I admit to feeling more than a little schadenfreude in reading yesterday’s NYTimes article titled “To Fill Budget Hole Kansas GOP Considers the Unthinkable: Raising Taxes“. The article could have been titled “Here’s the Proof: Trickle Down Doesn’t Work” or “KS Legislator’s need remedial math lessons” or “The Costs of Bureaucrats, Waste, Fraud and Abuse Are Negligible”.
The back story to this article, described in earlier posts and widely reported in many progressive political blogs, is that KS Governor Brownback and the Tea Party GOP members in the KS legislature decided to cut taxes in the belief that doing so would enable the “job creators” who were hamstrung by taxes and regulations to work their magic and the influx of new jobs would yield more than enough revenue to offset the “punishing” taxes that affected Kansans. It didn’t turn out that way and now, having spent all of its reserves and used every short term budget trick available, the KS Legislature needs to find $400,000,000. One legislator, though, has an explanation for this problem:
Senator Terry Bruce, the Republican majority leader, said that when the cuts were passed, the Department of Revenue gave estimates of how much the changes would cost that ended up being inaccurate.
While initial estimates, for instance, were that the small business tax exemption would affect about 191,000 entities and cost about $160 million, for the 2013 tax year, 333,000 filers took advantage of the exemption at a cost of $206.8 million, according to the Revenue Department.
The last time I looked, 206.8 million less $160 million was $40.8 million… not exactly chump change but FAR short of the $400,000,000 shortfall facing the state. In the meantime, the cuts to education have decimated the public schools and shredded safety nets… and the $400,000,000 needed will do nothing to restore those cuts OR the various “rainy day funds” Brownback and the KS legislature used to balance recent budgets.
If this tactic were isolated to KS it would be unfortunate to a small group of individuals… but unfortunately WI, NJ, LA, and other states led by Presidential aspirants have all used this playbook and the results have never played out as promised. All of those seeking executive offices should read the inscription on the entry to the IRS office building first stated by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes are the Price We Pay for a Civilized Society”.
“The Education Assassins”, Frank Bruni’s column in today’s NYTimes, reinforces the politics of public education while overlooking the real problems public schools face and completely overlooking the role USDOE has played in the student loan crisis. Bruni’s focus in this piece is the willingness of four marginal Presidential candidates— Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee,Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio— to consider closing the USDOE and the rejection of all Republican candidates save Jeb Bush to eliminate the Common Core. Bruni, who seems to unquestioningly accept the premises advanced by the “reformers”, laments this turn of events, emphasizing the need for a national curriculum and quoting a cast of neo-liberal “education leaders and advocates” to support his position. I dashed off this comment to share my perspectives on USDOE:
But the truth of the matter is that Arne Duncan (with Mr. Obama’s full support) has undercut the credibility of USDOE. The stimulus was a golden opportunity for USDOE to address the root cause of our “failing schools” which is the poor performance by children raised in poverty on the standardized tests that serve as “proof” that our schools are in distress. Instead of using stimulus funds to help school districts address this reality by expanding social services in schools, expanding preschool and after school programs for children raised in poverty, or fully funding special education, USDOE instituted a test-driven agenda that has demonized teachers, narrowed the curriculum to test-prep, and thrown open the door to privatization of public schools. At the same time Mr. Duncan has remained silent about the scandalous student loan situation because his department is a beneficiary of the usurious interest students are required to pay.
The debates over the common core are a distraction. The data gathered by USDOE reinforce what educators have known for years: students raised in affluence outperform children raised in poverty on standardized tests… and students in affluent school districts have superior opportunities compared to their peers in poverty stroked urban and rural districts. “Bad teachers” aren’t the problem: bad federal policy is!
One other comment I may leave is this: Bernie Sanders has more voter support than any one of the candidates mentioned in this article and no one on the NYTimes has outlined his views on public education. I hope that a column on the Democrat candidate’s perspectives will be forthcoming… they may have a different perspective than the Republicans and I hope they have a different perspective than Mr. Bruni.
