Legislative Graveyard

Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic.  Stacey Campfield’s widely-ridiculed bill to reduce public assistance payments to parents whose children make bad grades isn’t really dead and buried, just relegated to Summer study.  Sort of like a kid who failed a class, but gets another chance.  Except that Campfield isn’t going to miss a meal or have his phone cut off for this failed effort.

Statistically, children from lower income households are more likely to have difficulty with academics.  Solving the problem though, requires understanding why — and there are multiple reasons, not all of which apply to every child.

1) Many children from economically disadvantaged homes don’t have access to the same resources — books in the home, a computer with internet service, travel and experiences, parents who have the time or ability to help with homework, etc.

2) The number of families on public assistance are disproportionally single-parent households, where the parent-in-residence may be working multiple minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet.

3) Families on public assistance are much more likely to have lower levels of education themselves; in some cases, this results in education not being valued, but in others, a simple inability to help.  Sometimes, it means that the vocabulary used in the home is much more limited than what the more-advantaged peers are exposed to; sometimes, it means that a child didn’t get enough sleep because he has to work to help support the family.  All of those things impact school performance.

4) Like it or not, genetics usually does play a role in academic performance.   While children from the deep end of the gene pool may go through hard times, it’s not likely to be long-term.  In the case of generational welfare recipients, the kids are much more likely to be from the shallow end.

Lastly, grades are not the ultimate measure of learning.   We, as a society, tend to equate good grades with mastery and poor grades with failure, but I don’t buy into the fact that poor grades are necessarily a failure to learn — perhaps a failure to comply with expectations.  Longtime readers will recall some of my frustrations with Beta, whose geometry teacher once approached me with the concern that she “has a 110 test average and a 14 homework average.”  Unfortunately, homework counted for a significant part of the grade, so in spite of the fact that she clearly knew the material, her grade wasn’t very good.

I know exactly what the problem was: if she understood the material, she spent her time on homework that she needed to do in order to learn it.  Stuff that she already understood, she didn’t waste time on.  In four weeks, Beta will receive her BS in Physics.   In spite of her unapproved homework methodology, it worked for her.

We need to ensure that children from all socioeconomic backgrounds learn, and reach their fullest potential.  That’s hard, because it’s tough to know exactly what that potential is.  We need to be looking for ways to help, not ways to punish.

Want to ensure that children from families on public assistance can succeed in school, and break the cycle of dependency?  Expand preschool.  Provide computers and internet service that they can take home.  Ensure that they interact with people who expose them to a larger vocabulary, new ideas, and encouragement to succeed.  Challenge them, but respect them as children with potential they don’t even know they have.

There has to be a better way.



Sales Tax, Sharing, and the High School Debt

The following was submitted to our local newspapers for publication.  It’s already up on the Observer’s website, and will likely appear in the Oak Ridger at some point.

In recent weeks, several guest columns by a City Council candidate or former Council member have alleged that the School Board is “holding the city hostage” or “failing to comply with the voters’ wishes” per the 2004 sales tax referendum.

Neither claim is true.

The fact of the matter is that the City developed the financial model for the new high school financing, and there was concern even before the referendum that if the County superseded the tax rate before five years elapsed, there would be insufficient income from sales tax to make the bond payments.  After five years, it was said to be a non-issue because the City could retire other debt.  Because of that risk, there was an unwritten agreement that the schools would contribute their share in the event that the County superseded the tax rate within five years.

The County did so after just two, on a petition-driven referendum spearheaded by the former Superintendent of Anderson County Schools.  Naturally, the Oak Ridge School Board understood that we had to help out for at least the next three years; payments were actually made for the next five years.

After five years, the payments were called into question, and the School Board was advised by our attorney that such payments were not legal without some written agreement approved by both the Board of Education and City Council.  Thus, payments were suspended.  The money was set aside until such time as an acceptable written agreement could be developed and passed by both.

