September 2008 Up Front

NEWS ANALYSIS
Soaring costs, cutting budgets

Officially, no one is ready to say the economy is in a recession, but some school districts are so strapped for cash that they’re taking steps not seen since the downturn of the 1970s.

With fuel costs up by as much as 40 percent, school districts are cutting back or eliminating bus routes entirely to save money. And an increasing number of districts, not just those in rural areas, are considering four-day school weeks to make ends meet.

Kentucky’s Webster County Schools already has done both. The rural district moved to four-day weeks in 2005, a move that has saved more than $400,000, and is busing only students who live more than a mile from school this year. Parents must provide transportation for sports and extracurricular activities, a move mirrored in districts in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and other states.

Larry Moore, assistant superintendent for business services at California’s Moorpark School District, said the decision to eliminate busing for 2,400 high school students came despite concerns about safety and increased absenteeism.

“It’s a horribly difficult decision,” Moore told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a decision that no one wants to make.”

Robin Leeds of the National School Transportation Association is not surprised by the development, even though buses have been proven to be the safest method of student transportation. School bus-related accidents cause only 20 of the 800 student transportation deaths each year, according to the National Academies of Sciences.

“Every time you make more kids get off the bus and go some other way, you’re increasing the risks that those kids are not going to get to school alive,” Leeds told USA Today.

Desperate times, desperate measures
Since the first fuel crisis more than 30 years ago, the four-day school week has become increasingly popular for rural districts that are looking to cut costs. Almost 100 districts in 16 states now operate on four-day weeks, according to the National School Boards Association.

In Virginia, the Shenandoah County Public Schools is evaluating whether it should go to a four-day week to cut fuel costs. Similar moves are being considered in Arizona, Minnesota, and Nevada, among other states.

Arizona’s Casa Grande Unified School District, located just outside Phoenix, would add 80 minutes of instruction per day if it decides to cut back to four days a week.

“If you have academic achievement in a certain number of minutes of instruction per week and you still do that same number of minutes of instruction per week, I do not see how it could be a negative,” Casa Grande Superintendent Nancy Pifer told Arizona Today.

NSBA’s Center for Public Education, in an issue brief on its website (www.centerforpubliceducation.org), says four-day school weeks can provide a number of benefits, including increased student performance, improved staff collaboration and morale, and declines in discipline referrals. Districts are urged to consider the needs of individual districts.

James Kemp, superintendent of the Webster County district, said the move to a four-day week has helped improve attendance and student performance.

“If we were to go back to a five-day week,” Kemp told Reuters, “the school board and I would be run out of town.”

Moves make sense
Even though they don’t like what’s happening, Leeds and other transportation officials said they understand the pinch districts are feeling.

“All the less drastic measures have pretty much been exploited,” Leeds said. “All that sort of easy-picking fruit has been picked.”

There is no easy-picking fruit to be found in California, which was in a budget crisis even before fuel costs started soaring. The state already does not require districts to provide home-to-school transportation, and a 2007 state audit showed that less than 15 percent of California’s 6.3 million students use school bus services.

Tim Purvis, director of transportation for California’s Poway Unified School District, said fuel prices are the most erratic he has seen since he started in 1982. Poway, which has required parents to pay $399 for an annual bus pass, has further curtailed routes to save money after the district lost $400,000 on fuel costs last year. As many as 1,600 students will be without rides this year.

“It’s gotten to the point where we could not continue to do what we have historically done,” Purvis told the Los Angeles Times. “School loading/ unloading zones are going to be a mess.”

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief


R.I.P.: Edison Schools

Edison Schools, the grand experiment in for-profit school management, is gone. Sixteen years after founder Chris Whittle boldly announced plans to revolutionize the way schools operate, and seven years after Edison saw its fortunes rise and plunge in a staggeringly short period of time, the company has changed its name and is moving into the online learning market.

Terry Stecz, who replaced Whittle as CEO in 2007, announced in July that the company will be known as EdisonLearning. It has acquired the California-based Provost Software Systems Inc., a move that Stecz says will allow Edison to focus on “new platforms” to improve student performance.

Tom Toch, co-founder of the Education Sector think tank and a longtime follower of Edison, says the announcement is a “sobering commentary on school reform.” Toch, writing on the Education Sector blog, says Edison’s attempt to run schools for “mostly disadvantaged kids in poor neighborhoods proved a lot tougher, and less profitable, than the company had expected.”

