October 2011 School Board News

On The Hill

NCLB relief coming, but will it be adequate?
By Michael A. Resnick

In June, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that he would provide regulatory relief from the counter-productive burdens in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in time for the opening of school. Local officials cheered with the expectation that both students and employees would reap the benefit.

To obtain relief, Duncan said states would have to apply and commit to implementing aspects of the Department of Education’s reform agenda. Unfortunately, the state application process was not rolled out before the school year started, meaning waivers likely won’t be granted and operational at the local level until well into October or later. As a result, the current contracts and programs designed to meet the requirements of NCLB’s dysfunctional elements that cannot easily be undone, if at all, will cost districts unnecessary time and money that could be better applied to student learning.

Details of the relief-for-reform program were not available at press time. However, if the exchange includes relief from the current adequate yearly progress accountability and waives current requirements for sanctions, many of the concerns that local school officials have would be substantially addressed. One area not likely to change would be sanctions for each state’s lowest-performing schools, which is consistent with the administration’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Despite the timing difficulties, the relief should allow for better results in the 2012-13 school year if Congress does not move quickly enough to reauthorize ESEA before lawmakers are too distracted by election year politics to finish the job. On that score, NSBA continues to urge Congress to complete the reauthorization as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education can improve upon the limitations of its one-dimensional relief-for-reform approach by developing additional components to its program. Some burdens should be waived because they are simply bad policy, not as an exchange for totally new policies. States should not be required to make long-term commitments that Congress could eliminate when ESEA is reauthorized. Finally, not all states will want to apply for the relief that school districts need or be able to meet the department’s conditions for receiving it.

In recognition of these important issues, NSBA is advocating for a local regulatory relief package that can sit next to the state application process. We reached out to National Affiliate school districts in surveys over a several-week period and, despite summer vacations, received some 300 compelling responses from 40 states on how regulatory relief could best meet their needs. Seventeen specific areas of needed local relief were identified, incorporated into a letter sent to Secretary Duncan (see www.nsba.org/advocacy), and are being used in NSBA’s ongoing discussions with department officials.

For example, in the face of severe budget cuts, the mandatory 20 percent set-aside for choice/supplemental services for schools that need improvement all too frequently is being spent for inadequate outside tutorial services or can’t be spent at all. In either case, the money is not going into the classroom where it can do more good. NSBA believes this provision should be waived. If it’s not, schools should have the discretion to report how they will alternatively use the funds to better meet the needs of affected students.

With tight budgets and cuts in local administrative staff, schools and districts should be freed up from the cost and time consumed by the community outreach, publication, record keeping, or reporting requirements that likely won’t lead to increased student achievement.

At the state level, NSBA believes Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) should be allowed to be frozen at last year’s level without being required to have a broader reform plan that meets federal approval. In isolation, this waiver might not relieve current unnecessary burdens or end improper labeling of school failure, but it would help prevent the expansion of such misidentification.

For example, the rise in AMOs in one state resulted in 62 percent of schools (and all but four districts) failing to meet the performance bar -- a jump from 39 percent compared to the previous year. Clearly, the failure has more to do with a flawed measurement system, not the schools’ performance, but some of those schools must deal with the consequences. At this writing, we are pleased that the Department of Education has agreed to freeze AMOs in some states and hope that flexibility will be extended to others.

These commonsense recommendations are what NSBA is seeking in its package of 17 measures. We believe the relief program should help bridge over NCLB’s flaws until the ESEA reauthorization is completed. The program should not be a single-purpose opportunity for the Department of Education to drive its agenda. If the problem areas we’ve identified are addressed, the relief effort can still meet some expectations that were created for this school year and avoid worsening the problems in 2012-13 if reauthorization has not occurred.

Several commentators have compared NCLB’s impact on public education to Standard & Poor’s flawed rating system and noted how it mischaracterized our nation’s financial status and weakened market confidence. The administration can’t change S&P’s rating of the economy, but it has the power to reverse NCLB’s flaws. NSBA remains optimistic that it will provide the relief needed to do so. 

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for federal advocacy and public policy. His column appears monthly in ASBJ.

From the states

New Jersey
The New Jersey School Boards  Association recently featured a student-initiated anti-bullying strategy on its Internet talk radio show, “Conversations on New Jersey Education.” The Aug. 11 edition interviewed Ashley Craig, a high school student who experienced bullying firsthand but used the experience to create a new group, Students Against Being Bullied, and raise awareness for the problems students face. Her high school’s principal explains how the school incorporated many of those ideas into its anti-bullying program. Listen to an archive of the broadcast at www.blogtalkradio.com/njsba.