In the process of developing such a resolution, it came to light that for the last five years, the schools have paid the City not just the half-cent collected in Oak Ridge (as explicitly called for in the referendum), but the schools’ share of the half-cent collected countywide.  Historically this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but over the last decade, retail in Oak Ridge has been stagnant or declining, while retail sales in other parts of the county have been on the rise.

The net result of that discrepancy is that the schools have actually overpaid the City by $1,373,696, simply by transferring the half cent of the schools’ share of countywide taxes instead of just those collected within our city.

A resolution has been drawn up specifically allocating the half-cent collected within the city limits of Oak Ridge – exactly what the 2004 referendum specified – to be voted on by the Board of Education on April 30, and by the City Council shortly thereafter.  This year’s funds, held in reserve, will be transmitted to the City immediately following ratification by both governmental bodies.

However, the problem remains that sales tax collections are not at the levels projected in the City’s 2004 financial plan.  The schools’ share of the half-cent collected in Oak Ridge will not make the bond payments at this point in time. It is unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the recession that began in 2008, so it’s not a matter of a bad plan – just that it didn’t work out as expected.

Some would like for the schools to continue making payments at the previous level, but those are funds designated by the State for the operation of schools.  And, in case no one has noticed, the City’s annual contribution to the school budget has not been keeping pace with the cost of living (not to mention various other costs imposed by the State or Federal governments).

Although the vote has yet to be taken and I can speak for no one but myself, it is my sense that your Board of Education is willing and ready to work with the City Council to establish this tax sharing process, in a way that is legal and properly approved.

Neither side will get everything they want.  The School Board was told that this was a five-year commitment (ending in 2009) at most, and would prefer to pay nothing; City Council would like to have enough revenue to cover the bonds for several decades, regardless of the fact that sales within our city are not generating that amount.  Abiding by the explicit terms of the 2004 referendum is the best compromise.

That is what is contained in the resolution.  Clearly, the best path forward is approval of this resolution, and for City Council to redouble efforts to revitalize retail in Oak Ridge, benefiting both the City and the schools.

About the sales tax…

In this morning’s Oak Ridge Observer, guest columnist Trina Baughn referenced a post from this blog from April 14, 2006, regarding a gentleman’s agreement between the mayor of Oak Ridge (at that time, David Bradshaw) and the Anderson County mayor (at that time, Rex Lynch) about when or if the County planned to supersede the sales tax.

Unfortunately, she only told half the story.

That particular gentleman’s agreement was that the County would not do  so for at least five years.  Thus, when the financing was planned for the new Oak Ridge High School, the financial model assumed that Oak Ridge would continue to collect its share of the higher sales tax for five years, then that the County would supersede.   However, it was prudent to make a contingency plan in the event that the County didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, which indeed, they did not.

That contingency was, if the County superseded the sales tax rate before five years elapsed, that the school system would remit it’s portion of the new dollars from the County share of sales taxes to the City, to go toward bond repayment on the high school.  But only until the five year period was up, when the City had assumed they’d lose that money anyway.  This too, was a handshake deal — there was never a Board vote, nothing signed.

The schools held up their end of the arrangement, not only through the five years from the initial referendum in 2004, but several years beyond.  However, the time is well past due for the City to adhere to the original financial model, which assumed that the County would have superseded the tax rate anyway.

The schools’ attorney has advised that Oak Ridge Schools cease making these payments, and has been in communication with the City.  Because attorneys are involved, it would be unwise to go into the detail and links I would otherwise provide.   But our Superintenent, our Director of Business Services, and our former School Board Chairman, John Smith, all recall the facts exactly as stated here.

The school system held up our end of the agreement, and then some.  To continue making these large payments to the City would put the City at risk of running afoul of the State’s “maintenance of effort” law, and deprive our students of operational funds that the State has designated for the purpose of their education.

Vouchers and random thoughts on education reform

In Tennessee, we are experiencing renewed discussion on school vouchers.  Essentially, that’s taking State education dollars and allowing parents to use those dollars toward private school tuition instead.   The initial bill would apply only in the state’s four largest cities (Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville), and only to economically disadvantaged students.

At first blush, why not?  Shouldn’t poor parents have the same opportunity for their children’s success as well-to-do parents?