A recent article by Tampa Bay Times reporter Mariene Sokol summarizing the recent findings of a teacher survey done in Hillsborough County caught my eye. I hope it also caught the eye of data driven education reformers across the country because Sokol’s article provides hard evidence that teaching in schools serving children raised in poverty, particularly those with disengaged parents, is far more difficult than teaching in schools with affluent and/or actively engaged parents. The message of the findings is summarized in the first three paragraphs:
School districts offer cash bonuses. They hire teacher coaches. They appeal to the idealism of educators who want to make a difference.
But the proof is in their own data: It’s hard to teach at a high-poverty school.
There’s less buy-in from parents. Kids don’t follow the rules. There aren’t even enough computers. And staff turnover is sky high.
So the if the favored approach of the “reformers”, giving bonuses and assistance to teachers doesn’t improve morale in a school, what does? Near the end of the article is the answer:
Dunbar, a West Tampa medical and science magnet school, had some of the happiest teachers, with a composite score of 96 percent. But the percentage of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunches was relatively high at 83 percent.
It’s a small school, with only 287 students. Principal Sarah Jacobsen Capps also said she is deliberate about maintaining a culture of collaboration.
“We have constant conversations and reflections on what we’re doing,” she said. “We always talk about it all the time. Even after we saw the survey results, we asked, ‘Where else should we focus?’ “
Some reformers will read this and conclude that “choice” is the key because Dunbar is a magnet school. Others will read it an say that keeping schools small is the key. I read the article and come to the conclusion that three factors are at play here:
- Parent engagement: I am never surprised to read that magnet schools have better learning environments because one of the de facto entry requirements to a magnet school is parent engagement. When parents are engaged in the lives of their children and interested in their current well-being and future, children thrive in school. Note that parent engagement is actionable. It is something schools can foster and support and in the article it noted that schools who made an effort to engage parents saw an increase in their teacher’s satisfaction and an increase in the percentage of students who followed the rules in school.
- Student focus: I know from experience leading large districts that smaller schools like Dunbar do not have to focus on logistical issues nearly as much as large schools. With fewer buses, fewer mouths to feed in the cafeteria, fewer names to learn, and fewer opportunities for students to be disruptive it is easier for teachers to direct their attention to children. Indeed, in a small school with limited transience it is common for teachers to know the names and families of each and every child in the school. While size makes it easier to focus on students as opposed to logistics, it is possible for larger schools to keep the focus on teaching and learning each student with the right kind of leadership, which is the third element.
- Teacher-centered leadership: The principal at Dunbar seeks a “culture of collaboration”, which was illustrated by the way she handled the information from the survey. Instead of using a top-down method whereby the omniscient administrator explains and interprets data to the staff, the principal engaged her staff in “constant conversations and reflections“.
Small schools and magnet schools are easy to replicate and maintain the traditional separation of school and family life and the hierarchical organizational structure that is familiar to business leaders and politicians. Engaging disengaged parents, maintaining a focus on each and every student, and nurturing teachers are soft skills that are difficult to measure and require a change in the orthodoxy in schools…. but my experience and, I would contend, these data support that direction going forward.
Two sources from opposite ends of the political spectrum recently wrote articles about parents who are rejecting public education in favor of DIY schooling.
While Breitbart’s short article describing the “soaring increase” of home schooled children didn’t explicitly knock public education, the commenters certainly did. An example: “Public schools are where you go to get indoctrinated into liberal thinking and come home a walking infectious disease.” As one who taught a college course on statistics, I know that some of the numerical information presented is done so in an “artful” but potentially misleading fashion. The 61.8% increase in homeschooling sounds stunning, but it comes from a low baseline. The overall percentage of homeschool students remains at 3.4% of the total school age population, a relatively small proportion but substantially larger than 10 years ago. The article also took the total number of “new” home schooled students, 677,000, and compared it to the population of sizable urban areas like Memphis, Boston, Seattle, and Washington DC to make the number more impressive. Breitbart’s mathematical manipulations aside, there IS a marked increase in homeschooling.
