Out There

school reform

Posted in teaching by Pete on September 30, 2018

What is the point of the educational system in place in America today?  There are some very fundamental differences of opinion about this.

Do schools exist to teach our kids?  Yes.  Teach them what?  (Values?  Lists of facts?  How to think?  How to get along?  How to submit to authority?  Which values to have?) For what purpose?  (Job?  College?  Happiness?  Efficiency?)

Do schools exist to prepare kids for life as adults?  How?

Based on your answer to the above, what is the best way for schools to actually accomplish this purpose?

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Spending

Our district uses apple products like crazy, for pretty much everything.  Every teacher just got a new macbook air last month.  Every elementary teacher also got a new full-size ipad.  Every student in our school in grades 8-12 has their own macbook pro or macbook air (about 30 kids).  In addition, our school has about 25 more macbook pros and macbook airs that kids use on a rotating basis from the office.  So between teachers and kids, that is roughly 65 macbooks.  I bought my last 2 chromebooks for around $150 each.  I don’t understand why we don’t use chromebooks, and save a ton of money, like most districts are doing around the country.   65 chromebooks at $150 each = less than $10,000.  65 macbooks at $1,200 (this is a guess.  I would imagine we probably paid more than this for the pros, and maybe a bit less than this for the airs?) each = $78,000, for a difference of about $68,000.  This is almost enough to pay for another certified teacher at our site – a big deal considering we currently have 6.75 certified teachers. (I should also mention here that our school does have about 20+ chromebooks that a teacher won in a contest, and those are used on a daily basis as well.) . The other day, one of the top guys in the district called my little samsung chromebook “garbage” when he saw me working on it.  He asked why I wasn’t using the macbook air that I had just received, and I told him I preferred the chromebook, which is the honest truth.  Anyway, the district’s decision to go with apple products just seems wasteful.  I inquired as to whether the 300-400 new macbook airs that the teachers just received (and the new ipads) was grant-funded or something and was told that no, it was just how the district decided to spend it’s money.**

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I recently saw this in the minutes from a recent LKSD board meeting:

Approved the purchase of the recommended Language Arts materials and resources in an amount not to exceed $982,242 with authorization for additional funding from unreserved fund balance in an amount not to exceed $582,242.

Now, up front I want to say that I have dear friends who have been very involved in the rollout of this curriculum.  This post is not about them.  It’s not even about THIS rollout.  It’s about using this specific example as a springboard for discussion about how/why funding decisions get made in education.  The $1.5ish million mentioned above paid for our new language arts curriculum, the vaunted “Reach for Reading” (RfR) from National Geographic.  Our school just started using this curriculum in August of 2018, in grades k-5 (or 6?).  I know that the fifth grade curriculum alone was like 8-12 heavyish boxes of materials.  4 or 5 boxes of leveled readers, 1 box of “explorer” books, 1 box of teacher editions (4 different volumes), another box with various other materials like the “academic talk” flip book and many others, 2 boxes with the reach into phonics booklets, and more.  Many districts are switching to Reach for Reading, and by all accounts, it is an outstanding curriculum that delivers challenging material with high expectations for achievement, along with differentiated material for ELLs (English Language Learners) and underperforming students.  In LKSD, RfR is replacing a curriculum called “Storytown” that was in wide use across the country, and is probably increasingly on the outs these days.

The thing is, LKSD turns over it’s curriculum on a schedule.  I can’t remember if it’s 6 or 7 years, but the district is constantly rotating through a list, so that 6 or 7 years from right now, we’ll be rolling out another new language arts curriculum at a similar cost, adjusted for inflation and student count.  And keep in mind that the learning curve for the transition to RfR has been steep.  Training in the new curriculum was the main emphasis of the district-wide inservice, which the district spent huge money on, to fly every teacher (300?  400?) to Bethel for 3 days of training – also paying to house and feed them during that time.  I’d guess it cost at least $200,000.**  And most of the teachers are still figuring out how to best use the curriculum.  This period of breaking in a new thing means less effective instruction for our students.

I think this whole process is duuuuummmmmmmmb.

How can Storytown go from being the best possible option for our kids, to being a major problem, in just 7 years?  We face many formidable problems, but Storytown is not one of them.  An above-average teacher could use storytown for the next 10 years and dwarf the progress made by their average peers who are using RfR.  That is my belief.  I’d love to see a study on the actual effects of the 2 side by side, kind of like they discuss here with other factors.  Several times during my 15+ years here, I’ve seen boatloads (literally) of textbooks and other materials taken out of the school to be thrown away.  Some of these were literally never used.  Most were used, but only a few years and they were still in great condition.  But getting anything to/from rural Alaska is very expensive, and our school has one small storage room, so…to the dump it goes.

What if we spent some of that $1.5M to $2M on

  • bonuses for teachers whose students’ test scores went up by a surprising amount?
  • Or on funding effective and inexpensive early childhood education, like parents as teachers programs in every village.
  • Or on bonuses for teachers who stay 5 years, 10 years, 20 years.  Turnover is killing our schools, I believe, way more than outdated curriculum.  Because the learning curve is so steep, in terms of cross-cultural adjustment.  In most rural Alaskan school districts, teachers stay about an average of 2 years, and keep in mind that the replacements are very often 22 years old and just out of college (not super effective teachers).  It’s a bad cycle.
  • Or better teacher housing!  Our building is so old that people literally cannot agree how old it is.  I’ve heard everything from the 30s to the 70s.  It has lead pipes, lead paint in places, and asbestos.  When I drilled into the wall to push a cable through, I found that all of the insulation had fallen down to the bottom couple of feet in the walls.  And there is no room for anyone who wants to have children.  How does that help anyone stay long term, which is what everyone agrees we need?  That $1.5-$2m would be more than enough for a new teacher housing 4-plex at our site.
  • Or how about direct cash compensation to students for good grades, or better yet, higher test scores (go up by X points = Y dollars).  Some districts have already done this, and the results were very promising, and it wasn’t actually expensive relative to the other stuff they had tried.

