May 2010 Up Front

ON THE HILL
Blueprint for Change

By Michael A. Resnick

The Obama administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act sets forth a comprehensive strategy for how the federal government can support local school districts, raise student achievement overall, and close the achievement gap for academically struggling students.

Given the scope of the proposal, there is plenty of room for both praise and criticism. As a blueprint, the details still need to be developed before we can determine how well the specifics will function and how effectively the many parts fit together.

Hands down, this proposal is a vast improvement over current law -- the badly flawed No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). However, with reauthorizations now occurring every seven or more years, the standard should not be just to do better than NCLB, but to effectively address the needs of the current generation of schoolchildren.

To its credit, the blueprint contains a number of promising strategies, such as rewarding schools that are making progress, providing support to low-performing schools, providing professional development for teachers and principals, measuring and holding schools accountable more for growth than for cut scores, strengthening the connection between teacher evaluations/rewards and student performance, promoting healthy and safe school environments, promoting community support, and making strategic use of technology, among others.

However, a number of serious concerns need to be addressed or clarified as details are developed. For example, the lowest-performing schools would be required to use one of four specific models to turn themselves around -- all with the general requirement to replace the principal. Research  is insufficient to anoint the superiority of these models, and they assume a cure that may not fit the diagnosis in all cases. In effect, the focused support for these schools is laudable, but the methods overreach an appropriate federal role at the expense of on-the-ground, local decision-making.

Our concern with an overreaching federal role manifests itself in other ways. For example, 48 states are engaged in a project to voluntarily develop and implement common academic standards. Although not addressed in the blueprint, the administration previously announced that it wants to condition a state’s Title I dollars on adoption of the standards or on validation of the state standards by the state’s university system. This is to be required regardless of other ways that exist to achieve high standards.

Especially with the voluntary common standards project that is under way, it is both inappropriate and unnecessary to hold hostage a state’s Title I funding for students with high needs. We hope the Title I tie-in will be dropped.

In the proposed reauthorization, some details that will need to be filled in include how multiple assessments -- in addition to standardized tests -- can be used to measure student performance and a school’s success in language arts and math. Details that will support local capacity building and accountability adjustments during the transition to new standards and assessments will be important. Also, adequate local flexibility must be provided from federal requirements as well as in the expanded state role that the blueprint envisions in several areas.

While the plan is comprehensive, various parts that can make a difference in schools will be funded through different competitive grant programs. To bring a full range of strategies to a wide range of schools, the program details should ensure that a school district’s size, its grantwriting capacity, or overly prescriptive grant criteria won’t be barriers.

Likewise, given the tight financial times facing states and school  districts, consideration needs to be given to how best to integrate this broad array of strategies into schools being impacted by teacher and administrator layoffs, program cutbacks, delays in acquiring new course materials, larger classes, and shortened instructional time, among other things.

Despite these cautions, NSBA is encouraged by the administration’s proposal. We are optimistic that Secretary Arne Duncan and Congress will listen to local school board members and local educators to make sure that -- this time -- the federal level gets it right. With committee markups expected this spring, local school board members are encouraged to speak with their members of Congress regarding the blueprint and their own local priorities. With years of future federal policy implementation involved, there is much at stake for our nation’s schoolchildren.

For more information on the blueprint and the recommendations NSBA is advocating, see www.nsba.org/advocacy.   

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is associate executive director of advocacy and issues management for the National School Boards Association. His column, “On the Hill,” appears monthly in ASBJ.


Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

More schools hire playground coaches
A growing number of schools are hiring recess coaches to alleviate bullying and behavior problems on playgrounds and organize games to keep students more active. At Broadway Elementary in Newark, N.J., which hired a coach through a grant by the nonprofit Playworks, disciplinary referrals from recess have dropped by 75 percent and injuries are less frequent, according to the New York Times. Some students and parents have expressed concern that the school’s recess now entails structured games rather than free time, the Times says, but organizers also note that keeping students active will help stave off childhood obesity.

Massachusetts builds virtual development centers
Massachusetts educators are building virtual Readiness Centers to provide resources and help boost teaching skills. Six virtual “hubs” will host collaborations between K-12, higher education, other educational groups, and community partners. Supporters envision the centers, which will be funded by grants, providing content such as online discussions and chats, calendars of events, and eventually services such as professional development and research. Anna Bradfield, dean of Bridgewater State College’s School of Education and Allied Studies and acting director of one center, told the Boston Globe that the Readiness Centers can help better integrate early childhood, K-12, and postsecondary education.

