July 2012 School Board News

On The Hill
ESEA: Will bad politics trump good policy?
By Michael A. Resnick

The U.S. House committee that oversees education approved a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in February. The U.S. Senate committee passed its version last October. Yet, this long-awaited legislation, nearly five years behind schedule, has not been brought forward for floor action in either chamber.

This persistent inaction is continuing to have an educational and financially deleterious impact for the nation’s 14,000 school districts and the 50 million children they educate.

As part of NSBA’s ESEANow! campaign, launched during our Federal Relations Network conference, 700 school board members and state school boards association leaders met with their members of Congress in early February to advocate for action this year. Certainly, we were encouraged by the House committee’s bill that appeared three weeks later.

To help build momentum for floor action, NSBA has engaged in various activities, including holding two national school board member call-in days, encouraging school boards to pass resolutions, and promoting media coverage. We also have worked with other organizations; a letter recently was sent to Capitol Hill from NSBA and the major governance groups representing the nation’s governors, state legislators, mayors, county commissioners, and state education officials.

In the face of this support for House and Senate floor action, what’s causing the delay? The simple answer: political partisanship.

The Republican-controlled House committee passed a bill that replaces the dysfunctional, over-regulated current program, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with an effort that places more emphasis on state and local decision-making. All Democrats voted against the bill on the grounds that it went too far in removing federal requirements for dealing with low-performing schools and student subgroups.

With half the committee’s Republican majority comprised of freshmen and largely elected on a smaller-government Tea Party platform, any effort to move to the lines drawn by the Democrats to gain their support would have caused the committee chair to lose support from his own caucus. So, the bill passed committee with only the support of the majority party.

On the House floor, the Republican majority may not be able to muster the votes to pass the bill, even with the support of some conservative Democrats. The reason is that some Tea Party members are not prepared to vote for a major federal program for a department they would like to eliminate. The irony is that, by failing to support the committee bill, the overly burdensome NCLB program remains intact along with the new, problematic U.S. Department of Education requirements placed on the relatively few states that have qualified for waivers from specific NCLB provisions.

Perhaps these House members are waiting for a complete sweep in the November election to go even further to remove the federal presence. But how likely is that Election Day sweep to happen? What is being done for school districts now --  especially as NCLB’s problems mount and the waiver requirements become institutionalized within the states?

House Democrats are looking to hold on to the White House and the Senate while regaining control of their chamber, even though that would require 25 seats to change parties. Meanwhile, from their perspective, the current flawed situation appears to be preferable to the House committee bill, which lacks the tighter federal direction that they want. For both sides, compromise has not been achievable.

In the Senate, the situation is similar. The Democrats who control the committee produced a bill that removes some of NCLB’s key problems, but maintains a level of federal oversight and direction that generally follows the more regulatory approach in the waiver program. The bill does contain various concessions to Republican senators to pass a bipartisan committee bill. However, other amendments that Democrats would not like were left for floor action. If voted down, that could mean the bill would lack the Republican support needed for reaching the supermajority of 60 votes to pass filibuster-proof legislation.

Again, both sides of the political aisle could be looking optimistically at having a better situation after the election to move the legislation closer to their liking. Both parties can’t be right, and both may be wrong if the outcome produces no change in political control. So, like the House, the Senate bill is stalled.

Looking beyond floor action, ESEA ultimately will be written in a conference committee to resolve the differences between the two bills. That’s where the final compromises will need to be struck if the bills pass on the House and Senate floors.

The absurd political gridlock that is blocking effective education policymaking can go on for years unless enough members in both chambers get the message from their constituents to find common ground.

If you’re fed up with the inaction of political gridlock, join NSBA’s ESEANow! campaign. With the election only a few months away, members of Congress will be more receptive to listen to what you have to say and to hear what you expect of them. You don’t need to hear more excuses about the stalled process, but what your members of Congress will do to move ESEA forward by pressing their party leaders and committing their own support, including support for local decision-making.

For more information on how to participate in NSBA’s ESEANow! campaign, visit www.ESEANow.org. 

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

How are you using data?

Not long into his article about using data in school districts, Senior Editor Del Stover poses this hypothetical question: “If 70 percent of third-graders at your elementary school are proficient in reading, is that a huge success or a disturbing failure?”

The answer, of course, depends on the context --  on who’s being tested, what reading scores were like for this group last year, etc. But while a lot of board members know that using data is important, not enough know just how to use it to answer critical questions about student achievement and other issues.

