January 2007

Thinking Differently About Graduation

The State Board of Education defines what is required for high school graduation, with input from the State Legislature. Generally speaking, this amounts to a year of kindergarten, plus twelve years, with requirements of a number of hours passed in specified courses.

What if we thought about it differently, and assessed mastery of subject matter rather than the completion of hours and years? What if grade (or coursework) progression were based on subject mastery, rather than age?

Might more students graduate? Might some learn much more, given the incentive of making progress rather than serving time?

Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Board Member Kay Brooks had a thought-provoking post in December that prompted this train of thought:

Attendance does not equal education. As I’ve said many times before–these pre-K children have time yet but there are thousands of near adults leaving the system frustrated and lacking basic skills every year and for too many that directly leads to criminal behavior that endangers us all. THAT’s where the focus needs to be. We can’t just consider them lost causes and turn our backs on them in favor of toddlers. The mantra ‘for the children’ usually conjures up images of those cuddly small ones but those high school drop outs are still children too.

I disagree with Kay on the Pre-K issue; I think Pre-K is the answer to closing the achievement gap that shows up most starkly in later grades. But the question of how to address the “near adults leaving the system frustrated” spurred what follows.

What if we allowed students to “test out” of certain courses, as is commonplace in colleges and universities, and allowed them to progress more quickly — whether to graduation, or to higher coursework? What if we allowed students the option of passing the GED test (perhaps along with the required Algebra, Biology, English, and History Gateway exams) and graduating early?

The hard, cold reality is that the traditional school environment is not enjoyable — and doesn’t work well for — all kids. Not all who fail to meet the NCLB graduation rate standard (graduating precisely four years from enrollment in high school) are in any way intellectually inferior. In fact, some are very advanced in their subject mastery, but simply resist going through the motions out of boredom, personality conflicts, or other non-curricular issues.

Another harsh reality is that half of the population, by definition, has a below-average IQ. This does not mean that these people are of no value to society; it means that not everyone is destined for the same outcome. From the WSJ’s follow-up piece:

A reality about the job market must eventually begin to affect the valuation of a college education: The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason–the list goes on and on–is difficult, and it is a seller’s market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman’s job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?

Although there might be some slight cost savings to high schools in not having to run every child through a requisite number of hours, the real gain would be in allowing those ready to move on, to move on sooner (whether beyond high school, or simply to more advanced coursework) and maintain their interests. It would also allow those who can’t go much further, to move on to a more productive phase.

In no way do I suggest moving any student out of high school early without their, and their parents’, express desire to do so. But, might we better serve many students by basing progression upon achievement rather than age and seat time?

Beware the Worm

ZDnet sent out an e-mail announcement last night about the Storm Worm — an insidious trojan that can cause the recipient’s computer to become part of a botnet (and slowing functionality to near nil, not to mention making it part of a mass spam spreader).

Since Thursday night, I’ve received notices that Bellsouth prohibited delivery of seven e-mails containing the trojan (under the versions W32/Downloader.AYDY and W32/Downloader.AYEN).  The subject lines varied, as follows:

  • The commander of a U.S. nuclear submarine lunch the rocket by mistake
  • Sadam Hussein alive!
  • U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has kicked German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Sending domains included HickoryFarms.com in the US, as well as a couple in the UK and Mexico.  Once infected, the machines spread it like crazy.

Be careful out there, and make sure your virus definitions are up to date!

Breaking News: Senate Committees

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey has named his committee chairs:

  • Finance, Ways & Means: Randy McNally
  • Environment: Tommy Kilby
  • Commerce: Steve Southerland
  • Education: Jim Tracy
  • State & Local Government: Bill Ketron
  • General Welfare: Rusty Crowe
  • Government Operations: Thelma Harper

There are a few more, but I didn’t get the rest. The most important is to know that Sen. McNally will, in fact, chair Finance, Ways, and Means. That’s significant for a number of reasons, not the least of them that any change in the way schools are funded would have to be approved in Finance.

Yeah, Randy!!

First Amendment Threat

David Hardy has the run-down on the latest threat to free speech: required registration of bloggers with 500 or more readers, who may comment on policy issues.