The heart of the matter is, that ‘s the problem that public education seeks to address in the first place.  Vouchers wouldn’t level that playing field, because the dollars they’re offering (about $5k/year) wouldn’t cover the tuition at most, if any, private or parochial schools.  If the parents are poor to begin with, it’s unlikely that they could come up with the difference.

Secondly, private schools don’t play by the same rules as public schools.  Getting in is not just a matter of paying the tuition, but being accepted in the first place.  Academic and behavioral records are a strong factor, as are things like the ability to pass an admissions test.  Of course, a strong athlete might be granted a waiver on those types of things if the private school was looking to beef up the football team.  However, since private schools aren’t held to the same accountability standards as public schools, who’s to say that little Johnny Quarterback is going to be any better educated when he gets out?

If you believe the generalization that public schools are failing and private schools are not, why not level the playing field and make the rules the same for both?  Require all to take (or not take) the same tests; require the same (or no) certification and evaluation of teachers.  Allow both (or neither) to use selective admissions criteria.

But if we did that, then what would be the distinction between the two?

*  *  *  *  *

This morning, I read in the Commercial Appeal that some schools are now offering supper (in addition to breakfast and lunch) to students enrolled in their after-school programs.  Granted, I understand that the only nutritious meals some children receive are those served at school, but at the same time, one of the key factors in a child’s well-being is the consistency of meals taken with the family.

If that’s not happening, what’s the value of going home at all?

One of the commenters noted that perhaps the school should simply become a boarding school, and just send the kiddos home on weekends for a visit.  Perhaps that comment was in jest or sarcasm, but… why not?  For kids in the worst inner-city schools, with the worst home conditions, that might very well be the best thing that could happen.

If the state and/or federal dollars that currently go to support those families (WIC, food stamps, welfare, housing subsidy) instead followed the children to boarding school, I’d bet that the kids could improve academically and socially a whole lot faster.   They would be in a stable environment where study and proper behavior was the norm.  They would be properly nourished, with adequate sleep and supervision.  They would not be subjected to the criminal environment that pervades their parents’ neighborhoods.

It sounds like a drastic change, but not unlike the drastic changes sweeping public education in Tennessee today.  We’ve added high standards and testing for students, as well as high standards and evaluations for teachers.  To truly succeed in reform, however, we need to address the quality of parenting.


Physics vs. Phys Ed

Just WOW.

There are 19 gym teachers in the Farmington School District who make more than $85,000 a year each. The average gym teacher’s salary in Farmington is $75,035. By comparison, the science teachers in that district make $68,483 per year on average.

Farmington has 11,647 students in nine K-4 elementary schools, two 5-6 “upper elementaries,” and two 7-8 middle schools.   Evidently, the high school is in another district, as it’s not mentioned in their annual report.  So, it would seem like the heftiest coaching supplements — varsity football and basketball — are not included in these gym teachers’ salaries.

Michigan schools, like most, use pay scales based on education and experience.  The glaring pay differential between gym teachers and science teachers tells me that the gym teachers have probably been there for a few decades, while the science teachers are relatively young.  And they don’t stick around all that long.

It’s likely that, for middle school at least, the science teachers have a bachelor’s degree in a particular science field: physics, chemistry, biology, etc.  These days, that’s required for the “highly qualified” designation and if most of the teachers are relatively new, they would probably have been hired under those guidelines.

I’m not implying that phys ed teachers aren’t needed; they are.  Some kids live for gym.  Others would never get a lick of exercise without it.  The brain works better when one can get the wiggles out.  Yet, there’s no denying that the job options for science teachers are somewhat more expansive, both within the teaching field and in the private sector.

Maybe Farmington is just undergoing turnover, and this particular disparity is an aberration.   For their sake, I hope so.

Unless we’re content to lead the world in kickball.


Mixed Messages

Mixed messages abound in the education world these days.  We want to graduate more students, but we want to make it harder to graduate; we want to add math, science, and foreign language requirements (read: add teachers), but we don’t want to increase funding for education.  And those are just a couple of examples from high school.

