Archive | February, 2011

Social Reform in Education: the Skinny on Race to the Top

27 Feb

Race to the Top. These words have infiltrated the news, our schools, the president’s speeches, and created controversy across America. In homes, high schools, universities, and political sessions, Race to the Top is a hot topic. Scalding hot.

As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund was established to help improve public charters, high schools, and universities. Let’s consider the numbers of the fund for just a moment.

The total monies of the fund amounted to $53.6 BILLION. Out of the $53.6 BILLION, roughly $48 billion of the money was given to state governors. The remaining $5 billion was allocated for what the public knows as “Race to the Top”. Enter the controversy. Continue reading

Advertisements

A Near Impossible Task: Saving the Detroit Public Schools District

25 Feb

The Detroit Public Schools District is closing half its schools.

This is part of the current state-approved deficit-elimination plan drawn up by emergency financial manger, Robert Bobb. The Detroit News predicts an influx of 60 plus students per classroom as a result of the closures (Huffington Post, see source below). While Robert Bobb assured the press today that there would not be 60 plus students per classroom, he did not give an alternate figure. Many Detroit schools are already overpopulated and understaffed, with 30 plus students per class.

Does this make Robert Bobb the bad guy?

In November 2010, Bobb lobbied for the $400 million in state tobacco revenue to be redirected to the DPS district. He hoped to convince state legislators that the money was needed to dig schools out of their current poor academic and financial states. If the money was not granted, Bobb argued, DPS would face severe, detrimental, “draconian” cuts. Bobb needed a political leader to back his proposal. No one stepped forward.

Fast-forward to February. Detroit Public Schools are failing academic standards; the vast majority are not making AYP. The city and state are strapped financially and continuing to hurt academically. What does the state do?

The state orders Robert Bobb to immediately implement his proposed deficit-elimination plan that includes closing half the district’s schools and consolidating academic operations. Bobb needed to find some way to do his job; the state had ordered him to reduce the $327 million deficit in five years. Initially, legislators demanded that he balance the debt in two years. Lucky for Bobb, they threw him peanuts.

Robert Bobb’s job is admittedly not easy to accomplish. Where does one make cuts from a district already plunged in academic and financial straits? Schools have already bumped up class size, laid-off staff and faculty, and minimized academic and extracurricular programs. How does one cut fat from bones?

Bobb clearly does not have a good solution. The state is shirking responsibility by passing off the impossible task to one man. Bobb himself has admitted that the proposal is not good for students academically or educationally.

So why is this plan approved?

The plan has been approved because politics have overthrown the responsibility of government. It is the responsibility of a government to protect its people, especially those people who cannot defend themselves (i.e. children). While reducing the deficit is included in this description, the disregard of an equal education opportunity for over 70,000 plus students is NOT. Just because a plan exists that shows “zero” figures to the eyes of politicians in five years does not mean this plan should be automatically endorsed. Rather than simply look at numbers, politicians should look into the eyes of the children they are cheating. A classroom of 30 students is difficult to manage, difficult to ensure academic progress. A great teacher in the best circumstances can reach many of the 30. Teaching in a class and ensuring the academic success of 60 students, many who are placed at-risk from living in a low-SES, high poverty district, is like being asked to cut a $327 million deficit in five years in a district that already cannot compete financially or academically with its suburbs. The state is asking Robert Bobb and the district’s teachers to achieve a near impossible task.

What is the solution? While I cannot offer any solidified plan, I hope that our state rethinks its current agenda with the Detroit Public Schools. We must remember that schools serve children; equal education for our kids is the goal of our schools. Closing half the schools and jamming 60 kids in a classroom is not a service to our kids. Legislators and policymakers need to undertake the task of creating a new deficit-elimination plan for the DPS district, instead of throwing the weight of the world on one man’s shoulders. They need to sit down, work hard, and develop a long-term deficit-elimination plan for the DPS district, instead of asking for immediate, impossible results. If our legislators can work toward a new, less severe proposal, Detroit schools will still struggle, but they will struggle less each year. We cannot resign the Detroit schools to the mercy of the economy. We need to rebuild them. We cannot give up on our state’s neediest children; we must rise to the challenge and help them.

