February 2011 Up Front

On the Hill
Make the case to Congress to help improve your schools

Michael A. Resnick
Jobs creation and decreasing the federal deficit will be foremost on the minds of members of the newly convened 112th Congress. However, education policy should hold a prominent place as a long-term necessity for enhancing economic growth. Politically, passing legislation aimed at raising student achievement also can demonstrate the bipartisanship the nation demanded in the midterm election.

The leading K-12 issues this year are the long-awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and funding debates for key programs such as Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For school board members, the challenge is to ensure that Congress gets the policy changes and funding right -- including making sure the aspirations of the reauthorization match the dollar levels needed for it to be successful.

It won’t be easy, because the current political climate says spending must be cut everywhere and too many lawmakers have the false perception that school districts can’t raise achievement even if they receive the necessary flexibility and funding.

In terms of funding, extending the tax cuts at the close of the 111th Congress leaves both new House and Senate members -- there are over 100 -- as well as those returning eager to cut spending to demonstrate to voters they are committed to deficit reduction. However, states and school districts already are in for big losses in federal dollars when ARRA funds run out in 2011.

Department of Education funding is only 2 percent of total federal outlays, yet its programs are especially vulnerable when compared to those in much larger but politically charged areas like social security and defense.

In making hard choices about cuts, Congress needs to be told and retold that education is not just a one-time consumption of funds: It is an investment in the future. If America wants to compete in global markets -- to be a seller to rising consumer countries like China rather than primarily a borrower or purchaser of others’ goods -- it needs an educated workforce that can outperform other nations, especially in the high-skill areas that yield a higher standard of living. That’s how America will succeed as an economy and have the future growth needed to pay off the deficit that lawmakers are worried about today.

That’s only part of the message. It’s one thing for lawmakers to place a higher priority on education, but it’s another for Congress to have strong confidence in our local schools when they design and commit funds to federal programs. On this score, schools recently have been lambasted by a large dose of high- profile negativism -- the movie “Waiting for Superman,” the televised summit “Education Nation,” the international comparisons from the Programme for International Student Assessment study, and several national reports. Public education’s detractors frequently seize on this negativism to conclude that the solutions must be top-down mandates or public school alternatives that, either way, removes community ownership from their schools.

We owe it to our nation’s children to shine a light on the weak spots and to address them without excuses. Likewise, local educators and school officials also must offset the biased and undermining perception that struggling schools can’t be turned around or that cherry-picked negative data typifies all of public education. Unless we put the strengths of our public schools in the spotlight, Congress is unlikely to select the best program designs or have the confidence to adequately fund them.

Across the nation, local educators and school boards are working arduously and strategically to increase achievement for all students. Even with financial cutbacks, they are committed to reaching high goals. But do your members of Congress and state legislators know your plans, your schools’ success stories, and how best to help you achieve your goals? Or are they listening only to the negative buzz aimed vaguely at all schools or generalizations based on anecdotes?

On Feb. 6-8, NSBA will take the first of several steps to break through the din in the new Congress when more than 800 school board members and state association leaders from across the nation come to Washington D.C. Here they will present Congress with realistic, solution-based approaches -- grounded on what’s happening in their districts -- for reauthorizing ESEA and funding key federal programs. This agenda-setting meeting is timed for right after President Obama’s State of the Union address and on the release of his education budget proposals and initiatives for the year.

But for school board members to succeed in making education the priority that our nation needs it to be, you will need to be more involved throughout the year. NSBA will reach out to thousands of school board members to join our effort.

The choice is simple: If local educators and school boards sit on the sidelines during this crucial year, their schools are bound to get more mandates and less funding. If they are actively involved, they are more likely to have ESEA designed to meet their needs -- including the flexibility and the funding our schools must have.

What is your choice?

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for advocacy and issues management. For more information about NSBA’s federal advocacy program, see www.nsba.org/advocacy.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

School boards consider safety measures after shooting
School boards across the nation reconsidered their policies on safety and security after a man brought a gun to a school board meeting in Panama City, Fla., and threatened to kill board members and the superintendent before committing suicide. News reports said that several districts were planning to hire or increase the number of police officers or security guards at their school board meetings. The Dallas school district announced plans to increase the visibility of police officers at its board meetings and also will require members of the public to go through metal detectors at all committee meetings and briefings in addition to regular board meetings, according to the Dallas Morning News. Rick Kaufman, a national consultant on crisis management and preparation who led the crisis response team at Columbine High School in Colorado after the 1999 killings there, advised school boards to participate in crisis management training, according to the Morning News. The Daviess County school district in Owensboro, Ky., for one, already requires its top officials and school board members to take de-escalation training. The school district also consults the local police department when it has concerns, according to the Owensboro News-Messenger.

