October 2008 Up Front

News Analysis
The public’s view of your schools

Four decades ago, Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup decided to poll Americans to see what they think about public schools. And usually the answers, released as the academic year is beginning (www.pdkintl.org), are the same: My local schools are good, the rest of the nation is not so great, and funding is the number one issue.

This year’s answers are not much different. Almost half of the public (46 percent) gives schools in their community an A or B, while only 22 percent of the nation’s public schools get the same grades. Funding remains number one, but the economy has taken its toll – only 17 percent say it’s now the most important factor facing school leaders.

What makes this year’s poll interesting are the answers about the upcoming presidential election and its potential impact on public education:

• Barack Obama and Democrats get the biggest vote of confidence when asked who would do the most to strengthen public schools.

• Local control remains popular, with 46 percent of those polled believing that school boards should have the greatest influence over what is taught. Thirty percent supported state policymakers, while 20 percent support the federal government.

• Education leaders, not the business community or politicians, are the people the next president should rely on most for advice for improving the schools.

• The No Child Left Behind law, if left in the hands of those polled, would either be changed significantly (40 percent) or expire (25 percent). Fewer than one in five of those surveyed (16 percent) support no changes to the bill.

Even though the prospect of national standards is being floated in certain circles, the public is divided in its preferences. Half say standards should be set at the national level, while 46 percent support their individual states. However, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) said they would support “common expectations” for performance.

Jim Hull, an analyst for NSBA’s Center for Public Education, says the poll’s most significant finding is that the public “would like schools to be judged on the academic growth their students make throughout the school year instead of the current system of judging schools on how well students performed on one test at one point in time.”

“Judging schools using a growth model would not only provide a more accurate measure of success but would also provide teachers and administrators a wealth of information about which students are making the most progress in which programs,” Hull writes in an analysis posted at www.centerforpubliceducation.org. “However, this important information is useful only if it is provided to teachers and administrators in a clear, easy-to-use fashion.”

For a more contrarian point of view, take a look at the public poll released by the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. The poll, available at www.hoover.org, is even more critical of public education than PDK-Gallup. At the same time, it offers few solutions or tips for making things better.

According to the poll, only 9 percent of those polled give their local schools an A. Two-thirds (66 percent) receive a B or a C. Nationally, only 2 percent received an A.

NCLB took a hit in the Hoover poll, but 50 percent of those surveyed say the legislation should be reauthorized with little or no changes. National standards also received more support, as 70 percent said the federal government should be the ones in charge of math, science, and reading tests.

Hull, in his analysis, cautions school leaders to view polls such as these carefully.

“When interpreting the results from this survey, it is important to keep in mind that the responses are subjective,” he writes. “For example, just because a respondent says they know a lot about NCLB does not necessarily mean they do. Furthermore, as with all survey data, small changes to the wording of questions could alter the results significantly.”

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

ACT results dip slightly, but number of test takers jumps

More students are taking the ACT exam than ever, but more than three out of four test takers are facing some form of remediation once they go on to college if they want a chance to succeed, according to results released in mid-August.

The average score on the college entrance exam dropped by 1/10th of a point for the Class of 2008, but the overall number of students taking the exam rose by 9 percent. ACT officials said that’s an indication more students are showing they are ready for college-level work.

“In terms of the number of students who are ready this year compared to last, we are talking about genuine progress,” Cyndie Schmeiser, president of the ACT Education Division, told The Associated Press. “More students are reaching at least a minimum level of readiness for college-credit courses. We’re keeping a lot of kids from having to take remedial-level courses. That translates to millions of dollars that are being saved at the state level.”

ACT officials said the reason students are not ready for college is because they are not completing a core curriculum of college-prep courses, and the classes do not have enough rigor. The recommended sequence is four years of English and three each of math, science, and social studies. Only 14 percent of those taking the test in 2008 met the math benchmark even though they took the minimum curriculum in math, which is considered to be algebra I and II, plus geometry.


Corporal punishment still popular in many schools

More than 200,000 students were paddled at least once during the 2006-07 school year, with minority and disabled schoolchildren receiving a much larger portion of the punishment, according to a study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Twenty-nine states ban corporal punishment in schools, but the practice is still used in many states across the South. Texas and Mississippi accounted for 40 percent of the 223,190 students who were paddled at least once, the study reported. Other states in the top 10, according to the study, were Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida, and Missouri.