“Changing the name on the door and moving into the educational software business doesn’t alter the fact that Edison spent 16 years and nearly half a billion dollars trying to find a way to run high-quality public schools for disadvantaged kids as a viable business -- surely one of the most important experiments in American educational history -- and failed,” Toch wrote.

Since 2001, I have written several times about the struggles of Edison and other companies to find a foothold in the for-profit education management arena. Given the company’s lack of economic and academic success in a number of districts, large and small, the most recent announcement comes as no surprise.

What was a surprise was the meek reception given to this latest announcement. Given the vitriol and anger associated with what Edison represented, and the hubris that Whittle and others showed in running it, you would think the company’s failure would be celebrated. Instead, Stecz captured Edison’s legacy in one sentence:

“We’ve learned in almost 20 years,” he said, “there is no one solution.”

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

(For a look at Edison’s struggles in Chester, Pa., visit the Archive section of ASBJ.com. Click on October 2006 and then on the link “Failing District, Failing Reform.”)


Notes on calendars and summer learning

As classes begin for the 2008-09 school year, we decided to scout around for headlines on what districts are doing to promote summer learning. We found a number of interesting pieces, but this month’s trend watch has to start with an evergreen topic: the school calendar.

Back-to-school dates
Every summer, it seems, school start dates make it back into the headlines. Mid-August dates are more popular among educators who want to finish first semester exams before the Christmas break, but parents in Illinois and other states are miffed about returning to school before Labor Day, saying they are being robbed of an opportunity to take family vacations.

“There is a whole bunch of stuff kids need to learn in life that is not related to school, from camp to getting to see family,” Sherry Sturner of the Florida chapter of Save Our Summers told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Organizations such as the American Camping Association have issued position papers against earlier start dates, and a number of states that rely on tourism dollars to feed the economy are following suit. Five states -- Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Virginia -- have taken the start-of-school decision away from local boards and passed laws requiring classes to start on or after Sept. 1.

For more information on the calendar crisis, go to the Archive section of ASBJ.com. Click on January 2005 and then on the story “Calendar Wars.”

The summer slide
School districts that have been forced to slash budgets and remedial classes are worried about the “summer slide,” saying low-income and disadvantaged children could face huge setbacks that stop or slow academic progress.

The cuts have affected districts from Florida to California and from Idaho to Connecticut.

Districts in California eliminated most summer school and other programs, while Florida’s Brevard County Schools cut all of its free summer enrichment. In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, summer school was dropped for elementary and middle school students, while Bethel, Conn.’s school district cut its kindergarten summer program.

Ron Fairchild, executive director of Johns Hopkins Center for Summer Learning, told The Associated Press that summer programs are not just for instruction, but are also a primary source of free or low-cost meals for disadvantaged children.

 “Summer is a time when affluent kids advance and low-income kids suffer huge setbacks,” Fairchild said. “If kids aren’t engaged in ongoing learning activities, they lose ground academically.”

The summer surge
Speaking of affluent kids, students in the Dallas suburbs are taking additional summer classes to help them advance academically. The students are taking the community college and prep school classes so they will be able to ace the class during the regular school year.

“They want to be prepared and maybe some of the preparation is building their confidence,” Nancy Gale, director of summer sessions at the Hockaday prep school, told the Dallas Morning News. “My feeling or thought is that if a student is weaker in one area, over the summer if you don’t do anything, you’re just going to get weaker in it.”

Becci Rollins, coordinator of counseling for the Carroll Independent School District, said only a select few students take the extreme step of taking a college class before they do so in high school. Most, Rollins said, want to earn credit for the courses they take.

“I really don’t know that very many of our students do it to be better prepared for a course later in the year,” she said.


Six states to adjust accountability systems

Six states have received approval from the U.S. Department of Education to adjust their accountability systems to help failing schools.

The states -- Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio -- will be allowed to tailor solutions more closely to individual schools with problems. Resources will be focused on schools that are in the worst shape.

The move is a departure from the Bush administration’s stance on the No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization but likely will not be addressed by Congress until 2009. Seventeen states applied for the pilot program, and four more could be approved this year.

According to the plans, schools in the affected states could be required to: offer tutoring earlier than is currently called for; rely more on testing throughout the year to identify academic weak spots; and put more emphasis on preparing school principals.