Higher Ed is in a similar predicament.  The goals are noble and good, but the means to achieve them are dwindling.  To wit:

Anyone who has recently been a college student, or any parent of a college student, knows that one of the biggest challenges to graduating on time is to get into the classes one needs, when one needs them.  Offering more sections, more frequently, would undoubtedly improve the college graduation rate.  Offering fewer sections (with more students in each) less frequently cannot possibly yield improvement in the graduation rate — it will have the opposite effect.

But to keep it simple, the analogy is thus:  jump as high as you can.  Next, you must jump 50% higher… so dig a hole, stand in it, and try again.

Let me know if this works for you.  Like my physics major and rugby player daughter tells me, “gravity sucks.”

Test phobia

Everyone knows a little about test phobia: the dream of showing up for class and realizing that the biggest test of the year is that day (and you didn’t study), the clutching fear of a test that you’ve studied for but fear nonetheless, the simple fear of failure.

What if you took a test, then found out after the fact that the grading scale had been dramatically changed?  That instead of needing an 69 to pass, you’d have to get an 80 — but you already turned it in?

That’s what Tennessee school systems are facing right now.  Sometime in the next few weeks, Tennessee will issue our State Report Card.  This shows, for the state as a whole, for every district, and for every school, how well our students did on the TCAP tests last April.  It also shows the TVAAS (value added) score — how much students improve from year to year, not just how well they did this year.

Last April, the test that the kids took (grades 3-8) was pretty much the same test as they’ve taken for the last decade.  What’s different is that the grading scale has changed: kids have to score higher to attain the desirable “proficient” or “advanced” designations.  With the grading scale raised, it’s almost certain that fewer kids will attain such scores, making it appear that a higher percentage of our students are something less than proficient.  If that happens, the value-added grade could actually be negative.

It will appear, on the surface, that our students’ performance has declined.  For those of us who are aware of the change in the grading scale, we’ll know to look more closely to see what happened with the raw scores, not just the grade, but my fear is that most people won’t know the difference.

Next year will be worse, as the grading scale will remain higher, but the test will be made markedly harder as well.

Neither of those things is inherently bad.  More is required of today’s students to be competitive in the world, and we’re teaching them more in preparation for that fact.   The downside is that the school system is judged annually on these scores (they have No Child Left Behind implications as well), and if the public doesn’t realize that the rules of the game changed mid-stream, then the system is subject to intense criticism.  That’s a morale-buster for the teachers, and makes it tougher to obtain the public funding for education that is required.

Every school system in Tennessee is subject to the change in the rules, so it shouldn’t have a huge impact in comparing one school (or one school system) to another.  Where the change in rules impacts the most is in making comparisons of how the same school did in 2007 to 2008 — a measure of improvement.  For the next few years, that measure will be badly flawed.

We will rise to the challenge and meet or exceed the new standards.  It just won’t happen immediately, and we all need to be prepared for that.

NCLB & Student Transfers

This morning’s Knoxville News-Sentinel reports that hundreds of families are exercising their option to transfer out of “high priority” schools, or those not meeting standards established by No Child Left Behind.

It’s not difficult to see that most of the transfers are out of East Knoxville schools, and into West Knoxville schools — Farragut High is particularly hard-hit, with 155 new transfer students.  Since Hardin Valley Academy opened, Farragut no longer suffers the extreme overcrowding that was a problem in years past, but they do have a shortage of staff to accommodate that many new students.  What will they do with the surplus of teachers in other schools?  Transfer them to Farragut, where more teachers are now needed?

If that’s the case, will anything really change?

I have a lot of unanswered questions about this whole process.  One of those is, if the students transferring out of failing schools are the ones whose parents are most interested in education, does that leave behind the students whose parents are least interested, thereby making the danger of the failing schools falling further behind, much greater?

