August 2012 School Board News

On the Hill

Local RTTT grants: At what price?
By Michael A. Resnick

The U.S. Department of Education’s plan to offer $390 million in Race to the Top (RTTT) competitive grant funds directly to individual districts has the potential to erode school board governance and set a precedent for other federal grant programs unless corrections are made.

At this writing the final plan is pending, but NSBA wrote a strong response to Education Secretary Arne Duncan during the public comment period in early June, stating these features “must be corrected.” If the governance components are put in place without changes, it could set a precedent when criteria are developed for other federal grant programs, including the positions the department takes in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Outside the governance issues, the process follows the pattern of the $4 billion-plus RTTT program launched for states through President Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan. Like RTTT funding to the states, local grants will be awarded based on districts meeting the department’s criteria for achieving school reform. In selecting the best applications, individual school districts or a group of school districts would have fairly broad latitude to determine what reforms to emphasize and how, but within the department’s criteria.

So far, so good.

However, with grants ranging from $15 million to $25 million for use over several years, the number of successful applications will probably be limited to about 20 districts or consortia. Districts will have to do a cost analysis to determine if it is worth the effort to develop an application.

More worrisome for potential applicants is how the plan unnecessarily erodes school board governance -- especially in the fundamental functions that are likely to be included in a district’s application. School boards interested in these funds should look to determine whether the following requirements are included in the final plan:

Evaluation of school boards. The proposed plan requires a multi-rater (360-degree) evaluation of personnel and the local school board. Clearly, effective evaluations are essential to school improvement, but districts should determine the kinds they wish to use and for which personnel. Moreover, the notion that teachers and other district staff would evaluate the board is poor management design and politically naíve where elected boards are involved because they determine employee wages and working conditions.

The role of mayors, county administrators, and the state. Under the proposal, other public officials must be given the opportunity to comment on the plan, leaving districts with a significant bureaucratic undertaking. Meanwhile, districts will not know the weight the department will place on how well their application comports with these comments, which may conflict.

Further, why does the Department of Education expect other local officials to have better knowledge or judgment about education or the districts in their geographical area than superintendents and local school boards? Surely, the federal government wouldn’t require school officials to weigh in on grants related to the improvement of medical outcomes in public hospitals.

The oddity of seeking these comments is even more striking in counties with dozens of school districts because county administrators are even less likely to know about their varied goals, concerns, or operations. Similarly, in county-wide districts with multiple towns, individual town managers would not be inclined to look beyond their own boundaries on district plans on educational or related budget issues that impact the county as a whole. Educational expertise is available at the state level, but the goal of promoting local innovation would be potentially compromised if districts believe they must accept state direction -- not otherwise specifically required by state law -- in designing their applications.

The role of unions. The board, superintendent, and teachers union must sign off on applications for them to be considered. It’s one matter for the union to show support for a plan, but quite another for it to have the leverage and position of a partner with their employer district.

In districts that don’t negotiate, the proposal requires a 70 percent sign-off from teachers in schools that the grant will impact. That bar seems high and the process to determine agreement across schools cumbersome to manage. And we question how consensus among teachers on elements of the application involving items such as evaluation, assignment, and promotion can be achieved without a process resembling collective bargaining.

In considering these and other components of this otherwise promising proposed program, Education Department officials should ask themselves whether agencies of the federal government should, as a condition for receiving grants:

• Require mayors or governors to be evaluated by municipal or state employees.

• Have a role for officials from other governmental entities that are outside their responsibility.

• Restructure their relationship with unions so meeting their conditions determines whether the application can go forward.

On the union issue, the Education Department has worked constructively, with NSBA’s support, to identify and disseminate practices where school boards and unions work collaboratively to develop contract provisions and policies to accomplish agreed upon student achievement goals. If the RTTT grant plan is finalized as is, it would set a precedent to take collaboration into an inappropriate realm, which we believe most school boards would oppose, and raise concerns about the department’s involvement in the constructive work it is doing in this area.

For NSBA’s full comments to Secretary Duncan and any updates on how the final plan addresses NSBA’s concerns, go to

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


Save the dates for 2013 Technology Site Visits

NSBA and the Technology Leadership Network (TLN) announced the 2013 spring series of Education Technology Site Visits. These visits showcase the visionary leadership and technology integration practices of TLN districts, whose very participation in the program is a sign of their interest in innovation.

Leading next year’s line-up is Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools from March 6 to 8, followed by Illinois’ Township High School District 214, March 13 to 15; Pennsylvania’s East Penn School District, April 28 to 30; and finally, Washington’s Vancouver Public Schools from May 1 to 3.

For more details and programming information, go to

Guidelines offer First Amendment ‘teachable moments’

A coalition that includes NSBA and 16 other education, religious, and civil liberties groups has released guidelines for school districts to combat harassment and bullying while upholding student’s First Amendment rights to express views that may be upsetting to others.