Dropout factories declining
A recent report found the number of so-called “dropout factories” -- high schools from which a majority of students do not graduate -- is on the decline. The report, which was co-sponsored by Gen. Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance, also found that the U.S. graduation rate increased from 72 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2008. The study reported that the number of dropout factory high schools fell from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008. That relatively small number of high schools accounts for about half of the nation’s high school dropouts each year.

Law school helps suspended students
The University of the District of Columbia’s law school is taking up cases of local public school students who have been suspended for extended periods. Using a grant from a local law firm, law school students accompany suspended students to hearings, which can lead to a speedier resolution and more persuasive arguments, according to the Washington Post. The Washington, D.C., school system allows students to be suspended for up to 90 days, and many educators agree that students who are given extended suspensions are more likely to get into trouble with the law and ultimately drop out. The program could not cover every suspended student, but participants planned to document their findings and study whether it had an impact on the system at large. Former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee had created programs to dissuade long-term suspensions.

Colleges demanding schools change protected logos
Colleges and universities want to protect their logos and mascots -- so much so that some recently have been contacting high schools with notices of infringement on their trademarks, according to the New York Times. The Times noted that universities have confronted high schools with which they have no discernible connection. “Penn State, for instance, told Buna High School -- 1,400 miles away in Texas -- to change a Cougar logo that looked like its Nittany Lion. The University of Texas demanded that Gardner Edgerton High School in Kansas alter its Trailblazer logo, which was similar to the Longhorns’ design. The University of Pittsburgh instructed Whitmer High in Toledo, Ohio, to stop using its Panther mark,” the Times wrote. Part of the rise in cease-and-desist letters stems from the fact that high school sports are more widely publicized through the Internet. High schools that must change their logos often spend thousands of dollars to do so, from repainting athletic fields and courts to replacing signs and uniforms. The Licensing Resource Group and the National Federation of State High School Associations recently created a merchandising program to help high schools protect their images from being sold without royalties. But by joining, a school could risk being targeted by a university with a similar logo. Some schools with unique logos also have applied for trademarks, according to the Times.

LAUSD uses affordable housing to retain teachers
The Los Angeles Unified School District recently broke ground on a new project designed to provide affordable apartments for teachers and an early childhood center. While the district has built numerous other multi-use developments, it’s the first time it has combined an education facility with teacher housing, according to the Los Angeles Times. The district will build a facility with 50 apartments that will be rented at below-market rates for teachers. The site also will include an outdoor resource center for an early childhood center next door. “With health benefits and pensions for teachers both at risk of getting hammered, we thought that the offer of affordable housing could be another way of attracting new teachers,” former school board member David Tokofsky told the Times. A recent study found that the number of teachers in California reached a 10-year low this year because of widespread layoffs and attrition. The number of people training to become teachers at California universities also dropped significantly, according to the report by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.

Poker games may help math skills
As poker becomes increasingly popular in casinos, online, and in basements around the country, some schools are looking for ways to use the game to engage students in using math skills. Institutions such as Harvard University, home of the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society, have long used the game to teach probability and statistics. However, some parents and anti-gambling groups are wary of allowing underage students to play because of concerns that it could fuel gambling addictions. The Washington Post reported that a school-sponsored poker club quickly became one of the most popular extracurricular activities at George Mason High School in Falls Church, Va. The school principal told the Post that he insisted that no real money be used and that the educational relevance of the game must be made clear. During club meetings, students use fractions and ratios to determine their best moves when playing a hand, according to the Post.

Music requirement strains budgets
Music education advocates and many Texas educators were happy to see a new state law requiring a fine-arts component in middle schools, But many schools quickly learned they did not have the budget to purchase musical instruments for all students who signed up for the orchestra and band classes, according to the Houston Chronicle. Some teachers got creative and solicited donations of cash and instruments for the students whose parents could not afford to buy or rent them. Eric Jimenez, the band director at Hamilton Middle School in Houston, sent e-mails to friends and acquaintances in the community and at local churches, and received 16 instruments. He also applied for grants and programs that repair broken instruments, according to the Chronicle.