Bobb is set to re-work a new budget, due to the state by May 31st. While I lack confidence in one man to solve all the deficit problems of an impoverished district, I’m rooting for him. Better yet, perhaps our state will come to its senses and form a committee to help him in his endeavor. This is the least Detroit’s kids deserve.

Huffington Post Source:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/16/robert-bobb-400-million-for-detroit-schools_n_784353.html

The Call to Compromise – Wisconsin Update

20 Feb

Photo courtesy of Andy Manis, AP

Here’s an update on the situation regarding Scott Walker’s controversial labor bill (see below) – a good article that represents both sides.

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/02/19/406935_ap.html

Gainful Employment, Pell, Federal Regulations We Should Have, and Federal Regulations We Don’t

20 Feb

Yesterday, the House added an amendment to a bill that blocked efforts to regulate for-profit college programs. The big debate stems from the right to “gainful employment” in higher for-profit education. What is “gainful employment?”

Gainful employment is the promise to a student who has attended an accredited university program that the training received at the university will adequately prepare to student to enter the workforce (i.e. the promise of competitive job opportunity so the student can pay off thousands of dollars of debt).

Because federal funds are used to supply students with grants to attend colleges, for-profit or not, some citizens and officials are concerned that many for-profit colleges draw out the training programs or offer bunk programs to attract students to the school in order to receive funds. The concern is what happens to students once they leave these programs; are they actually qualified for the workforce?

The regulations on for-profit colleges regarding gainful employment aim to reduce waste and abuse in the for-profit education system. Some of the regulations include requiring colleges to disclose factual graduation and job placement rates of each eligible program (an eligible program can receive federal funding), ensure that only eligible students receive federal funds, prevent misrepresentation of programs by college recruiters, and require states to enforce existing laws that obligate the states to approve and monitor post-secondary programs that receive federal aid.

Here is a link comprising a summary of regulations on for-profit colleges regarding gainful employment (and 13 other issues) as proposed by the Department of Education: http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/department-track-implement-gainful-employment-regulations-new-schedule-provides-

Those opposing the regulations claim that putting regulations on for-profit college programs will prevent students from receiving federal funds, and therefore prevent certain sects of people from the right to better job opportunities (i.e. a degree).  However, those supporting the regulations state that the regulations will do the opposite by protecting students from fraudulent programs that leave college graduates unqualified and sacked with debt. This all has to do with the taxpayers money. How are federal funds being spent?

To me, it seems logical that anyone receiving government funds should face certain regulations. The government is not only giving money away in the forms of grants, but also offering federal loans: federal loans are not grants. To protect taxpayers, there should be certain requirements to receive federal grants. These requirements should be regulated. To protect students, college programs should be clean, efficient, and prepare the student for the workforce in a timely manner; this way, the student isn’t loaded down with thousands of dollars of debt with no way of procuring a job.

However, there is an aspect to the federal funding of colleges that is more ridiculous than all the politics involved with this single issue.

The Pell Grant. What a wonderful, wonderful thing. Pell Grants provide multitudes of students who normally would never have the opportunity to attend college to receive degrees that provide better jobs, better incomes, and better quality of living. Pell is a laudable effort to improve the socioeconomic status’ of low income students everywhere. However, there is one problem with Pell.

Under current guidelines, undergraduate students working toward their first-time Bachelor’s degree can receive the Pell grant for 16 full semesters as long as they meet the income and program requirements. This is EIGHT years of undergraduate college. Eight. I completed my bachelor’s in three and one-half years. Allowing students to receive federal funds for eight years to complete one degree is absolutely ridiculous.

