings included:

  • The number of such organizations, including local school foundations, booster clubs and parent-teacher organizations, grew from 3,475 in 1995 to 11,453 in 2010.
  • The money they raised, adjusted for inflation, grew from $197 million to $880 million, or nearly 350 percent.
  • The share of school districts with at least one such nonprofit organization increased from 12 percent in 1995 to 29 percent in 2010.
  • Large school districts are more likely to be served by at least one fundraising organization; but the money raised, per pupil, declines as district enrollment gets larger.

School districts with greater capacity — as measured by property tax revenues per pupil, the share of individuals with a bachelor’s degree or more, median household income, and relatively low unemployment rates — have higher probabilities of being served by at least one school-supporting nonprofit and receive more money, per pupil, from the nonprofits.

While school-supporting nonprofits have exploded in number and revenue, the researchers conclude the money they raise isn’t enough to tip the balance in how schools are funded. Among school districts that got help from one or more nonprofit organization, average voluntary per-pupil funding in 2010 was $28; that compares to approximately $10,600 per student that public schools spent. Meanwhile, state tax receipts — a key source of support for schools in many states — have declined by 12 percent since the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

I believe the researchers were charitable in assigning the decline in state revenues to “the Great Recession”. The decline in revenues has also been helped by an increase in corporate tax breaks and reductions in state income taxes that were sold to the public as a means of stimulating economic growth. The privatization movement has only made matters worse for students in high poverty schools. The fact that these tax cuts and privatization movements happened in States under the leadership of Republicans who want to “starve the beast” and neoliberals who want to “run government like a business” is no coincidence. The sad reality is that once broad based taxes are reduced and privatization is introduced, the funding States ultimately provide to “students in high poverty schools” is unlikely to return unless some politician is courageous enough to insist that better schools will require higher taxes. In the meantime the mainstream media like TIME magazine will run cover stories blaming teachers for the failings of underfunded schools…. and the death spiral will continue.

Moving Toward Fee-For-Service

October 23, 2014 Leave a comment

I scoured Mokoto Rich’s latest NYTimes article, “Nation’s Wealthy Places Pour Private Money Into Public Schools, Study Finds” in hopes of finding a quote explaining the underlying rationale for the trend described in the headline, which is to move schools toward a fee-for-service model as opposed to a public utility model.

Several years ago when I was Superintendent in MD in the mid 1990s, some leaders of the local business community introduced the idea of creating a foundation to fund some elements of the budget that they felt were discretionary. Their thinking was prompted by the experiences of  states where budget caps were forcing districts to cut things like field trips, elective courses and school clubs and school-based organizations were picking up the costs through private donations. In effect, the business community was seeking to shift the burden away from broad-based taxes toward the end users…. that is making public schooling a fee-for-service enterprise like, say, trash collection.

At the same time as this idea was being floated in the county, I was serving on a State “Blue Ribbon” panel created by the Governor that was examining the funding formula in the state. In retrospect, I can see the connection between these two initiatives more clearly. While the legislators serving the less affluent districts in MD were trying to raise the State’s base contributions to a higher level in hopes of providing their students with an equitable opportunity, the business community was trying to find ways to offset the effects of the loss of State funds they sought through capping taxes by developing “workarounds”.

Over the next 15 years I witnessed a continuation of this tug-of-war between those favoring an increased base in school funding and those advocating a de facto “fee-for-service” model, a tug-of-war that manifests itself in the following ways:

  • The portrayal of  “public schools” as “government run schools”: As the American public’s suspicion of anything associated with the government increased as a result of their belief that “government is the enemy” the so-called “school reformers” re-branded “public schools as “government run schools”. Raising taxes for a “program run but the government” would not meet favor with voters who believe that “the marketplace” can spend more wisely.
  • The increased acceptance that fees are an acceptable means of providing non-mandated programs: My first experience with a fee-for-service model was in the early 1980s with the institution of a fee for Drivers Education based on the rationale that Drivers Ed was not a graduation requirement and taking the course provided a benefit only to those students whose parents could afford a car for the student to drive. In effect, it was an effort to shift the overall cost of an education program that benefits affluent students away from taxpayers who arguably needed relief. When I went to lead schools in Exeter NH I inherited a district policy that required high school students to pay for the bus if they lived within 3 miles of the school building based on the rationale that State law did not mandate transportation for students within that range. In Hanover NH, the district I led in the early 2000s, I inherited a plan whereby the district charged athletic fees each season that covered all of the non-personnel costs for sports that were in place when the fee was instituted. The rationale was that Little Leagues and soccer programs charged fees and parents were accustomed to paying for their children to participate in those town-sponsored activities. I found many of these fees troubling, but I knew that undoing a practice that creates a revenue stream is extremely difficult in a time when many other pressing priorities were in play. Moreover, whenever fees were debated in budget sessions members of the public and Board members would cite practices in CA and several midwestern states where book fees, activity fees, and athletic fees are commonplace. By the time I retired three years ago, the charging of fees for service, once rare, was increasingly commonplace.
  • The increase in privatizing services within schools: As noted in prior posts, schools typically privatize transportation, food services, special education related services, and many non-instructional services related to business operations and technology. With every portion of the budget that is privatized it becomes increasingly easy to argue that another segment of the budget— say music lessons or even tutoring— can be outsourced to lower the budget without compromising the education program.
  • The narrowing of the mission of public education: While much has been written about mission creep in public education, including an article I wrote for a local newspaper over five years ago, the reality is that legislators and the voting public increasingly see school funding being limited to those courses that are graduation requirements and whose focus is academic. The standardized testing regimen as only made this worse by effectively de-emphasizing art, music, and physical education in favor of “academics” at the elementary level and viewing secondary education as preparation for work or college. This narrowing of the content results in schools shedding “non-essential” programs in the arts and “non-essential” electives and extracurricular activities in high schools adding to the joylessness for students and driving parents to either enroll their children in after school elective programs or take their children out of school completely.
  • The expansion of the fee-for-service model across all government services: The “government is the enemy” mentality has increased the level of privatization in other government agencies including the armed forces, parking, and, yes, the return of  toll roads.

These trends do not bode well for those who advocate an increase in the base in school funding, especially given the acceptability of the workarounds for affluent parents. Given the choice between higher taxes to provide physical education and the arts for all children and paying a fee to enroll their children in arts programs and physical activities their children enjoy, it is not surprising that parents accept the less robust program in their schools. From the taxpayers perspective, it is an even easier decision: low taxes will always trump services for children in another town if not their own community. Without the full throated advocacy for equitable funding for all schools, funding that would require the same per pupil expenditures as the most affluent districts now pay, we will never have true equity of opportunity…. and the fees will keep increasing.

Neuro-mythology

October 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Earlier this week the NYTimes Op-Talk section featured an article by Anna North titled “How Brain Myths Could Hurt Kids”. The article described three brain myths that are prevalent among teachers and potentially damaging to students:

  1. We only us 10% of our brain
  2. Some learning disabilities are genetically linked to brain structure and cannot be remediated
  3. Students learn best when the teaching approach matches their learning style.

Drawing from the findings of Paul Howard-Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience and education, North’s article dispels each of these myths and does so in a fashion that is not demeaning to teachers nor blames them for this. Instead, Howard-Jones makes the following points:

“Something we have to get across to educators is the fact that the brain is plastic and the fact that its function, structure and connectivity changes as a result of education.”

“There is something kind of ironic here,” he added, “that we place such an emphasis on science education, and yet the science of learning is very often not included in the training of teachers.” And as he notes in his article, accurate neuroscience information can be hard for teachers to get, because it often appears only in specialized journals.

To dispel neuromyths, Dr. Howard-Jones advocated a collaborative approach: “We need messages, ideas and concepts that are constructed together by neuroscientists and by educators.” And, he said, “we need a field that actually combines concepts from both of these areas in a meaningful way.”