The Louisiana School Boards Association recently published an analysis that examines the wealthy individuals behind efforts to privatize public education. The article examines the push by billionaires such as the DeVos family (of the Amway companies), the Walton family (Wal-Mart), and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch to impose vouchers and other school choice initiatives in the name of free market reform. The article, “Following the Dollars: Who benefits financially from the pro-market charter school movement?” can be found in LSBA’s press room at www.lsba.com/pressroom/pressroom.asp.

Q & A with Cathy Vatterott, the Homework Lady
Years ago, as a parent of a fifth-grader with a learning disability, Cathy Vatterott, author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, grew frustrated with the busywork that her child was bringing home from school as homework. So she started digging, reading the latest research available about homework and talking to educators about their homework practices.

Her conclusions? Too many students are assigned too much homework. Often, homework is used to teach lessons that should be taught in the classroom. And teachers aren’t using homework to do what it does best: to reinforce skills already taught in the classroom, or to allow teachers to check for student understanding.

Instead, it turns out, homework remains “a largely unexamined practice” in many schools. Not a lot of thought goes into what a homework assignment is meant to accomplish -- or whether the homework actually improves student learning.

What’s more, too much and poorly designed homework can make life miserable for students and their parents. Students are stressed by the amount of work demanded of them, and parents can find themselves serving as surrogate teachers.

Vatterott, a former teacher and principal who calls herself the Homework Lady, currently serves as an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Recently, she answered several questions put to her by ASBJ Senior Editor Del Stover.

The debate over homework has raged for decades. Some critics say there’s too much homework assigned. Some say there’s too little. What are the big concerns in your mind?

My biggest concern is the prevalence of the myth that large amounts of homework are equated with rigor, regardless of the value of the task. Many educators believe that heavy homework loads are necessary in a high-achieving school, but the research does not support that idea.

How much of the problem is fueled by pressure to raise test scores?

In my opinion, pressure to raise test scores has had a significant impact on homework. Teachers, overburdened with too much content to teach, often view homework as a quick fix -- extra time for coverage of new material. But when homework is used for new learning, it can be frustrating for both parents and students, and the quality of the learning is often poor. Instead, teachers need help in finding more efficient methods of organizing and prioritizing content.

Do teachers need help in designing homework assignments?

Teachers definitely need help in designing quality homework assignments. Most teachers have never been trained about what quality tasks look like, what type of tasks best reinforce learning, and what tasks are most efficient in terms of time. We must help teachers reconceptualize the role of homework as practice or checking for understanding -- and that homework should inform teacher decisions about how learning should proceed.

How can school policymakers and the central office ensure that homework is assigned properly?

Most homework policies need to be more specific. Increasingly, schools are involving teachers and parents in formalizing homework policies that are specific to purpose, tasks, grading, time limits, and weekend and holiday homework. Monitoring individual teacher compliance, as with any policy, is difficult and time consuming. Open communication between administrators and parents is also helpful.

How important is it for school leaders to look at this issue? And who should they recruit to seek answers?

Homework and grading are the two most important reforms that will impact student success. The process should be a collaborative effort that involves teachers, administrators, and parents. Good resources are available at my website: www.homeworklady.com.  

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

PDK poll results mixed for public schools
The latest edition of the influential Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup opinion poll found more support for public school teachers and sympathy toward schools’ financial woes. Despite negative publicity and state initiatives limiting the power of teachers unions, more than 70 percent of respondents said they have “trust and confidence” in public school teachers. Sixty-nine percent gave public school teachers in their community a letter grade of an A or B, compared to 50 percent in 1984. Also, 36 percent think lack of financial support is the biggest problem facing schools. Most respondents felt decisions on teacher salaries and layoffs should be based on multiple factors, including advanced degrees, experience, and administrator evaluations, while students’ scores on standardized tests were rated as least important. Full poll results are available at www.pdkintl.org/kappan/poll.htm.

Voucher advocates shifting strategies
Voucher proponents are shifting from claiming the academic achievement of voucher participants to focusing on the value of school choice as a virtue in itself, according to a new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy (CEP). Jack Jennings, the report’s author and CEP founder, says students using vouchers to attend private schools do not generally show higher test scores than public school students, however. “Much of the research over the last 10 years has been conducted by pro-voucher organizations, and yet these organizations have not conclusively shown higher academic achievement resulting from vouchers,” Jennings wrote in a Huffington Post blog. “Seeing their main rationale unfulfilled, the proponents of vouchers in the last several years have shifted to new reasons for vouchers, such as the inherent value of parents choosing their children’s schools.”