If the government wants to cut the budget (in addition to protecting taxpayers and students), perhaps we should restrict Pell Grants to five years of funding, or perhaps even six for the struggling student. Students can receive up to $5,000 per semester with a Pell Grant.  If each student were receiving maximum funding and the government reduced the years of funding from eight to five (and for the sake of numbers, we are assuming each student receiving a grant continues schooling for eight years), this would be a savings of $30,000 per student. Considering that most colleges boast that the majority of enrolled students receive federal aid, we could imagine a reduction in the budget deficit. Or who knows. Maybe not.

A good article on gainful employment from the Huffington Post:

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11050/1126585-84.stm

Info on Pell:

http://www.bmcc.cuny.edu/finaid/grants/pell.html#16

http://www.westminstercollege.edu/financial_aid_undergraduate/index.cfm?parent=4210&detail=7018

Scoring Consistently Better than the Average – Schools still not making AYP

19 Feb

Preble High School is not making AYP in all the areas required by No Child Left Behind.

As part of my teaching training program, several future colleagues and I visited Preble High School in the Green Bay Area Public Schools District. The school is huge, the third largest in the state with over 2,200 students. While Preble was initially built to house only 2,000 students, its school-of-choice title and impressive academic and athletic programs have drawn media attention and higher student enrollment. Preble students still consistently score above state and national averages in academic areas.

The date we visited was Friday, February 18, 2011, the day after the Wisconsin State Senate was stalled in voting on the controversial bill regarding state workers’ rights. 45 of the school’s 168 teachers were absent, taking personal leave to join the growing protests at the Capitol. Multitudes of students marched outside the building, demonstrating against passage of the  bill. Most school faculty and staff wore red. The school was abuzz in the political climate, yet the school day continued and I was able to see how Preble operated.

I was impressed.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Preble’s MAC scholars, a student group devoted to promoting diversity on campus. These students gave us a tour of the school and we learned about the following aspects of a Preble education:

  • an Advanced Engineering Program
  • the Technical Education Department (which is currently building racecars)
  • the Culinary Arts Program
  • the Advanced Placement Science, Math, and Language Arts Departments
  • the Agriscience Department and corresponding greenhouse
  • the Library Media Center (which recently implemented “Noodlebib,” a new program that guides students in the process of source citation)
  • the five World Languages offered: French, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, and German
  • the school’s Smartboards
  • the Special Education Department

We also learned about Preble’s initiatives to integrate diverse student populations through their ELL and MAC Scholars program. I sat in on a Spanish 5 class, where the students proficiently read and discussed Gabriel Garcia Márquez in Spanish.  I learned about the Phuture Phoenix Program, which assists kids placed at-risk by providing them with one-on-one tutors from University of Wisconsin Green Bay’s education department. The program is wildly successful for students.  The best part of my experience at Preble, however, was the distinct feeling of community. Every administrator, teacher, and staff personnel I spoke with (a librarian and AV Coordinator) cared about their school, their job, and most especially, their kids. The administrator for Student Enrichment called out five students by name while he escorted me  to the Spanish room (about a eight minute walk). He made his high expectations clear to each student he interacted with, mentioning conduct, academics, or getting to class on time. One of the Associate Principals walked the hall to ensure a hospitable atmosphere in the midst of the politically charged day. The Spanish teacher talked about how she collaborates with all the Spanish teachers in the district to create a more uniform foreign language education for all students. The students were responsive, engaged, and respectful. The spirit of learning was palpable.

Right before we left for the day, I learned that Preble wasn’t making AYP in all the required areas. If the school doesn’t improve by the next evaluation, Preble will face serious repercussions, including the potential threat of a state take-over.

I did not know what to make of this. Preble offers their students some of the best technological education available; they have a staff of well-educated, caring professionals; the school offers vocational studies in addition to AP curriculum; there is a “Zero Hour” in which students and teachers arrive before school begins for additional coursework; a night-school is offered for students who may not “fit” the typical school day; there is a distinct focus on diverse education for exceptional learners; their students consistently score above state and national averages. What more could be asked?