Pacific Standard writer Paul Bisceglio’s post “Leave Those Kids Alone“, describes the nascent un-schooling movement through an interview with Boston un-schooling parent Milva McDonald. Appealing mostly to progressively minded parents, un-schooling lets children learn at their own rate and learn what THEY are interested in. Why would a parent un-school their child? Here’s McDonald’s response:
When [my first child] was in kindergarten I became really disillusioned. The work they were doing was so boring. I thought it was a big time waste. And I didn’t like the social dynamics.
Given the increased emphasis on “academic instruction” in Kindergarten and the emphasis on order, conformity, and regimentation I can see where a parent might see school as “…a big waste of time”.
Given public schools emphasis on test scores and the attendant emphasis on “following rules and algorithms”, and given public schools lack of emphasis on the development of social skills and the attendant de-emphasis of moral development, it is not surprising that both ends of the political spectrum are seeking alternatives to the status quo. Here’s hoping we can change our model for public education so that we might get bipartisan support for our schools.
I have written frequently about how technology might serve as a means of equalizing opportunities in education and suggested that the major obstacle to taking full advantage of technology’s capacity was the need for universal access to broadband. In reading an overview of a report co-authored by University of Kansas’ associate professor James Basham, I was reminded that fulfilling the promise of technology will also require common standards, agreements on how data can be shared among various agencies, and lots of training. After recounting a conference where Mr. Basham presented his concept of Technology Enabled Personalized Learning” (TEPL) to an interdisciplinary conference, conferees identified three major issues that need to be addressed in order to implement TEPL:
- The development and adoption of technical standards for tagging content, defining and exchanging data, and easing integration of the myriad components of the Technology Enhanced Personalized Learning ecosystem needed to support educators, recommendation engines and related pedagogical research.
- Data policies, agreements and research protocols needed to scale research and development across data silos about what works with which types of students under what conditions.
- Redefining educator roles and supporting professional development to ensure that the human capacity needed to shift from a traditional teaching model to a student-centered TEPL model.
Operationalizing a technology-related improvement, like using technology to personalize learning, is easy to formulate but painstakingly slow to implement effectively without an infusion of money. When I read articles like this, I lament the fact that President Obama missed the chance of a lifetime to expedite the potential of technology by investing his political capital and stimulus funding on Race To The Top. IF he had thrown support behind an initiative to use technology to personalize and individualize instruction, federal funds could have been used to:
- expand broadband (instead of expanding testing)
- facilitate the development and adoption of technical standards (instead of the Common Core)
- help educators redefine their roles and responsibilities in a world where instruction is individualized (instead of promoting VAM which commits educators to their role as dispensers of information)
Maybe one of the presidential candidates for 2016 will see the promise of technology and advocate federal funding to accomplish the tasks needed to transform public education. In the meantime, schools remain ensconced in a silo.
After serving as Superintendent of Schools in a NYS district where anti-tax groups used Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to exhume presumably wasteful spending I found it somewhat ironic that charter school leaders to complain about FOIA requests from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. An article by Kathy Bocella in the Philadelphia Inquirer described the “hardship” these requests pose and described the lines drawn by both sides in the controversy:
Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools, lashed out at the requests as “frivolous.”
“There’s an anti-charter school movement out there,” said Eller, who was spokesman for the state Department of Education under Gov. Tom Corbett. “The traditional public school establishment is anti-charter schools, because [charters] are focusing on what’s best for students and these organizations [traditional public schools] are wanting to do what’s best for the status quo.”
If what’s best for students matches what’s best for shareholders Mr. Eller might be correct… but as William Penn superintendent Joe Bruni pointed out near the end of the article, if an on-line charter school is providing education for less money than they are billing the district they should receive less money. Bruni poses this question “Who is that money going to? If that happens to be private individuals or elected officials and they’re also on the charter payroll, it could be a conflict of interest.”