Burnout higher in Calif. charters: study
A study of 163 Los Angeles charter schools reported unusually high rates of teacher turnover -- about 40 percent, compared to 15 percent at traditional public schools -- according to a recent report by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Demands on charter school teachers may include extended hours and additional duties, leading the researchers to conclude that burnout is the best explanation for the teacher exodus. Bruce Fuller, a director of Policy Analysis for California Education and professor at UC-Berkeley who oversaw the study, says he was “surprised by the magnitude of this effect.” Meanwhile, Aspire, the largest nonprofit charter school chain in California, has partnered with the University of the Pacific to offer new hires the opportunity to earn a master’s degree and teaching credentials in one year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The teachers will take four weeks of courses during the summer and online classes in the fall while co-teaching at an Aspire school. The program reimburses teachers for the tuition costs, about $10,000, if they teach at Aspire schools for three years.

Ohio schools lose ballot initiatives
Ohio school funding proposals did not fare well when voters went to the polls in August. Only six of 23 tax levies were approved, the lowest passage rate since 2007, and 85 percent of levies requesting new taxes were denied. The information was compiled by the Ohio School Boards Association and reported by the Columbus Dispatch. According to the newspaper, school taxes typically do not fare well in August elections -- Ohio’s average passage rate from the past 10 August elections was only 32 percent -- but a bad economy was the main factor in this particularly brutal election.

Penn. district to consider merger
Voters in a suburban Pittsburgh area may get to decide whether to merge six school districts into a centralized county district. A state lawmaker in Fayette County, Pa., recently filed paperwork to allow residents to vote on a plan that would centralize the administration, with one countywide school board and one superintendent, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. However, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) says the plan might not result in the expected cost savings. A centralized administration for six schools could actually result in the need for more personnel, such as new assistant superintendents; a consolidated curriculum; and changes to each district’s labor contracts, says David Davare, PSBA’s director of research. One provision in the school code requires stand-alone school boards for each independent school district.

Teacher, 80, claims unfair firing
An 80-year-old former kindergarten teacher is suing the New York City public schools after being fired for what she says was age discrimination. According to The Associated Press, Lillie Leon’s lawsuit said school administrators assigned her to a classroom without a bathroom, so she was forced to shepherd students to a distant one. According to AP, she said she was fired when she complained that the assignment harmed her bad knee. In addition, she said administrators removed a classroom aide and assigned her to a room on the school’s third floor, where she would not have been able to walk down stairs in case of a fire.

USDA rules on cafeteria costs
The US Department of Agriculture recently issued new rules on how school districts can charge their cafeterias for services under the child nutrition law passed late last year. Districts routinely charge their cafeterias for services such as utilities, trash collection, and janitors, and the new rules are intended to eliminate variation in charges and control costs, according to Education Week.

Although district food service directors had asked for the regulation, there is no data on indirect food-service costs, said Lucy Gettman, NSBA’s director of federal programs. Further, the new law will be expensive to implement because of these types of regulations. “It takes a few resources here, a few there,” she said. “Put them all together and it’s a real challenge to school districts.”


How’s your climate?
Fifty years ago, if you asked a principal about his school’s climate, he may have started talking about the boiler. That probably wouldn’t happen today. With a rapidly diversifying student population, increased attention to bullying, and mounting evidence showing the link between a safe and inviting school atmosphere and student achievement, most of today’s educators would agree that school climate deserves their attention. But with all the other pressures on school administrators -- and school boards -- how many are actually doing something about it? Is your school district?

Please choose a response from those listed below, add your comments, and send it to your-turn@asbj.com. We’ll report the results in January.

A. Yes, my district is addressing the issue of school climate in a comprehensive way. (Please elaborate with all answers.)

B. We’re not focusing on school climate right now, but we plan to in the near future.

C. We have no plans to work on school climate at this time.

D. None of the above.


Proactive on concussions

Concussions send some 1.7 million people to emergency rooms every year, and nearly half a million of those involve children 14 and younger, Senior Editor Naomi Dillon wrote in her August cover story “Head Games.” That month, we asked what your districts are doing to address this problem. Here are two responses:

• We are working with a local medical center to establish a procedure where physicians and trainers are involved. They will evaluate and make decisions about the best care for the student athlete. This takes the decision away from the coach, who is not as knowledgeable of the proper care.

 -- Manny Barocco, athletic director, Jefferson Parish Schools, Louisiana

• We have been very proactive, consistent, and conservative on concussion evaluation, physician referral, and return-to-play requirements; however, we have not formally designed a “concussion protocol” at this time. We are in discussions with our team physician and board of education in designing such a protocol that ensures the safety of our student athletes.

 -- Terry Slattery, certified athletic trainer, Ohio