Say Uncle has the right idea on this one.

I sure as heck don’t have AT‘s readership, but I have exceeded the 500-reader limit (866 unique visitors, actually) over the past couple of weeks.  I’ve been known to take some heat over freedom of the press issues, but also to push the limits from the other side.  The difference, quite simply, is that when you own the media, you control what does (or does not) get published.

Bob Krumm wraps it up nicely, too:

I’m obviously not in favor of this mind-numbingly stupid and anti-constitutional idea.  Nor do I expect it to get any traction–especially once Sen. Reid discovers that his registration scheme would more adversely effect his side of the aisle.

Level of Effort

Today’s Oak Ridge CAFE article puts the City’s “share alike” plan into perspective, with a very easy to follow analogy… but it’s just part of the picture.

In the FY07 budget, municipal expenditures (police, fire, public works, community development, recreation & parks, library, general government and administrative services) increased by the same percentage (4.25%) as the allocation to the schools, but they didn’t increase equally: the City’s share went up by $664,419, while the school system saw an increase in City funding of only $492,068.

Oak Ridge Schools represents 42.55% of City government expense (excluding special funds like solid waste, golf course fund, etc.).

Maryville devotes 68% of the local budget to schools, and they, like us, are a full-service city with police, fire, libraries, parks, etc.

Alcoa spends 56% of its city budget on schools — and that’s before debt service, which would raise the percentage.

* * *

“Share and share alike” isn’t really the case within the City departments, either; several departments saw increases of greater than 4.25%; General Government, Police, Fire, Community Development, and Recreation and Parks all got bigger increases, with Community Development leading the pack at a 7.8% increase. Those larger increases were offset by decreasing percentages for Administrative Services and Public Works.

The schools’ budget, or any budget for that matter, would be really easy to develop if one simply applied a percentage increase to each item, and left it at that. To do so would be grossly irresponsible though; each year, we assess our needs, priorities, and external costs (things we don’t have any choice about paying for)and budget accordingly.

If the school systems was truly considered on equal footing with City departments in allocation of funding, shouldn’t the allocation be based upon justified need (as is the case with other departments), rather than a fixed percentage?

I hope this year will be different.

Cities and the BEP

I attended an interesting meeting last night in Maryville; it seems that the cities who support municipal school systems have (finally, in some cases) taken notice of the grave threat to school funding posed by a concerted effort to change the fiscal capacity formula, which drives the local funding requirement portion of the BEP.

Folks traveled a goodly distance — some from Athens, and a group from Kingsport — to hear the presentation and to meet other local officials similarly situated.  Without question, we carry more clout if we’re all speaking from the same page when we go to Nashville.

While there, I also heard a rumor — but just a rumor — that Sen. Rusty Crowe may be named Chair of the Senate Education Committee.  It was, in fact, Sen. Crowe who invited me to address the Senate Education Committee last year when the TACIR System-Level Prototype was presented to them, after I explained the preceding evening how many millions the school systems in his district would lose under that plan.

We should know by the end of this week who’s chairing what.  And yes, Daco, today is Wednesday.  All day long.

Your School Board

For three years, I’ve made an issue of getting more schools’ information online — information for parents, such as grade and attendance matters now available through K-12 Planet, as well as information for the community, such as our full budget.

K-12 Planet is now fully deployed in the middle schools, and is in a transition phase at the high school (some teachers participating, others not, but it’s my understanding that it will be mandatory next year).

The full Oak Ridge Schools budget is also online. I’m not sure exactly when it went up, but it’s there. It’s a large file, so be patient… but it’s the up-to-date version that was passed on May 30.

ATTENDANCE AND TRANSPORTATION

Tomorrow evening (Wed., January 17, 6-8 p.m.) the Board of Education will hold a work session with two items on the agenda: a new proposed attendance policy, and transportation issues.