Accountability is important, Stover writes, but it’s not enough. “It’s one thing to put the superintendent on the spot after a three-year effort to boost reading test scores,” he writes. “It’s another to use data to help determine why that effort failed --  or what to try next.”

How well does your board use data? As always, choose a response from those listed below, add your comments, and e-mail it to your-turn@nsba.org. We’ll report the results in September.

A. We’re making a big push to use data more effectively. (Please elaborate and provide examples with all responses.)

B. We know what we’re supposed to be doing; we’re just not quite there yet.

C. What’s data?

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 www.asbj.com. 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 www.asbj.com/readerpanel.

Auditing financial operations

This month’s subject is financial audits and the critical role they play in school board governance.

Hello? I said, this month’s subject ... All right, auditing may not be as exciting a topic as Internet bullying, or discipline, or dress codes, or standardized testing, or whether a student can pass out religious material during lunch. But, as Senior Editor Naomi Dillon noted in her May article, “Avoiding a Scandal,” monitoring a district’s financial operations is a key responsibility of board members.

So, well, not a lot of responses this time. But here are three very good ones, of varying length:

• We hired an accountant to separate the purchasing process from the paying process. --  Ken Linehan, board member, New Hampshire

• We’re audited each year as required by Wisconsin statutes and have always earned an unqualified opinion. Being a small, rural district, we always receive comments on things like division of duties. We only have three of us in the District Office. Otherwise we are complemented by the auditors upon whom we depend to help us with some of the more complicated accounting procedures. It is more efficient to work with an auditing firm for this than it is to employ accountants. --  Randal Braun, superintendent, Wisconsin

• After our city auditor conducted a series of operational audits that demonstrated opportunities for increased efficiency and effectiveness, we knew we had to overhaul our own audit processes and ramp up our internal oversight. We had an internal audit group that needed direction based on industry standards and best practices, so we pulled in members of the business and higher education community to help us develop audit committee bylaws and processes for our board.

We now go well beyond the required comprehensive annual financial audit with regular, ongoing audits of key functions and departments of the school system. We adopt an annual audit work plan based on an assessment of risk factors, so we’re continually examining the areas of highest risk for the district. As a board, we conduct a quarterly review of all of the audit recommendations to monitor implementation, and our most recent review showed that our district has implemented well over 400 recommendations to increase efficiency or effectiveness --  over 85 percent of all of the audit recommendations of the past five-plus years.

Achieving a robust audit process has been challenging, as it can seem that we’re “airing” our mistakes to the public. But acknowledging areas where we can do better also shows that we embrace a culture of continual improvement. Having effective audit processes is essential if you want strong oversight, transparency and accountability --  all vital attributes for organizational transformation and long-range success. --  Kim Bridges, board member, Virginia

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Research: Pointing out words and letters helps preschool children

We often hear that there’s no “silver bullet” to solving the big issues of education, and, of course, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that seemingly minor changes in instruction can’t sometimes have a big impact.

Case in point: A new Ohio State University study showing that the reading levels of predominantly low-income preschoolers can be significantly improved by teachers making “print references” during story time --  that is, periodically pointing out words and letters.

The study, part of the university’s Project STAR (Sit Together and Read), found that one to two years after the program, children with a high dose of print references had higher word reading, spelling, and comprehension skills than those from a group whose teachers were not trained in the practice.

“Using print references during reading was just a slight tweak to what teachers were already doing in the classroom, but it led to a sizable improvement in reading for kids,” said Assistant Professor Shayne Piasta, one of the study’s co-authors. “This would be a very manageable change for most preschool teachers, who already are doing storybook reading in class.”

Project STAR is an ongoing clinical trial based at Ohio State that looks at the effects, both short- and long-term, of teachers reading regularly to preschool children. Researchers from Ohio State, the University of Toledo, and the University of Virginia are taking part in the project.

Just what are our students being taught?

How good is the curriculum we use to teach students in public schools? The short answer, according to a new Brookings Institution report, is: We don’t know.

And that’s disturbing, given that “students learn principally through interactions with people (teachers and peers) and instructional materials (textbooks, workbooks, instructional software, projects, quizzes and tests).” We spend a lot of time focusing on the education, skills, and training of teachers, but the attention paid to just what they’re teaching is lacking.

“It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients,” says the report, titled Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core.