Eller went on to say that “…everything the school boards group seeks can be found in annual online reports filed with the state Department of Education, as well as yearly reports to the school district that issued its charter and in federal nonprofit tax filings.” But the Pennsylvania School Board Association’s spokesperson, Steve Robinson “…insisted the information the school boards association seeks, including contracts, salaries of key administrators, and other data, was unavailable in public filings.” Lawrence Feinberg, a Haverford School District board member who heads the Keystone State Education Coalition, a grassroots public education advocacy group made up of school board members and administrators, had this to say:
“We get hammered over spending, but think about charter schools – there’s little if any fiscal accountability”
While I lamented the demands FOIA requests placed on our administrative staff, I urged full disclose of any and all records because I believe taxpayers need to know how public funds are being spent. I know that the voters I worked for over 29 years did NOT want to see their hard earned dollars being used to pay “high salaries” to administrators and teachers, “frills” like travel costs for board members or administrators, or on whatever they deemed to be “wasteful”. I cannot for a minute believe that giving shareholders a high yield on their investment in for-profit schools would be on the list of items taxpayers would support. It’s bad enough that for-profit privatized schools are exempt from most regulations that affect public schools. It’s even worse if they are not required to disclose how they spend the money they are getting.
Mental Health Clinics at Colleges are Overcrowded… But Children are Building Good Resumes in “Safe Schools”
Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an blog post by Jan Hoffman titled “Anxious Students Strain College Mental Health Centers” that described the marked increase in students seeking treatment for anxiety. which has surpassed depression as the major mental health issue at colleges. The causes of this increase from the students perspective?
Schoolwork… Money. Relationships. The more they thought about what they had to do, the students said, the more paralyzed they became.
The causes from the mental health experts’ perspective?
The causes range widely, experts say, from mounting academic pressure at earlier ages to overprotective parents to compulsive engagement with social media. Anxiety has always played a role in the developmental drama of a student’s life, but now more students experience anxiety so intense and overwhelming that they are seeking professional counseling.
From my perspective I see three forces at play. As one who grew up and was a father before the term “free range parenting” was coined, I am not surprised that students who go to college are overwhelmed. If we want to have self-reliant and self-motivated college students we need to encourage parents to allow their children to spread their wings instead of having parents who are interested resume building. Young children need more unstructured time than we provide them, time to play together, solve problems together, and enjoy each other’s company without adult supervision. Instead our young children engage in competitive athletics in adult-organized leagues; engage in music lessons to develop skills that will land them a good chair in their high school band or orchestra or a lead part in a school musical; and engage in clubs led and monitored by adults.
As one who worked in public schools before surveillance cameras and metal detectors were accepted, schools that would be deemed “unsafe” in today’s closely monitored and supervised world, I an not surprised that students who go to college are unsettled. Increasingly, students have attended schools that resemble prisons more than they resemble “the marketplace” which makes the increase in agoraphobia unsurprising. Parents play a role in this as well, wanting schools to close campuses to outsiders and keep students within the school boundaries throughout the day.
Social media plays a role as well in a way that is unstated but implied in the article. Hoffman writes:
Social media is a gnawing, roiling constant. As students see posts about everyone else’s fabulous experiences, the inevitable comparisons erode their self-esteem. The popular term is “FOMO” — fear of missing out.
Social media amplifies the effects of “comparing mind” even more so than advertising, which has used this built-in feature to promote products for decades. When the “inevitable comparisons” with their peers on Facebook are combined with the comparisons with the models in advertisements and the lives of peers featured in the mass media, it is not surprising that college students define themselves based on what they lack instead of what they have.
The bottom line from my perspective is this: If we want to have self-reliant, self-motivated, and self assured college students we need to encourage parents to allow their children to spread their wings, create schools where students can gain a sense of freedom and wonder, and work to amplify the qualities we each possess instead of amplifying the talents and possessions we lack. Instead we have parents who are concerned with resume building, schools that focus on passing standardized tests, and media that berate us constantly by showing us what we don’t have… and we wonder why mental health clinics are flooded at colleges?