The demand that no student be left behind could be asked; the demand that Preble perform better than its overstretched best could be asked. The educational opportunity these students are receiving is incredible; for the above-average, average, and most especially below-average student, Preble has a wide array of programs and incentives to help each individual student achieve. Yet they are still being told by the federal government to improve.

I believe that in any occupation, there is always room to improve. However, when a school is producing the type of results that Preble does while at the same time educating a largely diverse student population and serving more students than its original capacity called for, one must ask themselves, “Why is this considered failure?” Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislatures, public schools are being asked to do more with no additional funding, even when the schools already have a reputation for academic success. The idea that Preble may one day face a state take-over is ridiculous; the environment of learning and community was the best I have ever witnessed in a public or private school. The students are respectful. The teachers care. The administrators are constantly looking for ways to be better. This is the learning environment I want my child to experience.

NCLB has proven to be the failure, not the academically successful schools. The Department of Education needs to seriously reconsider, restructure, and redesign the law. If NCLB had been working over the past ten years, public schools would be drastically improving. However, schools that struggled before the law for the most part remain struggling and successful schools are being labeled as failures. This is wrong. It is time for our government to reassess the validity of laws like NCLB and contests such as Race to the Top. While the goal is to help all schools improve their standards for the good of the kids, we must create legitimate pathways to meet this goal with success. Without hard research and better evaluation methods of teachers, administrators, and schools, the majority of struggling public schools and students will continue to struggle.

Preble High School Website: http://www.greenbayprebleonline.com/index.html

Preble High School Stats: http://www.greenbayprebleonline.com/assets/2010%20PHS_profile.pdf

Preble AYP Info: http://www.greenbay.k12.wi.us/01/info/board/10/MINUTES10_25.htm

About AYP: http://www.nea.org/home/18081.htm

Phuture Phoenix Website: http://www.uwgb.edu/phuturephoenix/

Fight or Flight?

17 Feb

Protesters in the Wisconsin Capitol. Photo courtesy of Andy Manis, AP.

To avoid voting on a controversial bill in the state senate, 14 Wisconsin Democrats packed up and left town. The bill was set to be voted upon earlier today.

If passed, the bill would redefine rights for many public service employees, including those employed in schools and prisons. The most controversial aspects of the bill include the dissolution of collective bargaining and an increase in pension costs. The proposed savings from the bill would amount to $300 million over the next two years. Governor Scott Walker and Republican leaders said on Monday that they had enough votes to pass the bill. Wisconsin public employees were not pleased.

An estimated 25,000 people protested the bill at the Capitol on Tuesday and Wednesday. Demonstrators beat drums, called for lawmakers to “kill the bill,” and challenged Walker’s authority. Today, as the Wisconsin public awaited the fate of the bill, a legislative leader announced that were not enough senators present to vote on the bill. Only one democratic representative would have been required for voting on the bill to ensue.

This leaves the question: what happens next?

As a citizen and future teacher in the neighboring state of Michigan, this issue feels close to home. There is concern among residents of Michigan that a similar bill will be drawn up in upcoming months, and our state workers will be faced with the same issues. Will our public employees also count on their senators to flee town? To me, this seems like an arbitrary, temporary solution. The bill is still there. The senate is waiting.

The Democrats will have to return at some point, as they are compelled by state law and duty. Perhaps their actions and the actions of the protesters will pay off, and amendments will be made to the bill. Perhaps this is the way to effect change and I am simply unaware.

To me, the real issue is rooted deeper than fleeing Democrats. The real issue is the the same as the great concern of our nation – the overstretched budget. What do we cut? What rights are we willing to lose? Which ones will we refuse to give up? Is it a good decision to cut $300 million from public service departments by stripping employees of rights they have worked hard to gain since the 1950’s? Or should state governments be looking at deeper, long-term issues that cause frivolous spending in all state departments? Perhaps the salaries of the top ten percent of the highest paid public employees should be cut.

