May 2006

Tennessee Chosen

Yesterday, the US Department of Education selected Tennessee and North Carolina to test a new way of meeting NCLB standards: by measuring growth (thus, being able to predict future proficiency) rather than an absolute benchmark. The News-Sentinel and Tennessean both carried stories about it today.

Measuring growth is also known as “value-added,” where students are tracked individually, at the classroom level, school level, and system level to determine not only what a student knows at that moment in time, but how much they have learned since the previous year.

Isn’t that the point?

The reality is that human beings are different: some are born with more potential, some are born to families with more resources or whose parents place a high emphasis on learning. Those children are known to perform better on achievement tests, thus creating the impression that the school is meeting expectations.

But think for a moment about a classroom of children without those advantages — kids who may have only one parent, parent(s) without much education, who started out as much as a couple of years behind their more advantaged peers. Yet, a really good teacher can help these students catch up, often resulting in more than a year’s worth of achievement in a given year.

If in 4th grade, these children started out two years behind their more fortunate counterparts, but by the end of the year were only a half-year behind them, one would have to assume not only adequate yearly progress, but good progress, even though they had still not achieved the same level as the more advantaged group.

Under the current NCLB law, progress doesn’t matter — just whether every kid achieves a certain score, regardless of circumstances. The pilot project in Tennessee and North Carolina will make actual progress count, and will eliminate one of the sticking points that has frustrated the education community since the law’s enactment.

Several other states had applied to be part of the demonstration, but lacked the data collection and tracking that Tennessee has been using since 1992. Value-added analysis and student tracking is one of things Tennessee does best, and using individual student data to analyze areas of weakness is a powerful tool for ensuring that every child learns.

This is cause for celebration, and incentive to do the best for every child on an individual basis.

Crunch Time

It’s clear now that Oak Ridgers realize what is at stake as we await the City’s second reading of the budget, as thoughtful comments can be found anywhere that citizens voice their opinions.

In his letter to the editor in tonight’s paper, Al Denny offers a couple of options (excerpts below, but go ahead and read his whole letter from the link):

a property tax increase of $24 per year on a $120,000 house is a reasonable request and that the City Council should honor the school board’s request…

Page 40 of the city budget has allotted $865,000 for the replacement of vehicles. I believe that $500,000 of the $865,000 should be transferred to the schools for their needs…

I believe that the needs of children outweigh the need for new vehicles. In two years, first-graders will be third-graders, third-graders will be fifth-graders, fifth-graders will be seventh-graders. Education cannot wait, but equipment replacement can.

Well said, Mr. Denny.

Meanwhile, over at AtomicTumor.com, AT has outdone himself, and I wouldn’t do him justice to paraphrase a bit of it, so go read the whole thing. At least twice. But he closes with a suggested letter to Council, for anyone who can’t think of what to say:

As a concerned citizen of Oak Ridge, I am troubled that the city council does not seem to be supporting its school system. It has come to my attention recently that a necessary, but unfortunate, budget increase requested by the school board has been denied, causing the school board to cut a half million dollars of needed services from their budget for 2007.
This troubles me, as I have always understood that Oak Ridge has a strong commitment to education. In fact, the election platforms of several members of city council (Jane Miller, for instance, mentions it as one of her top three issues in a 2005 Democracy for East Tenneessee questionaire) seem to indicate that the City Council shares my concern for the school system, and Oak Ridge’s future.
Please make the right decision. Now is not the time to try to lecture other officials on remaining within unrealistic budgets, because that only hurts the children and working parents of Oak Ridge.
Thank you sincerely for your time and attention, and for your continued efforts in our city.

It’s pretty easy to live inside the bubble that is Oak Ridge, but don’t think this problem has escaped notice outside the city. Dan Allcott, Director of Orchestras and University Music Director at Tennessee Tech, writes to the school board:

It has come to my attention that the 4th grade string instrument instruction program in the Oak Ridge City Schools is in jeopardy. As an educator, musician, and parent of a 3rd grader in a less fortunate school system, I must tell you that Oak Ridge is a beacon of excellence in the state of TN for String Education. At at time when all of our children are challenged by a media blitz of unsupervised an un-disciplined information, this program thrives. One of the reasons it thrives is because it starts at the age when students are still forming their social character and respond positively to the opportunity to do something special. The other reason is that the students are at a crucial juncture in forming their language and math comprehension abilitities. (Both of which are integrated with, and boosted by instrumental music-learning )

Please protect this valuable program.

A key point here is the releationship between early music instruction and math and language comprehension abilities. All four of my daughters play musical instruments — three violas and a saxophone. My oldest is a senior this year, and she has played viola in the Oak Ridge strings program since 4th grade, having had private lessons for only the last two years.

Academically, she excels in AP physics and calculus; she plans to major in Electrical Engineering at UT next year (but also plans to play in the UT Orchestra, as it gives her an outlet to relax). Thus far, she’s garnered two merit-based scholarships — one from the lottery, and another from the College of Engineering.