“It is important to distinguish between speech that expresses an idea, including religious or political viewpoints -- even ideas some find offensive -- and speech that is intended to cause, or school officials demonstrate is likely to cause, emotional or psychological harm to the listener,” says the guide, Harassment, Bullying and Free Expression: Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools. “Words that convey ideas are one thing; words that are used as assault weapons are quite another.”

Simply put: The former is protected by the First Amendment; the latter is not. But while that principle may seem simple in the abstract, it is anything but straightforward in the real world. Indeed, as NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón Jr. said at a June news conference in Washington, D.C., both the U.S. Department of Education and the courts have struggled with this issue.

While the guide “relies on our contemporary understanding of the state of the law, it is not of itself a legal document,” Negrón said. “To the contrary, it is more of a policy guide that roots itself in the best interests of students. In this context, it means taking the natural tension between the right to be safe and secure and the right to freely express one’s self and identifying the teachable moment that makes sense for students.”

The project was organized by the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Freedom Education Project Education Project and endorsed by NSBA and other organizations. Copies are available at www.firstamendment

Bryant honors new “Green Ribbon” schools at ceremony

NSBA’s Executive Director Anne L. Bryant helped honor a group of schools with environmentally friendly designs that have integrated student learning into the features of their buildings and environments.

A June ceremony was the inaugural event for the U.S. Department of Education’s new “Green Ribbon” program, designed to recognize schools with facilities that have reduced environmental impact, improved the health of students, and have coordinated effective environmental education. Nearly 80 schools received the award, some with newly constructed buildings and others that had undergone renovations.

For more on Bryant’s impressions of the “Green Ribbon” schools, read The Last Word, August 2012.

Q & A with Dawn Huckaby, Washoe HR officer

Granted, using stopwatches to measure how it long it takes employees to do certain tasks is a little unnerving. “At first, people were like, ‘Why do you want to time me? Am I in trouble? Do you not trust me?’” says Dawn Huckaby, Washoe County Public Schools chief human resources officer, of the inevitable slew of questions, concerns, and outright neuroses that can come when organizations begin to change the way they do business.

In this instance, it was the way the Nevada district hired employees -- a convoluted process that took 14 steps over several months -- though, in truth, it was just one aspect of a major organizational restructuring that then-new Superintendent Heath Morrison was mounting.

As Morrison -- the 2012 National Superintendent of the Year -- sagely understands, behind every great change agent is an even greater HR executive, who must communicate, coach, and pave the way for any system-wide reform. After all, real change only happens when it is internalized.

Senior Editor Naomi Dillon caught up with Huckaby to talk about why change is hard but necessary in the midst of yet more change -- Morrison leaves to become superintendent of North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this summer.

What were some of the thoughts swirling around when Morrison first arrived in 2008?

We knew in our minds that change needed to happen. For everything we were doing, it was apparent things needed to change to see the results we wanted to see. But change is difficult and initially, people were like, ‘What does that change mean and mean for me?’”

How did leadership deal with questions and concerns?

There was a lot of buy-in. We didn’t take a top-down approach by making decisions and forcing them down the system or on schools. Heath holds a lot of meetings, listen-and-learns with employees, and he also asked principals and department heads to meet with their staff. He also brought with him a culture of respect and that’s directly tied into HR.

A culture of respect? Tell me about that.

We developed a resolution in conjunction with all the employees that we presented to the board. It really outlines the key tenets of what we believe in at Washoe and that’s around the fact that we need to work together in collaboration to meet our number one goal, which is student achievement. Creating that culture of respect obviously needs to be something more than just a document on the wall. We need to really walk that talk and it needs to be at the level of the individual employee, where everyone is treating each other with respect. It’s a thread we try to reinforce through different means.

How so?

We’ve always encouraged communications but just like everything else, we really improved the process for getting that feedback and input from employees not only so they know what’s happening but we know what’s happening, too. When employees know they are heard and their opinions are valued that’s what really makes a difference.

So what was the deal with the stopwatches?

(Laughs) In order to come up with a benchmark and see how long it took to go through the hiring process, we had someone take a stopwatch and track it. At the same time, we developed a process map, where we identified all the steps. Together it allowed us to see things we hadn’t and have conversations like, “Does this make sense? Why are we hand walking this here?” By eliminating inefficiencies, we were able to get [the hiring process] down to five steps and two weeks.

Now that’s time well spent!

Talk About It
Our monthly topics worth discussing

Should you cut class size?
Here’s an education truism: Students generally do better when they’re in smaller classes. It’s something researchers have been documenting for more than 30 years. To cite just one example, University of London professor Peter Blatchford found that low-performing students are nearly twice as likely to be disengaged in classes with 30 students as in those with 15.

Now, here’s a second, rather inconvenient, fact: Reducing class size can be tremendously expensive. In fact, according to a report by the RAND Corporation and the Brookings Institution, cutting average class size nationally by one student would cost $10 billion a year.

So what should policymakers do, confronted by the benefits of class-size reduction, on the one hand, and the costs, on the other? Well, weigh them -- very carefully, says a recent report, Smart Class-Size Policies for Lean Times, by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).