The decision is not easy and there is no straight answer toward large-scale structural change. Events like those occurring in Wisconsin will continue all over the United States as the rights of the people are challenged. Kudos to Wisconsin for making their voice heard.

Privatization and Commercialization of America’s schools; it’s a damn good thing Michael J. Connelly is not a Beelzebub

15 Feb

It must have been a future CEO who first looked at the public education system and thought, “There’s a way to make money here, I can feel it…”

The privatization and commercialization of education to create a profit generating system is ludicrous. It is now a fact that children in public schools are being targeted while in school by marketing companies to increase corporate and school revenue. In addition, “both educators and corporate managers are attending conferences to learn how to increase revenue from in-school marketing for their schools and companies” (Spring 211). Not only are children being targeted for physical advertisements, but they are also being persuaded to offer personal information so advertising companies can tailor their product to individual students. It is unclear if students are being guided by educators; however, it is fact that “students in classrooms are being offered incentives to enter personal data – names, addresses, information on personal habits – which will then be sold to advertisers” (Spring 211). This is a huge problem; it is a form of exploitation of our youth; for advertising companies and most especially school systems to target youth while they are attending a mandatory public institution leaves the students no choice as to the solicitations to which they are exposed. We are bombarding our youth with image and money; this is what we are teaching them, and we are selling them short.

The privatization of schools to create for profit systems is another large scale problem. The union report perhaps says it best: “Education is not simply another economic good or service. The learning of a nation’s children is of concern to the entire nation. And while business can and should play a role in education, communities and the school boards that represent them must retain control over the future of America’s public schools “ (Spring 204). Education cannot be reduced to a consumer good; this takes the focus off the education of the students and places money at the heart of the matter. When profit is the primary concern, consumers are bound to lose. If we consider the idea of a school system as a business, education as the output (product), money the mover, and student the consumers, just as corporations take shortcuts in production and regulation, so would the students find their education replete with cheap substitutions and gaping holes. When it comes to corporate style business, what is less expensive wins, and it is at this cost that the consumer often loses.

On the other side of the debate, however, we have the words of Michael  J. Connelly, chief executive officer of Mosaica Education (a major for-profit education company): “There are people who don’t believe there is role for private business in public education. And for those people, we are going to get the word out that we are not Beelzebubs. This is not a satanic plot to destroy public education” (Spring 203). This is very strong speech for one who feels he is not guilty of anything but enterprise. To use the biblical words of “Beelzebub” and “satanic” creates a strong emotion in the reader, and leaves an immediate impression. His speech is too caustic and focused on the defense of Mosaica to convince the reader that the company places education at the forefront of their mission. It would seem, almost, that Mr. Connelly’s largest concern is defending the profit made with private education, and not proving how private education can benefit students and community.

The final issue I’d like to touch upon involves private education companies and the No Child Left Behind Act. In accordance with NCLB, failing schools must be completely restructured. Any state can choose to establish a working relationship with a for profit private education company to provide education services under NCLB. This essentially means “that profits earned (by private companies)… will come from the federal government” (Spring 206). In 1992, the states of Massachusetts and Colorado took a step further and passed “’charter school’ laws that permit states and school systems to award contracts to… private contractors” (Spring 206). This is a huge problem. Whether or not the average taxpayer agrees with for profit charter schooling, our tax dollars will be going to private education companies’ bottom lines. This means that private companies are essentially allowed to make a profit off government money, our tax dollars.

The privatization and commercialization of public schools is a topic to keep at the peak of the education debate. The quality of the education of our future generations depends upon good decisions being made at the political level. It’s a damn good thing Michael J. Connelly is no Beelzebub, or America might have something to worry about.

Source: American Education, Joel Spring, Thirteenth Ed.

More Information on Mosaica:

http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2010/04/mosaica-education-inc-and-lack-of.html#comment-form

http://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta-based-companys-plans-437390.html

http://mosaicaeducation.com/