Another question is, will the transfer numbers sufficiently change the demographics of the school such that it raises the sub-group numbers at the receiving school to the level where they “count,” will the receiving school fail next year?  For those not well-versed in the mechanics of NCLB, a sub-group (economically disadvantaged, african-american, hispanic, native american, asian/pacific islander, English as a second language (ELL), or special education students) only counts for NCLB purposes if there are 45 or more students in that sub-group.  So, if Acme High School only had 35 English language learners last year, but due to transfers, has 50 this year, then those students’ performance will count this year where it didn’t last year.

Those aren’t all of my questions, but it’s enough of a start to make one’s head hurt.

Lastly, Knox County is offering transportation to the transfer students.  Given the distance from, say Carter High School in Northeast Knox County to Farragut in deep West Knox County, it’s probably at least a 30-minute ride by car (without morning traffic).  That means it’s probably a 1.5 hour bus ride… and a whole lot of extra transportation cost for the school system.

NCLB brings some very positive changes to education, most notably, close tracking of data for all students, and making that data very public.  Unfortunately, it also brings more sticks than carrots, and I’m not at all certain that the “sticks” being used are truly going to effect meaningful improvement.   Change, yes — but not all change is good.

The truth is out there

Over the past week, there was a guest column and a couple of letters to the editor (all from the same page of talking points, not surprisingly) alleging that our school system has been in decline under the direction of our Superintendent.  I would link to it, but I’m not inclined to assist in the publicity efforts of a small group of women whose sole goal is to get rid of our school system’s CEO.

At the Board meeting last night, data was presented that shows, rather definitively, that in fact the opposite is true: by a variety of measures, we’ve made significant gains.  Impressive gains, even.

The graduation rate is up.  TCAP scores are up.  The average ACT score of ORHS students is up.  And yes, the number of students taking AP classes is up.

Our challenges are far from over, but it’s clear to me that we are on a path of achievement, and that we have the right leadership in place to accomplish set goals and objectives.

School Rankings

For the last month or so, the subject of school rankings has been a hot topic in Oak Ridge.

Last month, we learned that we didn’t make the Newsweek ranking, where we’ve enjoyed a spot for the last several years.  A bit later, we learned that we do actually qualify for the ranking, but didn’t get the paperwork in on time.  Somewhere between the two, there’s been a lot of talk (and ink) about whether the Newsweek ranking is a valid measure of quality, and whether it matters.

Like most things, the truth is in the middle.

Yes, the rankings do matter to a lot of us.  Businesses use them to recruit top staff, realtors use them to sell homes in Oak Ridge, and those of us with children at the high school take some measure of comfort in knowing that the high standard of academic performance remains so.   From this mom’s perspective, if a significant percentage of the kids at the high school are taking college-level courses, it surrounds our own kids with a kind of positive peer pressure to do well.  To study.  To put academics ahead of some of the other high school social distractions.

On the other hand, is the Newsweek ranking a realistic measure of quality?  Well, yes and no.  It measures the ratio of AP tests taken to the number of graduates in a given year.  It doesn’t measure the number of tests passed, nor the number of classes taken, so it’s subject to some skew: some kids take the AP courses, but don’t take the test.  The $83 fee to take the test may be something of a barrier, particularly if a student knows that that particular course won’t count toward their intended major.

If you want to measure the quality of the AP program, you’d count the scores acheived on these AP tests.  If you just want to measure how many students are exposed to the rigor of a college-level course, you only have to count the courses taken, not the tests taken.

Even so, counting anything to do with AP tests is only one measure.  It’s important to a lot of us, but it’s still only a snapshot of one component of a good high school education.

There are other rankings, certainly.  US News does one that Oak Ridge has never been on (that I know of), but that one predominantly measures how well minority subgroups perform.  To me, that is even less accurate as a reflection of overall quality than the Newsweek ranking based on AP tests taken.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve given considerable thought to the idea of rating high schools, and how one might devise a ranking sytem that really means something across the board.  To do so, I think you’d have to be able to measure one thing:  how well does this school prepare students for the next step in their lives — whatever that step may be?  At ORHS, most students go on to college.  Some enter the military.  Some enter vocational training, and others enter the workforce.

So, how would one accurately measure successful preparation for that variety of paths?