The well-documented and even-handed report (it included both research examples above) came to several conclusions that can help school board members and other policy makers.

First, if you must increase class size to reduce costs, “focus on the point in the K-12 pipeline where class-size reduction has not yet proven necessary to support academic performance -- high school,” the report says.

“U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has even weighed in on this point,” the report says, “arguing that if states do decide to relax class-size policies to save money, they should do so in high school, not the early grades.”

On the other hand, school leaders should “maintain rigorous and enforceable class-size policies in the early grades,” the report says, and resist the urge to relax class-size policies even in tight budgetary times.

Finally, the report says, states should study “the relationship of class size and teacher effectiveness on student achievement.” To read the report, go to

Hands-on science
Predict. Observe. Explain. It’s what scientists do in the lab every day. But most students in our public schools are only successful when it comes only one of these skills -- observing scientific phenomenon, says a report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). They have more trouble making predictions or explaining why a certain phenomenon occurred.

“Students were challenged by parts of investigations that contained more variables to manipulate or involved strategic decision making to collect appropriate data,” the report says.

The study used new 40-minute “hands-on” tasks, in which students use lab materials to conduct real science experiments, and 20-minute interactive computer tests, in which students solved scientific problems on computers.

The results are also reported by race/ethnicity, gender, and eligibility in the National School Lunch Program. To read the report, and try some of the problems yourself, go to: http://nces.ed. gov/nationsreportcard/.


What was the impact of Title IX?

Forget the glass ceiling. To get a sense the of the gender inequity that existed a mere 40-some years ago, just look at girls’ high school basketball.

There were six players on a team instead of five and, according to the rules throughout much of the country, “defenders” couldn’t go beyond the half-court line, and “forwards” couldn’t go behind it.

What would happen if they did? They’d get tired? Or faint? Hard to say. The fact is, whatever the absurd rationale, it effectively denied equal opportunity to girls.

As Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy notes on page 12, that largely changed in 1972, when Congress passed Title IX. We say “largely” because many observers contend that, despite the tremendous strides in women’s sports and academic programs, we have yet to reach equality.

What do you think about the impact of Title IX? Perhaps you have some stories of your own you’d like to share regarding the law and women’s sports in what for many of today’s high school students was truly the Dark Ages.

As always, choose an answer from those listed below, add your comments, and e-mail your response to We’ll report the results in October.

A. Title IX has had a huge impact on the opportunities available to girls. (Please elaborate with all answers.)

B. The law has had some effect on gender equity.

C. Title IX did not do what it was supposed to in terms of providing equal opportunities for boys and girls.

D. None of the above.

About the Your Turn survey: These responses represent the views of the ASBJ Reader Panel, a self-selected sample of subscribers, plus other readers who choose to participate by postal mail, e-mail, or online at The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of American School Board Journal or of its publisher, the National School Boards Association. Join the panel at


Got innovation?

So what have you done -- innovation-wise -- lately? That’s a rather broad question, we know. (Our exact words were: “What Works?”) But you responded with a variety of good ideas, from providing reading intervention in the early years, to simplifying grade transitions in elementary and middle school.

Some comments:

• We are a small (under 6,000) district and, like most in Michigan, have been steadily shrinking. We used our need to downsize to improve educational delivery through grade reconfiguration. Research shows that transitions (fifth grade to middle school, eighth grade to high school) are precarious times for students, but it is the change in cohort more than the change in schools that does the damage, as students jockey for position among new peers. As we closed elementary schools, we changed one middle school to contain all our fifth and sixth grades and the other to hold all our seventh and eighth grades. Now, the only transition that mixes students from different schools will be the fourth-to-fifth-grade change. The new K-4 schools will have much more balanced populations than before, allowing for more equal educational opportunities and many fewer split-grade classrooms. The new intermediate and junior high schools will do the same, plus enable us to focus services in a more age-appropriate way. -- Martha Toth, board member, Michigan

• We have a reading intervention program that targets students in grades one through three to bring them up to grade level by providing additional time in reading skills every day. We recently contracted with a new social studies program that uses laptop computers to access online, real-time data and programs to assist students in learning about history, cultures, societies, economics, and social ideas -- giving the learning process a whole new meaning, focus, and energy. Our students also enjoy theater arts, music, and athletic programs. We are constantly looking for ways to engage our students and keep them interested in learning. Our Community High School program gives those students who cannot seem to make in the traditional setting a way to obtain a high school degree under an independent, block time program. -- Tim Lamb, board member, North Dakota

• I am a former school board member president and current executive director of Parents for Public Schools (PPS), a national organization of community based chapters, working to engage parents to support and improve public schools. PPS, based on our work in parent development, is soon to launch a new parent development tool, Paths to Parent Leadership. This will be a comprehensive curriculum/tool that will develop parent leaders who will understand the challenges of public education and hold their schools accountable to meet those challenges. We know from research that when we find high achieving schools, there are always engaged parents nearby who are part of the success. -- Anne W. Foster, former Texas board member, Mississippi