More on VERY Early Intervention

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Nick Kristoff’s Sunday op ed column witten with Sheryl WuDunn, “The Way to Beat Poverty“, reinforces the ideas put forth in earlier posts on this blog. Kristoff cites anecdotal evidence and research evidence supporting the notion of providing support to parents who face adversity in child rearing as a result of their own suffering in childhood and the suffering brought about due to poverty. He also cites evidence on how diet, alcohol consumption smoking, and exposure to lead paint during pregnancy and a child’s first years of life adversely affect children.

He then describes how a visiting nurse program can reduce the effects of poverty at a relatively low cost. This program, which has been researched a replicated, consists of nurse visits from the time an at-risk child is born until the child turns 2, “…with the nurse encouraging the mom to speak to the child constantly, to read to the child, to show affection. Later there are discussions of birth control.” In a later paragraph he writes:

The visits have been studied extensively through randomized controlled trials — the gold standard of evidence — and are stunningly effective. Children randomly assigned to nurse visits suffer 79 percent fewer cases of state-verified abuse or neglect than similar children randomly assigned to other programs. Even though the program ends at age 2, the children at age 15 have fewer than half as many arrests on average. At the 15-year follow-up, the mothers themselves have one-third fewer subsequent births and have spent 30 fewer months on welfare than the controls. A RAND Corporation study found that each dollar invested in nurse visits to low-income unmarried mothers produced $5.70 in benefits.

So here we have an anti-poverty program that is cheap, is backed by rigorous evidence and pays for itself several times over in reduced costs later on. Yet it has funds to serve only 2 percent to 3 percent of needy families. That’s infuriating.

Any reader of progressive blogs will likely point fingers at conservatives who don’t want to have birth control the part of any poverty program and/or who don’t want the government intervening in the lives of parents. There are, however, other culprits. School districts are often in complete support of these programs as long as they don’t take money from them… and universities and colleges who rely on government spending are also leery of supporting a program that might reduce their spending levels. Kristoff acknowledges this reality, and comes down on investing where the dollars will make the greatest difference, and offers a better place for the Federal government to find money:

We certainly would prefer not to cut education budgets of any kind, but if pressed, we would have to agree that $1 billion spent on home visitation for at-risk young mothers would achieve much more in breaking the poverty cycle than the same sum spent on indirect subsidies collected by for-profit universities.

He concludes his article with this challenge:

We wish more donors would endow not just professorships but also the jobs of nurses who visit at-risk parents; we wish tycoons would seek naming opportunities not only at concert halls and museum wings but also in nursery schools. We need advocates to push federal, state and local governments to invest in the first couple of years of life, to support parents during pregnancy and a child’s earliest years.

Here’s what’s really infuriating: this isn’t going to happen unless the advocates get behind a candidate outside the existing sphere of the two political parties… because while both political parties claim they support early intervention, NEITHER party will seek additional taxes to fund it, and NEITHER party will recommend the diversion of the indirect subsidies for-profit colleges receive, and last but not nearly least, NEITHER party is willing to state the obvious: one billion dollars is chump change compared to the trillion dollars we’ve spent thus far on the misbegotten wars in the East.


Religious Freedom Cuts Both Ways

September 16, 2014 Leave a comment

The title of this Washington Times article, “Satanists to Distribute Religious Pamphlets in Schools” tells you all you need to know about the rationale for the separation of church and state. If schools distribute Gideon’s Bible will they allow the distribution of the Koran? FL legislators might want to take another look at this issue before some school board is asked this question.

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VERY Early Intervention Needed

September 16, 2014 Leave a comment

A recent post by Marty Solomon in, the Lexington Herald-Leader online publication provides a concise overview of the points Diane Ravitch makes in her book Reign of Error, concluding that poverty, not ineffective teaching is the problem with US test scores:

The U.S. public school system is among the best in the world for middle class children; but for kids from poverty, there is a problem. The problem is that most children from poverty suffer almost insurmountable hurdles.

While middle-class children generally start school knowing letters and numbers, even words and some arithmetic, far too many from poverty have none of these skills. They are often from single-parent families and have inadequate vision, hearing and medical care. Words spoken in the house are only a fraction of the vocabulary in middle-class families. They start school so far behind that most can never catch up. And while both middle-class and poor children progress in school, the gap persists.