“I’m hopeful that they will build on this progress by creating effective new strategies that we can share and take to scale,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said during a speech at the Education Commission of the States’ annual conference in Austin. “We need more states to be pioneers in advancing positive change.”


New Orleans voucher program draws families

More than 1,000 families have applied for Louisiana’s first school voucher program, hoping to enroll children in private and parochial schools in and around the New Orleans area.

The $10 million program, approved as the state tries to help the troubled New Orleans system rebound, provides $6,300 vouchers to nonpublic schools that accept students in kindergarten through third grade. Applicants must live in New Orleans and have incomes that do not exceed 250 percent of current federal poverty guidelines -- $53,000 for a family of four.

“I’m optimistic that the choices I make will be better,” Erica DeJan, whose daughter is entering kindergarten, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I’m not saying they will. I’m hoping.”

To be eligible, children entering first through third grade must have attended a “failing” public school in New Orleans. Thirty-five schools have met the state’s criteria.

Students who receive the vouchers will be required to take the state’s standardized tests. Private schools do not have to enroll students with special needs, but will receive extra money if they do so.

Local opposition to the program has been light, but the NAACP chapter and the United Teachers of New Orleans protested the program.

“What we are looking at is further deinvestment in the public system,” teachers union spokesman Christian Roselund told the Times-Picayune. “We have had problems with deinvestment in the public system for decades. This does not look good for public education.”


Girls catch up to boys in math

Girls are taking just as many advanced math courses as boys, a sharp reversal from 20 years ago. And the increased enrollment has led to better results, according to a new study.

According to the National Science Foundation, girls perform as well as boys on standardized math tests. The study, released in late July, is based on scores from 7 million students in 10 states.

“Now that enrollment in advanced math courses is equalized, we don’t see gender differences in test performance,” study co-author Marcia C. Linn told the New York Times. “But people are surprised by these findings, which suggests to me that the stereotypes are still there.”

Janet Hyde, a University of Wisconsin- Madison professor and study co-author, agreed.

“The stereotype that boys do better at math is still held widely by teachers and parents,” Hyde said. “And teachers and parents guide girls, giving them advice about what courses to take, what careers to pursue. I still hear anecdotes about guidance counselors steering girls away from engineering, telling them they won’t be able to do the math.”

The study showed that girls are still underrepresented in high school physics classes and in the highest levels of physics, chemistry, and engineering. All of these courses require advanced math skills.


Five Freedoms for All

The Five Freedoms Project, an organization that promotes First Amendment rights and democratic schools, has launched a new website, www.fivefree doms.org, and online network, http://network.fivefreedoms.org, to support the work of educators.

The sites support the organization’s four primary areas of concentration, which are:

Individual rights: Legal quizzes, lesson plans, resources, and discussion topics are available to help develop a fuller understanding of the First Amendment’s five freedoms -- and their role in a democratic society.

Leadership: A five-part leadership framework identifies essential skills that must be cultivated to create more equitable, democratic learning communities.

Voice: A five-stage map shows participants how to discover the power of their voices, as well as how to utilize it effectively and with integrity.

Impact: A set of five categories school leaders and communities must monitor to further safe and civil schools that work to promote students’ social, emotional, ethical, civic, and intellectual learning.


Study: Teens are not on the move

The couch potato “tween” and teen, spending time online and texting on cellphones, is not a myth.

A new study by the Journal of the American Medical Association says physical activity falls from an average of three hours a day to less than one hour between the ages of 9 and 15. On weekends, the average 15-year-old engages in only 35 minutes of activity per day.

According to the study, activity drops at around age 13 for girls and 141/2 for boys. National guidelines recommend that teens and adults get at least one hour of moderate daily activity.

“What shocked me was the dramatic decline. It drops off really fast,” said Dr. Philip Nader, a pediatric cardiology researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who conducted the study.

Researchers say schools and community organizations should offer a broader variety of organized sports, including table tennis and ultimate frisbee, to help students remain active.

The latest study about the childhood obesity epidemic comes on the heels of research by the American Academy of Pediatrics on rising cholesterol rates among at-risk children. The academy recommended that doctors use cholesterol drugs more aggressively with at-risk children to protect them from heart disease later in life.


Are schools facing a baby ‘boomlet’?

Enrollment in U.S. schools is growing in record numbers, and it’s not likely to stop soon. Based on data released by the National Center for Health Statistics, we could be on the verge of a “boomlet.”