Other findings:

• Parents can fill out forms telling the schools not to paddle their children, but the study says many of the forms are ignored or not checked.

• Teachers and principals have immunity from assault laws in states where corporal punishment is allowed.

• African-American and Native American students are more than twice as likely to be paddled. Black girls were spanked more than twice as often as white girls.

• Boys are three times as likely to be paddled as girls.

www.humanrightswatch.org and www.aclu.org

Trend Watch: To wit, or writ

Each year, School Law columnist Edwin Darden files a “News of the Weird” column that focuses on the wacky and strange things happening in the world surrounding our public schools. In August alone, there was enough news for Darden to fill up his usual two pages.

And that’s just from the state of Texas, which is dealing with teachers carrying guns to school, a legal battle over a mandated moment of silence, and an overzealous military recruiter.

To wit (or writ, as the case may be):

• The Harrold School District has only 110 students, so it’s not the sort of district that gets much press -- unless the board alters its policy to allow employees to carry concealed weapons to school. The district, located 150 miles northwest of Fort Worth, near the Oklahoma border, is a 30-minute drive from the sheriff’s office but only 500 feet from a state highway, leaving students and teachers vulnerable, Superintendent David Thweatt said.

“When the federal government started making schools gun-free zones, that’s when all of these shootings started,” Thweatt said. “Why would you put it out there that a group of people can’t defend themselves? That’s like saying ‘sic ’em’ to a dog.”

Harrold is believed to be the first school district in the country to make such a move. Thweatt would not say how many of the 50 staff members would be armed. Staff members must have a license to carry a concealed handgun before bringing it onto the campus.

• Meanwhile, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals announced that it will hear a legal appeal this fall from a North Texas couple upset over a state law that mandates a moment of silence for schoolchildren.  The law, approved by the state legislature in 2003, requires students to begin each school day with the pledges of allegiance to the Texas and U.S. flags. That is followed immediately by a minute of silence to “reflect, pray (or) meditate.”

An attorney for David and Shannon Croft, who have children in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District near Dallas, told the Houston Chronicle that the law is “a cover for reinstituting organized prayer in schools.” An earlier court ruling, however, says the law has a secular purpose and does not advance or inhibit religion.

Texas is not the only state to face a challenge to its moment of silence law. A federal judge has temporarily suspended a similar law from being observed in Illinois, but a final resolution is awaiting the outcome of a trial.

• An Army recruiter in Houston was suspended for threatening a high school student with jail time if he decided to go to college rather than join the military. The student signed a nonbinding contract that allowed him to change his mind before basic training, but that did not stop the recruiter from issuing the threat, which was recorded and aired on a local television station. U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, is calling for an investigation of recruitment abuses by the Department of Defense.

Texas, however, did not corner the market on August’s unusual Law-related news. In Tennessee, a teenager said his constitutional rights were violated when the Anderson County Schools suspended him more than 40 times for wearing a belt buckle that featured the Confederate flag. The teen, Tommy DeFoe, sued the school board and several county education officials, saying the belt buckle did not cause a significant disruption even though it is seen as a symbol of racism in the South.

“I am fighting for my heritage and my rights as a Southerner and an American,” DeFoe told The Associated Press. The youth, who says his great-great-uncle “died for the South” in the Civil War, received a certificate of completion from the county vocational school last fall.

A decision on the case had not been made at press time.

Finally, in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the parents of an eighth-grader are suing a popular middle school teacher who has been charged with branding the shape of a cross onto their son. The teacher, John Freshwater, is known for his strong religious beliefs. He has his personal Bible on his desk and teaches creation and intelligent design at a nearby church.

Freshwater, who was facing a hearing over his future with the district at press time, strongly denies that he branded the boy during a classroom science experiment last December. He said the youth volunteered to touch the electrostatic device and was burned. Even though his proposed policy to “critically analyze evolution” was rejected by the school board in 2003, Freshwater insists that he’s teaching evolution.

The boy’s parents also are suing the school district.

The challenges of consolidation

The process of consolidating two or more school districts is different every time, but the same challenges arise over and over. This is caused, in large part, by the simple fact that you are merging the operations of complex organizations.

What are some trials you may encounter? As part of our ongoing series on the consolidation of California’s Twin Rivers Unified School District, we have spoken with a number of veterans of the process and developed a checklist of things to watch for during the first two years of a merger.