Solomon then offers his prescription for the problem: the creation of “power schools” that offer extended learning for children whose parents want to see their children thrive in school and changes in the funding formula to provide more resources for schools.
James Heckman has a different research based solution: invest in early intervention. In a 20 minute interview posted on the New Economic Thinking blog, Heckman makes a cogent and persuasive case for intervening BEFORE prekindergarten. In the interview, titled “Early Interventions Lead to Higher IQs”, Heckman contends that the Coleman and Moynihan reports of the 60s identified the importance of family structures on academic performance in schools but that the accountability movement hijacked the policy directions because the accountability provisions (e.g. widespread standardized testing) were cheaper and politically easier to implement than the provisions recommended by Coleman and Moynihan (e.g. day-care; parenting supports; and schooling for children under five). Later in the interview he skewers the notion that achievement tests can be used to measure school and teacher performance and reiterates that the only reason they have gained traction is that they are cheap, easy, and politically viable. If you have 20 minutes and want to gain insights into the importance of early childhood education and the unreliability of standardized tests watch this video!

Privatization of Instructional Services: OOPS!

September 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s a report from the, an on line newsletter from Teas, reporting the latest results from Texas: the public schools outperformed charter schools academically AND financially. I am not expecting a press release on these findings from Governor Perry or Arne Duncan any time soon.

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Privatization of Non-Instructional Services

September 15, 2014 2 comments

Diane Ravitch’s column yesterday described the latest privatization debacle in Chicago, this one involving the privatization of custodial services. Ms. Ravitch’s reflexive opposition to privatization doesn’t take into account the difficult balancing act Superintendents and School Boards face each year putting a budget together, a balancing act that CAN result in privatization of non-instructional services being in the best interest of students.

Throughout the 29 years I led school districts I dealt with privatization proposals for non-instructional functions like food services, transportation, facilities management, payroll, and scheduling. There are several overarching issues that affect each of these areas:

  • Administrative skill sets: School administrators typically have no experience operating restaurants (food services); overseeing public transit systems (transportation); serving as landlords (facilities management), operating payroll departments, developing computer programs to efficiently schedule students.
  • Program managers in short supply: The media has reported widely on the shortage of teachers but under-reported the ongoing shortage of school business leaders and program leaders. Any superintendent will tell you that their most valuable employee is the Assistant Superintendent for Business who oversees the non-instructional services…. and the Assistant Superintendents, in turn, rely on their subordinates in the various functional areas, and those administrator are also in short supply. I know from experience that every minute a school superintendent spends on a non-instructional issue is a minute he or she cannot spend working on teaching and learning.
  • Personnel oversight: Every time a school district assumes responsibility for a function that requires staff, it assumes the responsibility for hiring and overseeing that staff. In many districts it is not unusual for the district to have nearly as many non-instructional staff members as teachers, making it possible that nearly half of an administrators time is spent managing non-instructional issues as instructional ones. As noted above, if effective leadership is lacking in a non-instructional area the loss of time increases dramatically.
  • Budget realities:  Additional dollars spent on non-instructional functions are dollars drawn away from the classroom. Voters and parents will generally not support budget expenditures that are directed away from the classroom unless it is clear that the services are essential for their students.
  • Time realities: School boards, like administrators, have limited time… and every minute a school board spends on non-instructional issues is a minute they cannot spend working on teaching and learning. An aphorism for school boards and superintendents is that they spend 90% of their time on budgets, busses, and buildings and 10% of their time on teaching and learning.
  • Political realities: Making decisions on non-instructional issues not only drains time from administrators and school board members, it creates contentiousness in the community no matter which decision is made. No one wants a higher tax bill or money taken from classrooms and given to custodians, bus drivers, or “the administration”… but no one wants to pay more for school lunch, have a scaled down lunch menu, or have a satellite lunch of a home-cooked one… everyone wants the bus stop in front of their house and wants to be picked up 5 minutes before the opening bell… everyone wants a spotless school with evenly distributed heat that is open to the public every evening… and everyone wants their administrators “spending more time in the classroom”.

Given these overarching issues, it is not surprising that school districts of all sizes explore the feasibility of privatizing food services, busing, maintaining facilities, managing payroll, and developing high school schedules. As a high school principal and superintendent I tried my best to spend time in schools or talking with teachers and principals about instructional issues… but budgets, buses an buildings inevitably consumed large chunks of my time, especially if there were personnel matters that needed my attention.

The bottom line: in some cases the privatization of non-instructional services is in the best interest of the district if boards are sincerely interested in having their administrators focus on classroom teaching. Delegating food service issues, busing issues, and maintenance issues to a third party can save enormous amounts of administrative time… and… as noted above, every minute a school superintendent or principal spends on a non-instructional issue is a minute he or she cannot spend working on teaching and learning and every dollar spent on non-instructional functions is a dollar that cannot be spent on students.