Kentucky bill funds private school’s technology
As the Kentucky legislature moved to cut state aid to public K-12 schools, some education groups cried foul over a 2011 budget plan that also would give $100,000 to a private Christian school for technology projects. The money would come from an allotment of a coal severance tax that was designed to fund projects in counties where residents’ quality of life is adversely impacted by coal mining. Lawmakers from counties that are eligible to receive the funds have wide discretion over how the money is spent, but some questioned the constitutionality of funding a private school. The school that was slated to receive the funds has 85 students and planned to use the money to buy new technology equipment and instructional materials, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. A case before the Kentucky Supreme Court this year, which will determine the constitutionality of scholarships to a private Baptist college appropriated with coal severance tax funds, would impact the legality of the fiscal 2011 appropriation.

Soda sales in schools dramatically drop
Soft drink sales in schools have dropped sharply since 2004, according to an analysis by a trade association representing the major soda and drink manufacturers. Sales of beverages sent to schools were down 72 percent from fall 2004 to fall 2009, the study by the American Beverage Association (ABA) reported. It also showed sales of full-calorie soft drinks declined by 95 percent and juice drinks declined by 94 percent. Full-calorie soft drinks made up just 6.8 percent of beverages sent to schools last year, down from 40 percent in 2004. Susan Neely, the ABA’s president and chief executive, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the drastic reduction shows that a 2006 agreement between soda manufacturers and the William J. Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association to eliminate sugary and high-calorie drinks in schools and curb childhood obesity is working. She also cited state and local restrictions on sales of sweetened beverages in schools as a factor in the decline.

Texas district gives students e-mail accounts
A Texas school district is giving all of its high school students e-mail accounts through the district’s domain. The Mesquite school district’s plan is to allow students to use the e-mail to give a “more professional” appearance for correspondence related to college applications and other school-related business, according to the Dallas Morning News. “I have a personal e-mail account and a professional account,” Richard Armand, the district’s technology officer, told the newspaper. “This is a professional account for students.” The Mesquite district did not know how many students had Internet service and e-mail at home. Teachers are increasingly asking students to use e-mail for class work, such as contacting experts for research papers, the newspaper reported.

Wake County, N.C., reinstates neighborhood schools
The Wake County, N.C., school board voted to scrap a groundbreaking diversity plan that placed students from different socioeconomic levels together in schools. The school board voted in March to return to a plan allowing students instead to attend their neighborhood schools. The diversity plan was held up as a model after the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that dismantled race-based plans in Louisville and Seattle. Such plans based on socioeconomic levels met the Supreme Court’s requirements. Several new members on the Wake County school board had been elected because of their opposition to the diversity plan. During the heated and emotional hearings on the policy, some community members accused the board of racism and elitism, while some said they supported the move because residents would be more engaged in their local schools, according to news reports.

California district holds  referendum by mail
A budget-strapped California district is holding a ballot initiative -- to increase its property tax -- by mail to boost the initiative’s chance of passage. The Santa Monica–Malibu Unified School District mailed ballots in April, due on May 25, asking voters to approve a tax increase to avoid teacher layoffs and further cuts in art and music classes at the district’s schools. District officials were concerned that a special election scheduled for June already had a crowded ballot and would attract a smaller, more conservative-leaning pool of voters, according to the Los Angeles Times. Several other small districts in California have conducted ballots by mail, but a spokesman for the state’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified, told the Times that it would be cost-prohibitive for it to do.

Ohio private schools  benefit from vouchers
A report by the Columbus Dispatch showed that most students in Ohio who accepted taxpayer-funded vouchers tended to stay in private schools, and many of those schools are increasingly relying on voucher money to stay afloat. According to state data, one-third of private schools that take the state’s Ed Choice vouchers admitted at least 50 voucher students. In some schools, up to 70 percent of the students used voucher funds for tuition. About 11,600 students currently attend a total of 279 private schools, and about 875 students stopped using the vouchers they were awarded, the newspaper reported. The vouchers, worth up to $5,000, are given to students assigned to schools that were deemed as low-performing for two of the past three years.

Health problems exacerbate achievement gap, report says
Health problems play a big role in the achievement gap, particularly in urban minority students’ abilities to learn, according to a report by The Campaign for Educational Equity, and reducing health disparities “must be a fundamental part of school reform.” The report, Healthier Students Are Better Learners, identifies seven areas in which health issues interfere with learning: vision, asthma, teen pregnancy, aggression and violence, physical activity, lack of breakfast, and inattention and hyperactivity. Schools need to strategically plan interventions that can clearly impact student’s academics and also coordinate their efforts with other local government agencies, the report recommends.

San Antonio helps overage  students catch up
A new program in the San Antonio, Texas, school district works with overage middle school students to help them get back on track with their peers. The program allows qualified students to take middle school and high school subjects at the same time, using their school time to focus entirely on core classes in math, English, science, and social studies. If the students are motivated and do well, they can pass one or more grades in high school. David Udovich, the district’s executive director for secondary initiatives, told the San Antonio Express News that overage students are at a much greater risk of dropping out. “They’re disenfranchised from the education system,” he said. “They see themselves as disenfranchised because they get so far behind they think they’ll never catch up -- that‘s the real damage.”