More than 4.3 million babies were born in the U.S. in 2007, the highest number in 50 years. And the figures are growing 2 to 3 percent each year.

Arthur Nelson, a demographer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, told USA Today that schools must be prepared for the enrollment bump caused by more immigrants having children, larger numbers of women in their 20s and 30s in the population, and more professionals who have delayed starting families until their 40s.

“We have three different phenomena around birth happening at the same time,” Nelson said, noting that the average number of births per woman was 2.1 in 2006, the highest figure since 1971.

Ronald Rindfuss, a family demographer who works for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he does not expect that school districts will face “the kind of shock” they did during the early 1950s. Districts were forced to build a record number of schools during that period and had to run double sessions in many parts of the country to accommodate the post-World War II baby boom.

“From the perspective of schools that have to educate these children, this is a real increase in the number of births and something they’re going to have to deal with,” Rindfuss said. But, he added, “This is a gradual increase.”


Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Algebra tests for all?
California’s state Board of Education has approved a policy that requires every eighth-grader to be tested in algebra, whether they are ready for the exam or not. The move came after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sided with advocates who want eighth-grade algebra to be mandatory within three years. California would be the first state in the nation to require an upper-level math class before high school, but questions persist about students’ ability to pass the test. Statewide, only 24 percent of students were proficient in the subject in 2007, regardless of the age or grade, and critics of the policy say the three-year time frame will set up students to fail.

Dropout controversy
Should schools in Texas with high dropout rates receive another year to adjust to the state’s tougher standards before being labeled “academically unacceptable”? Education Commissioner Robert Scott says yes, and he granted waivers to states for the second year in a row in early July. Scott’s rationale is that districts need two years to adjust to changes in the state’s accountability system, which is one of the toughest in the nation. Texas’ new dropout definition, which includes students who choose GEDs over diplomas and those who fail state-mandated exams, has come under fire in some circles for being overly stringent. Proponents say the policy is an honest accounting of graduation rates.

Homeless students rising
In Ohio and other states, the percentage of homeless students is rising by double digits each year, with numbers spread evenly between urban and rural districts. In Ohio’s Toledo Public Schools, for example, the homeless population nearly tripled in a two-year period, and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District saw its numbers rise by 60 percent in one year. First Focus, a nonprofit child and family advocacy group, says up to 2 million children nationwide will be affected by the housing crisis as homes slip into foreclosure. Researchers say the experience could have long-lasting effects on students’ academic progress. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that, nationally, 48 percent of homeless students in grades three through 12 were proficient in reading and 43 percent were considered proficient in math. More than one in three homeless students are retained, and behavioral problems are common.

Jail parents of chronic truants?
Should parents of truant students face criminal charges when their kids routinely skip school? That’s what happened to 13 Los Angeles parents in mid-July. Each parent was charged with a misdemeanor of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and violating the California education code that requires children to go to school full-time. In one case, the mother of a 12-year-old girl was charged after her daughter missed 63 full days and 66 partial days of school. The reason for the charges, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo says, is because truants often wind up in street gangs. Parents, Delgadillo believes, have a moral and a legal obligation to keep their kids in school.

Special ed restraints
Has the mainstreaming of students with psychological problems gone too far? Rising numbers of special education students – 600,000 more than a decade ago – have led public schools to use a variety of techniques to calm those with developmental and psychiatric problems. But the techniques, which include takedowns, isolation rooms, and restraints, also have led to injuries, at least two deaths, and increasing litigation. Three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee) have tightened regulations on restraints and seclusion, and at least three others (California, Iowa, and New York) are considering similar measures. But oversight is limited, and medical experts told the New York Times that children face the risk of being forcibly brought into line until schools adopt formal standards on what techniques are allowed, and when.

Tenure and bad teachers
This case seems extremely egregious: A Long Island school teacher is on paid leave even though she pleaded guilty to drunk driving in June after her fifth driving under the influence arrest in seven years. The reason: She has tenure. According to an Associated Press story, tenure laws can cost the New York City school district $250,000 to fire an incompetent teacher, even those convicted of serious felonies. While tenure laws vary in each state, making comparisons about time and expense difficult, a growing number of legislators are working to shorten the due process phase. And an organization known as the Center for Union Facts has launched a $1 million ad campaign targeting what it calls the 10 worst teachers in the country and offering them $10,000 to quit the profession.