Skills Gap… AGAIN

September 14, 2014 Leave a comment

I got a major case of deja vu reading the Wall Street Journal’s article, “Skills Gap Bumps Up Against Vocational School Taboo”, a flashback to the 14 years I led school districts that incorporated regional vocational-technical schools. The Regional Vocational Center in Exeter NH provided vocational-technical education for the six communities that fed into Exeter AREA High School and five or six surrounding AREA and small town districts and the Washington County (MD) school district included a vocational center as well. As Superintendent in these districts, I was responsible for the oversight of vocational education from 1983-87 in Exeter and from 1987-97 in Washington County MD…. and the “stigma” of vocational education was in place then, a stigma that was going to disappear as a result of renaming them (it was too early to “re-brand” a couple of decades ago) Vocational-Technical Education Centers and by offering courses that appealed to more college bound students. I wish I could report that the re-naming effort was a success, but as the WSJ article reports, the stigma of enrolling in vocational education remains despite the efforts of educators across the country to widen its appeal. Having been out of the fray of vocational center oversight for 17 years and read several articles on the success of vocational programs in other countries– particularly Germany, I can see where the problem lies… and it isn’t with the schools.

Vocational training is a well-recognized career in Germany that offers good income opportunities, whereas in the U.S. it is often associated with people who did poor at high school,” said Robert Lerman, an American University economics professor who studies apprenticeships.

Unlike in the U.S., where workers are largely hired and then trained for a company’s particular needs, German vocational training normally takes three years and is supposed to give apprentices a broader qualification beyond a single employer’s needs.

The students, paid by the companies, spend three to four days a week doing on-the-job training within companies and the rest of the time taking classes at public vocational schools. Curricula are developed by employers’ associations, trade unions and the federal government. Costs vary but average roughly $20,000 a year, typically for three years.

These three paragraphs offer three major differences between the US and Germany:

  1. There is a clear path to higher earnings for someone with a vocational degree
  2. The vocational degree requires more time and provides students with a broader training than “…a single employers needs”
  3. The corporations pay the students for on-the-job training that is linked to curricula developed collaboratively by employers, trade unions, and the government

In our country, the attainment of a vocational degree does not assure employment of any kind let alone “good income opportunities”.

In our country vocational education isn’t “…associated with people who did poor at high school”, it is more often than not explicitly designed for “nontraditional learners”, which— more often than not— is defined as those who are doing poorly in academics.

Finally, in our country, businesses want to hire unpaid or poorly paid interns, want to unilaterally define the curriculum, oppose any efforts by trade unions to interpose their values on prospective employees, and ignore any “government curriculum” that would provide broader training that might benefit their competitors if a prospective employee is lured away.

If the private sector wants to improve vocational education they should do what they implore educators to do: replicate the best practices of their successful competitor. In the meantime, doing more of the same will yield more of the same.

OECD Finds US Teachers are Overworked and Underpaid

September 14, 2014 Leave a comment

If you listen to the mainstream media and Governors like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and– yes– Andrew Cuomo you’d think that US teachers need to work harder and be less greedy if we ever expect to become competitive in the global marketplace. But, alas, the reporting in the mainstream media and the exhortations of “reform minded” Governors are all too often NOT based on facts. If FACTS were the basis for the debates about education, it would quickly become evident that we can’t expect our teachers to work harder because they already work more hours than those in any developed nation and we can’t expect them to work for less because they are already relatively underpaid compared to other developed nations. And the source of this information is not the NEA, AFT, or the “liberal media”, it is the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD.

Here’s my frustration as one who wants to have an informed dialogue about how to improve schools: when the OECD issues test results demonstrating that US do poorly compared to students in other developed countries the “reformers” use this data to excoriate teachers. When the same organization reports that US teachers work longer hours, receive less compensation, and have middling pay increases compared to other developed countries the data is ignored. It is possible— indeed LIKELY— that these two pieces of information are linked, especially given the Center For American Progress’ findings that “…mid- and late-career teachers are not earning what they deserve, nor are they able to gain the salaries that support a middle-class existence”. 

Here are some highlights from the report, drawn from a Huffington Post article from earlier this week:

  • American middle school and high school teachers spend more time educating students than peers in every OECD country except Chile
  • U.S. teachers are required to be at school for more hours than most of their international peers.
  • While U.S. raw teacher salaries are high compared with the rest of the world, the pay lags behind that of similarly educated American workers.

The charts that accompany the story give graphic details on this and the 500+ page report provides more information than I have time to glean… but I’m certain that some cherry-picking will occur on the “reform” side of the aisle. When hear a reformer use data from the OECD, keep this bullet point in mind:

“Teacher pay relative to other countries, in absolute terms, is quite competitive in the United States,” said Schleicher. “But when you look at this relative to the earnings of other people with college degrees, actually the United States is pretty much at the end of the scale.”