Parents fight 15-minute lunch period
Parents from several elementary schools in Iowa are protesting a class schedule that gives only 15 minutes for students to eat their lunch. They say that their children do not have enough time to finish their lunches and come home hungry, according to the Sioux City Journal. A survey by the School Nutrition Association reported that the median lunch period in elementary schools nationally was 25 minutes in 2009. “Kids often eat their favorite thing first, and if they don’t have enough time to eat all their meals, sometimes it’s the fruits and vegetables that get left behind,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, told the Journal. One superintendent also noted that he would like to add a few minutes to the elementary students’ lunch periods, but doing so would disrupt the bus schedules for the upper grades.

Q&A with author Daniel Pink

What motivates people? You might be surprised. In his new bestseller, Drive, Daniel Pink says it’s not money or fame that spurs people to do their best: it’s the joy they get from learning itself. At a time when public schools are under increasing pressure from all quarters, Pink’s book can serve as needed grounding in what really matters.

Pink, also the author of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need and the immensely popular A Whole New Mind, will be a keynote speaker at NSBA’s 71st Annual Conference in San Francisco this coming April. He spoke recently with ASBJ Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy about what his work says about public schools.

Your book focuses mainly on what motivates people in the business world, but your argument has some obvious implications for education. Can you describe some of those?

What the science tells us is that the mainstay motivator we use in organizations -- what I call “if-then” motivators -- work great for simple, routine, algorithmic tasks. But they’re usually ineffective -- and sometimes even do harm -- for complex, creative, conceptual tasks.

The problem is that fewer and fewer people in the workforce are doing simple, routine work -- and most are doing things that require a fair bit of creativity and conceptual thinking.

The implications for education are pretty clear. Do we want -- through the way we motivate students -- to prepare them for my past or for their future? And do we really want schools to “act like businesses” when most businesses are using motivation techniques based more on folklore than on science?

What do you think about the push to create common national standards?

It depends. I’m not against standardized tests per se. They do measure some things worth measuring. But if that’s our only measurement -- and it sure seems like it’s becoming that way -- then it’s a problem. And when we link high-stakes rewards to short-term performance, the science is pretty darn clear that we’re going to get all sorts of distortions -- from shallow understanding to cheating and other attempts to game the system.

These efforts are very well-intentioned. But as a non-educator, I fear that we’re searching for a single bullet -- a simple, magical solution -- when the problem is vast and the solutions are complex and inconvenient.

You say that monetary rewards often demotivate people, narrow their focus, and stifle creativity. What does this say about teacher pay-for- performance plans?

It says to me that lots of well-intentioned people, frustrated with a broken system, are trying to do something. But what they’re trying to do is deeply flawed. Indeed, the first comprehensive study of these pay-for-performance schemes -- a look at the Nashville public schools -- showed that tying teacher pay to test scores had no effect. Zero.

To my mind, though, there’s a simpler solution. We should raise teachers’ base salaries significantly -- and make it much easier to get rid of bad teachers.

In every good school district, there are a number of high-achieving students who seem to thrive in this competitive environment. Is there something wrong with this picture?

Perhaps. But every parent of these students would do well to read [Stanford University professor] Carol Dweck’s work. Among other things, they’ll understand the difference between performance goals and learning goals, which will get them looking at this phenomenon in a new light.

How about motivating students who are performing behind their peers?

In my view, this is the biggest issue we face. The best predictor of a child’s educational attainment is her parent’s socioeconomic status and education level. And the single best predictor of failure and low achievement is poverty. That’s the great, unspoken reality in American education.

When a kid comes into kindergarten after having spent five years in a home headed by a single parent who can’t make ends meet, where nutrition and health care are subpar, where there aren’t any books, in a neighborhood where they don’t feel physically safe, drills can’t turn that around. Few things can. What we need is a comprehensive -- and, yes, an expensive -- approach that tackles the totality of these circumstances.

Any thoughts on how school boards could increase their effectiveness?

This is really tough. The best approach involves three broad practices: First, spending as much time as possible with students, teachers, and administrators so they get a sense of the ground truth rather than the memo truth. Second, being as transparent as possible in all dealings. When people don’t know what’s happening, they invariably assume things are far worse than the reality. Third, don’t try to change everything. You can’t. Instead, pile up small wins. It’s the only way.