The proposed attendance policy is in its third revision (the first version was discussed here on Oct. 31). The original draft was based upon the wishes of the Juvenile Court and District Attorney’s office to have the same policy in place in all three school systems in Anderson County, but I had some problems with it and voted against it on first reading. It passed, but subsequent revisions in the drafts have incorporated my concerns. There has not yet been a second reading, so it’s not finalized at this point.

I recognize and respect Judge Meldrum’s desire for fairness by having the same policy in place across all three school systems, but I also believe that there needs to be some provision for the application of common sense. In short, there must be some allowance for the principals’ judgment in excusing absences that do not fall within the narrowly-defined criteria.

At the same time, I have pointed out that the Judge is elected to represent the interests of all of Anderson County, while I am elected to represent Oak Ridge specifically — including a small portion of Roane County. The needs of the three school systems in Anderson County may often coincide, but not always.

Policy should be somewhat broad, and the accompanying administrative bulletin clarifies how the policy is to be implemented and carried out.

The work session will be held in the teacher center conference room, and is open to the public.

Finishing up the project

As noted previously, the gas company declined to inform me that a 110v outlet (within 30″ of the stove) was required. The stove was installed, but we’ve been operating with a huge yellow extension cord running out of the cabinet beneath the stove, around the corner to the nearest outlet.

Thanks to a long weekend, the project was scheduled for completion… but naturally, any indoor projects were put off until the expected rain began. Then with the start of the rain, we needed to make a trip to Jacksboro for a lawnmower part. Next, it was time to go to the health club for a workout (do these things spell procrastination to you?). After supper, and a gross sci-fi movie, there were no more excuses.

Plug

Watching him squeeze nearly 6 feet, 200 or so pounds, into a kitchen cabinet was just pitiful.  Especially since I can easily get into the cabinet comfortably enough to snap a picture over his shoulder… but I don’t know how to install the outlet.

I don’t mess with electrical wiring.  Yes, I can split firewood, make a prom dress, build a fire and even wield small power tools… but I don’t do large current.  Even with the breaker off.

It’s a bit frustrating that this couldn’t have been done while we had the whole top of the island off, when it would have been easy to get to.  But… never mind.

The stove is awesome; instant on, instant off.  Works even when there’s no power (yea! — bring on the snowstorm!).  Cooks like I’ve always dreamed it would.

And, the biggest bonus of all: junk mail, school papers, etc. are absolutely prohibited from the island on the grounds that it would start a big fire.

So far, so good.

Assigned Reading

Gene Caldwell’s guest column makes for excellent reading today for anyone — parents, taxpayers, politicians — interested in education.

I find it interesting that he, like his predecessor, David Coffey, cites the research of Dr. Bill Sanders — a nationally-recognized expert in evaluating the gains made by students, and the architect of Tennessee’s Value-Added Assessment (TVAAS) program.

Both Coffey and Caldwell served on the Education Committee in the Tennessee Legislature. Coffey is a Republican; Caldwell, a Democrat. However, their comments on improving education are remarkably similar.  Teacher quality has more impact than any other factor.

Etc.

70 degrees in January is never a good omen… but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts, in a summer-weight t-shirt and with the door open for some fresh air.

After church this morning, I stopped by the hospital to visit Bos, Eaves, and Newbaby; he’s just beautiful, with perfect little features that rival any Anne Geddes print. It is joyous to celebrate new life, but I admit to fighting off tears as I walked in, thinking that GAC should have been there before me.

Perhaps she was.

I saw AT and the boys as I left, having been turned away by the hospital’s “no kids except siblings” policy (which I shouldn’t argue, except that I believe that hospitals have much worse germs than children). I could feel how hard it was for them to go there.

And, on the lower level of the parking garage, MushroomCloud was holding court in a very loud voice. That was incentive enough for me to hop in the truck and waste no time getting gone.

* * *

At church this morning, a friend expressed dismay about the letter to the editor in Friday’s paper; I simply told her which remodeling contractor to be sure NOT to use.

* * *

Now, to take advantage of this sunny day and help eliminate the woodpile that most likely houses the snake’s nest. Of course, my better sense tells me that this would be a better activity for a 20-degree day (when snakes are dormant), but I don’t like to be out in the cold either, unless I’m skiing.

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