Some camps will not be happy from the outset

Consolidation occurs for a reason, whether it’s the size of the merging districts, concerns about resources, financial incentives, or new state laws designed to save money. If everything is clicking along just fine, there’s no compelling reason to merge. “Something” has happened to upset your school community, and you must be prepared to address it, sooner rather than later.

One may feel like the loneliest number

Change is difficult, but as we noted in the January 2008 ASBJ, it happens. Part of accepting the change is a person’s tendency to compare past experiences. If a district had more resources, a stronger sense of community involvement, or another perceived advantage over the other district(s), they will want to go back to the way it was.

It comes down to this: Even if the old way is not better, it’s more comfortable. If you need proof, count how many times you hear a phrase that starts with, “When I was in (insert name of former district)…”

Frank Porter, the Twin Rivers superintendent, says success starts with carrying out the policies set by the board. “The big challenge is to take clear policies and get them into everyone’s heart and soul,” he says. “… You can write things down, but if the organization does not have integrity and exercise fidelity in the execution of those policies, and have them in the fabric of how people behave, then they will have limited value.”

All things are not created equal

Since resources often play a role in the decision to consolidate, chances are that you will have disparities across the new district. Salaries for teachers and principals likely will have to be equalized, which can cause some hard feelings. Facilities and technology may be lacking in one or more sections. Student assignment patterns, and the potentially ugly process of redistricting, may have to be revisited.

Act quickly and decisively, but thoughtfully

Because the timeline is so short, you will not have time for a thorough superintendent search, at least at the beginning. At the same time, the selection of the district’s CEO -- and his or her subsequent hiring of key central office and building-level administrators -- can be a make-or-break move.

“This is where we get our opportunity to put new practices in place, and we get one shot at it,” Porter says of Twin Rivers. “We get to take what were previously four separate, different practices and compare those with what we know about best practices, and then put our stamp on things. This is our shift point. Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief”

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Bully ban bill

New York state legislators are seriously considering a bill aimed at banning bullying in public schools, including incidents in which students are harassed for their sexual orientation. The bill has been introduced several times since 1999, but a sticking point has been language that protects transgender students and teachers. Eleven states already have approved similar legislation, and what makes New York leaders optimistic about this bill is that it was introduced by Senate Republicans. The law would require schools to provide training for teachers and keep track of bullying cases.

Helping low performers

School districts that are trying to help low-performing students catch up often have two choices: take away electives and add remedial courses, or give more homework during the summer. But some schools are bucking that trend. At Mills Middle School in Rancho Cordova, Calif., students now have eight periods instead of six, and the entire student body is receiving double periods of math and language arts as well as an elective course. Struggling students receive extra help, while those who are already proficient will work on extra projects. Meanwhile, in the Washington, D.C., area, schools are pulling back from the extra assignments that are given to students every summer. The work was designed to prevent the “summer slide” that results from so much time outside the classroom, but some educators say the lack of teacher support, extra grading in the early fall, and additional stress on kids is not worth it.

‘No Child Left Inside’

Congress is feeling pressure from outdoor and environmental groups to add more funding for nature learning. The “No Child Left Inside” legislation, which has been introduced in the House, would provide funding for nonprofits and state departments of education to support outdoor education.

Meanwhile, high schools are promoting bicycle riding and walking in an effort to save money and promote physical fitness and environmental awareness. More bike racks, new speed limit signs, and a parent carpooling system are among the changes being considered at New Jersey’s Hanover Park High School. At Wisconsin’s Howards Grove High School, a $100,000 federal grant is being used to create a walking and biking path to the campus. And three high schools in Marin County, Calif., are working to improve intersections, designating walk-or-bike-to-school days, and using bikes as transportation for field trips.

Retirement packages

How much is your superintendent’s retirement package worth? That’s a question being studied in New Jersey, where more than 30 school administrators could be entitled to more than $100,000 when they retire. The largest amount, according to a state survey released in August, is $740,876 for recently retired Keansburg Superintendent Barbara Trzeszkowski. Her retirement package led to legislation that curbs “excessive” payments for sick-day buybacks and other compensation, and the state now has the power to review administrator contracts. School leaders, however, say market forces are dictating administrator pay. They also note that New Jersey public schools’ administrative costs represent only about 10 percent of overall school spending, one of the lowest percentages in the nation.