There is no question in my mind that her early music instruction played a key role in her ability to excel in these difficult subjects. In fact, it was just last night that she reminded me that, prior to 4th grade, she was in the lowest of five math groups and had difficulty reading.

I know that many others have had similar experiences, and it is uncommon to find an orchestra student who is not also an honors student.

And, in deference to those in our fair city who do not have children in school, Joel comments on AtomicTumor’s post as follows:

And if you don’t have kids, or they’ve graduated, you owe it to yourself to keep your property values up. Let’s say that $30/yr on a $150K home is the price of housing price stability. OTOH, without the $30/yr, the reputation of OR schools slips, let’s say that home prices drop an average of 5%. That’s $7500 on a $150K home. In this scenario, $30/yr is a bargain.

Even if prices only slip 1% in five years, it’s a wash.

And none of that counts the possible impact of local sales taxes and business development.

Thanks for the hope, guys. This city really is populated with a lot of neat people (including a few like Joel, who have left but remain Oak Ridgers regardless).

Happy Mother’s Day

My gift to you today is a recipe, passed along from my mother, who made this dish for me on every birthday going back some undisclosed number of years. The paper on which it is written has turned as brown as parchment from 1800, so it was about time that I archived it anyway.

Broccoli Casserole
1 onion
1/2 stick butter
1 can drained mushrooms
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 garlic cheese roll
3 10-oz packages of broccoli

Sautee onions in butter; add mushrooms, soup, and cheese. Stir until smooth. Cook broccoli, drain, and transfer to a casserole dish. Pour sauce over over broccoli and bake 20 minutes at 350.

* * *

I’m glad to have my mom nearby, and will enjoy spending some time with her today. Of course, since my kids are chinese-food fanatics (and neither Mom nor I really care what or where we eat), we’ll go to China Wok simply because it’s easier to carry on a conversation when the kids are full and happy.

Life is fragile and fleeting; if your mother is living, take time for her today. And if she’s gone, do something today that would make her happy… it’s bound to make the world a better place.

School Budget vs. City Plan

By now, everyone must have heard that on the first reading of the Oak Ridge municipal budget, Council voted to deny the schools’ budget request. On a unanimous vote (minus Tom Beehan, who was absent), the Council passed a motion to decrease the education appropriation by $490,944.

It’s no secret that to cut the schools budget by that amount will have a very negative impact. Some of the options include the loss of driver education classes, the 4th grade strings program, eliminating bus service within a 1.5 mile radius of each school, school nurses, band camp, chaperone expenses for students who compete in statewide and national events, 9th grade sports, and contracting bus maintenance rather than paying the City to do so at the City Service Center.

I must admit, learning that the City employees will receive a minimum 6% salary increase while only 3% is budgeted for teachers is troublesome. Learning that the City has been charging the school system not only for parts and labor for bus maintenance (as a regular garage would) but adding a 129% overhead charge plus a 10% “administrative fee” is nothing short of infuriating.

The City’s draft budget shows a 5.9% increase in revenue… yet they voted to hold the schools to a 4.25% increase. In contrast, “General Government” got a 6.2% increase, and the fire department got an 8.2% increase.

The City Council’s travel budget for seven people weighs in at $26,000, while the travel budget for five school board members totals only half that — with much of the school board’s travel being required continuing education by the state.

The 8-cent tax increase required to fund the schools’ request would amount to just $30/year on a $150,000 house, but I do understand Council’s desire to keep a competitive tax rate. I might feel better about the process if I saw them go through the entire City budget, line by line, as the school board has already done, cutting more than $600,000 before even making a request to Council.

They were not frivolous reductions. In some cases, it was just a reduction of the increase, but in other cases, line items were reduced to levels below the previous fiscal year.

If you care about the quality of education in our community and the programs offered, please contact any or all members of City Council. Sooner is better… May 22 will be too late.

Farewell to a Friend


On Monday, our community suffered a crushing loss when County Commissioner Larry Dickens (Dist. 6, west Oak Ridge and Tri-County) suffered a fatal heart attack at home.

I lost a dear friend. I was the treasurer for his County Commission campaigns since he first ran for that office in 1998, and often sought his advice on difficult matters.

We didn’t always agree, but hearing his side of any argument was worth the time, every time… he researched and understood complex matters, and always sought to do the right thing.

He left me a voice message at 12:17 on Monday about some campaign literature I’d been working on for him, and minutes later, he was gone. Macabre though it may seem, I recorded the message and saved it, because just hearing his voice reminds me of all the wonderful things he said over the years.

He sounded healthy and full of enthusiasm. I still cannot believe that he is gone.

His wife was his best friend and girlfriend; his two sons were at the absolute top of his priorities and he was so incredibly proud of those fine young men. He encouraged others to put their families before all else, setting the example for everyone around him. In public policy, he had no patience with anything but the highest levels of honesty and integrity; he put far more time and effort into the complex details of County busines than anyone would realize.

He had no tolerance for wrongdoing, but was instantly forgiving of accidental error. I learned so much from him, and am a better person for his friendship.

Farewell, friend, and enjoy your reward.

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