I’m just brainstorming here, but in 5-10 minutes I’ve come up with a list of things that I’m pretty confident would be at least as good and potentially way better, in terms of ROI, and that “return” based on accomplishing whatever it was you came up with to my question at the top.

And remember, LKSD (and probably most districts) does this every year!  In 2020, Everyday Math is out and we get a new math curriculum.  Our students get very low scores.  Those scores aren’t low because of Storytown or Everyday Math.  We have many challenges, but terrible, unusable curriculum is not one of them.  So why are we spending so much of our limited funding to fix something that isn’t even a problem?  Cynical answer – our test scores are bad, and the administration needs to look like it is taking things seriously and making changes, and it’s easier to change materials than it is to fire people.  Hopeful answer – ????  Incompetence?  People sincerely believe the curriculum is the problem, and is more urgent than our other problems?

**I can understand this maybe if we had more money than we knew what to do with.  But we don’t.  The state of Alaska has been in a budget crisis for a few years now due to falling oil prices, resulting in flat-funding or miniscule annual increases for education.  Our classified staff are in the middle of a 5 year period where their wages have been frozen, because “the money just isn’t there.”  Our certified staff approved a new contract a few years ago that saw our actual pay go backwards, in real dollars, over a 3 year period (village teacher rent increases of 10% per year – these increases were greater than the raises to the salary schedule).

Kindergarten Truancy

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on February 18, 2015

This is meant as an open letter to the Alaska legislature, Governor Walker, parents, and educational leaders across the state.  Alaska law currently makes school attendance mandatory for kids between the ages of 7 and 16.

Here is the statute:

(a) Every child between seven and 16 years of age shall attend school at the public school in the district in which the child resides during each school term. Every parent, guardian or other person having the responsibility for or control of a child between seven and 16 years of age shall maintain the child in attendance at a public school in the district in which the child resides during the entire school term, except as provided in (b) of this section.

I’ve come to think this is a problem.

All too often I see kids who are enrolled in kindergarten who attend extremely sporadically and are then retained.  Today in one of the rural school districts I work in I was asking the kindergarten teacher about one of the students on my caseload, trying to get a feel for the student’s standing relative to their classmates, their progress this year, and any teacher concerns.  The teacher reported that the child can perform about as well as their classmates when they are paying attention and physically in school.  She mentioned that three kids were retained from last year’s kindergarten class (including my student), and she wants to retain 4 more from this year’s class, and she believes the reason for why all those kids are behind is truancy, with some of her kids attending about 2/3 of the time (40 absences by mid Feb).  I asked if the school has filed truancy reports or anything and she reminded me that until the child is 7 there is nothing the teacher or school can do.  I’ve been involved in education in the bush for over 10 years and I’ve seen this happen with kindergartners time after time.  But today it just struck me as illogical and silly that we go after parents who let their 4th grader or 8th grader stay home, but we allow it with kindergartners.  Truancy is a huge, chronic issue in the bush.  If we allow it to be a habitual thing for the first 2 years of school with no penalty, should we be surprised that it remains an issue for the rest of that child’s life in school?

I believe the intent of the law is to allow parents to decide when their child is ready to start kindergarten, so the state isn’t forcing 5 year-olds to begin school.  I don’t take issue with that.  However, I do take issue when the parents decide it IS time to start school, but then the child shows up half the time.  If it is obvious that it isn’t working for whatever reason, the parents should withdraw the child and try again the following year.  Or at least have a conversation with the teacher where it is acknowledged that they aren’t really trying to go to first grade in the next year and that the school shouldn’t be trying to move heaven and earth to get the child the extra help required to make it happen.

The law in section (b) makes exceptions to mandatory attendance, for things like illness, private school, living far from the nearest school, etc.  Then way at the end there is this:

(c) If a parent, legal guardian, or other person having the responsibility for or control of the child elects to enroll a child who is six years of age in first grade at a public school, after enrollment, the child is subject to the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section. If the parent or guardian of a child who is six years of age and is enrolled in first grade at a public school determines, within 60 days after the child is enrolled, that the best interests of the child are not being served by enrollment in the first grade, the child may be withdrawn from school, and the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section do not apply to the child until the child is seven years of age.

I think it should be changed to this:

(c) If a parent, legal guardian, or other person having the responsibility for or control of the child elects to enroll a child who is FIVE OR six years of age in KINDERGARTEN OR first grade at a public school, after enrollment, the child is subject to the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section. If the parent or guardian of a child who is FIVE OR six years of age and is enrolled in KINDERGARTEN OR first grade at a public school determines, within 60 days after the child is enrolled, that the best interests of the child are not being served by enrollment in the first grade, the child may be withdrawn from school, and the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section do not apply to the child until the child is seven years of age.

This is a small change but would help to combat runaway truancy, while not taking away from the spirit of the law which allows parents the freedom to determine when their child begins kindergarten.