I know that Dartmouth College is making an effort to bridge this gap between neuroscience findings and applications in education and have long believed that teacher education program content could be enhanced by placing a greater emphasis on emerging research in child psychology and neuroscience. But there is one obstacle that neither North nor Howard-Jones acknowledge: these myths have taken root because they are “agreeable fantasies”. The notion that we could all be geniuses if we only drew on more of our neural capacity… OR that it is impossible to teach a segment of the population whose brain scans show they have neural deficiencies… OR that matching teaching styles with learning styles will yield better outcomes… each of these could make it easier to accomplish the goal of getting all CAPABLE students to a higher level of learning and sorting out those who are INCAPABLE. One other obstacle in place now: removing the myth from the minds of teachers. A bad myth, like a bad habit, is hard to displace. Once a mental model takes root in the mind, even though are brains ARE plastic, once a neural passage is dug in, re-routing it requires conscious effort.

North’s article concludes with this paragraph:

A former teacher himself, Dr. Howard-Jones was clear on one point: “These myths are not because teachers are stupid.” Part of his goal in writing about neuromyths was to emphasize how important teachers are in the drive to dispel them. The ultimate message of his article, he said, was, “we’ve got a problem here, and it can only be solved by neuroscientists and educators talking to each other.”

Let the conversation begin!

Standardized Testing’s Impact on Pre-K

October 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes editorial page features a high-minded article on Pre-Kindergarten written by Shael Polakow-Suransky and Nancy Nager on the importance of play in pre-Kindergarten. The fact that Polakow-Suransky, the champion of standardized testing during his years in the Board of Education, was advocating “play” in this article was evidently lost on the NYTimes, particularly since the article is somewhat dismissive of the effect standardized testing has had and will continue to have on pre-Kindergarten. While I am in wholehearted agreement with what the authors advocate, I am dismayed at the practical reality that “play” will not be happening any time soon as I remarked in the comment I left:

Unless we abandon the notion that pre-Kindergarten is preparation for K-12 schooling we will never accept the notion that “play” is an acceptable activity. The idea that a pre-K “graduate” must be “ready to learn” in Kindergarten leads to a checklist mentality whereby every Pre-K youngster needs to demonstrate “academic” capabilities like knowing their alphabet, knowing their numbers, nd knowing a predetermined vocabulary. These skills are easy to quantify but, as the article notes, ultimately unimportant in the long run, but these skills are emphasized to prepare students for the three year slog to the standardized tests that are used to measure school performance and teacher performance…. and the testing mania leads to the measurement of what is EASY to measure as opposed to what is IMPORTANT to measure. “Play” develops important skills like independent thinking and self-regulcation while “academic” seat-work develops compliance and conformity.

The link between the factory model of education and the standardized test movement is seemingly self-evident but seems to escape editorialists and policy makers. We need a new model for teaching and learning, one that embraces self-regulation and freedom and we won’t get it until the stranglehold of testing and age-based cohorts is abandoned.

The Oligarchs Are Winning the PR Battle

October 22, 2014 Leave a comment

The NYTimes headline reads “Nation’s Confidence Ebbs at a Steady Drip” and Peter Baker, the author of the piece, fails to connect the dots and come to the obvious conclusion:  the steady loss of confidence is a victory for the oligarchs who started the “government is bad” meme and kept the drumbeat going with every chance it had… and the combination of  inept political leadership and diminishing government resources is paying off! Anything with a “government” label attached is ipso facto incompetent and anything run by the private sector in a marketplace free from regulations is ipso facto superior. So those who own and operate deregulated corporations are benefitting and the rest of us are suffering…. especially the children raised in poverty who are left being in those “government schools” and whose parents get fewer and fewer benefits… unless they work for a company that pays them minimum wages in which case they “earn their food stamps” (sic).

And as we come to a national and local elections that are bought and paid for by the “dark money” of the oligarchs, voters are staying home in droves because the system is rigged so that the primary elections yield only mirror image candidates. Getting the government confidence back on track will require an investment by taxpayers… but getting that investment requires faith that the spending will be worth it. When you vote in a couple of weeks, select the candidate who is willing to break this vicious circle. It’s the only way “government schools” will rebound.