For example, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), whose job it is to provide information on education in the U.S., does not collect information on instructional materials, the report said. This “scandalous lack of information” is especially relevant now with the implementation of two policy initiatives: the state-driven Common Core State Standards Initiative, which standardizes the information and skills students need to know, and the push to better measure and improve teacher quality.

“The Common Core standards will only have a chance of raising student achievement if they are implemented with high-quality materials, but there is currently no basis to measure the quality of materials,” the report said. “Efforts to improve teacher effectiveness will also fall short if they focus solely on the selection and retention of teachers and ignore the instructional tools that teachers are given to practice their craft.”

The report calls on state education agencies to collect data from districts on instructional materials and for NCES to develop data collection standards templates that states can use to assess the effectiveness of various curricula. Currently, NCES’s Common Education Data Standards contain 679 “data elements” for K-12 education, but none of these concerns the kind of instructional materials schools are using.

Brookings also suggested that philanthropic groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could provide start-up funding needed to collect and analyze data on instructional materials.

Principals second only to teachers in driving student achievement, NSBA report says

As the Brookings report above underscores, teacher-student interactions --  and the instructional materials the teacher uses --  are the most basic building blocks of student achievement. But there is another professional who has an important impact on whether that relationship succeeds: the principal.

In a new report, The Principal Perspective, NSBA’s Center for Public Education says that the principal is a key part of school performance, especially at elementary schools and schools with high numbers of disadvantaged or minority students.

The problem is that the very schools that need high-quality principals the most --  those same high-poverty, high-minority schools --  have a more difficult time finding them because experienced principals typically move after a few years to schools that are easier to manage. According to one study of a large urban district, cited in CPE’s report, a principal’s second and third school typically enrolled 89 percent fewer poor and minority students that their first one.

The report said that, in general, schools with highly effective principals perform five to 10 percentage points higher than those led by an average principal. They have fewer student and teacher absences. And they have effective teachers who are more likely to stay longer. The effective principals also are more likely to stay at the same school for at least three years.

In fact, principals are second only to teachers in their impact on students’ academic growth, the report says. And this is due to two factors: Effective principals attract and retain the best teachers; and they are more likely to provide strong instructional support.

“Effective principals not only build effective teaching staffs; they make the teachers they do have better,” said Jim Hull, CPE senior policy analyst and the author of the report. “With that in mind, wouldn’t it be easier to improve student achievement by improving the quality of 99,000 principals rather than focusing primarily on improving 3.3 million teachers individually?”

Principals are key to turning around low-performing schools, the report says. But even a highly effective principal needs at least two or three years to become effective in a new school, and it takes five years to fully impact a school’s performance.

The report says that school boards that focus on having effective principals have an additional tool for improving student achievement. Board members should request data that answer a number of questions, among them:

• How are principals evaluated for effectiveness?

• Are evaluations linked to student achievement?

• What is the turnover rate for principals, and is it higher at schools serving more disadvantaged students?

• How are potential principals identified?

• What kind of professional development do principals receive?

• How does the district handle ineffective principals? 

NSBA roundup

Virtual Learning: Growing but untested, NSBA report says
Do K-12 students benefit from taking some or all of their classes online? A new report by NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE), “Searching for the Reality of Virtual Schools,” says that, while online education holds promise for 21st century learning, researchers know relatively little about the performance of virtual schools, and the studies that have been done are troubling.

“Virtual learning is the future. It’s increasing,” said Patte Barth, director of CPE. “But we don’t have a lot of information about its effect right now, so I would caution people to start slow and monitor it very closely.”

“Online learning” can refer to anything from a single class, such as an Advanced Placement class that is not available at a school or a credit recovery class, to full-time K-12 virtual schools, to a combination of online and face-to-face instruction. Programs can be created and operated by school districts, states, nonprofit or for-profit entities, as well as by a host of other sources, which can blur the lines of accountability.

While the information on online learning is incomplete, several studies on the practice are not encouraging. For example, a Stanford University study covering 2007-2010 found that 100 percent of virtual charters schools in Pennsylvania performed significantly worse in math and reading than traditional schools in terms of student gains.

The research also shows that full-time K-12 virtual schools tend to show the least effective results in graduation rates, course completion, and test scores. While full-time virtual schools enroll less than 2 percent of the nation’s public school population, that number is rapidly increasing, and much of the growth is with for-profit providers.

“A full-time experience is much different than one class, and the overall data for full-time virtual schools tends to be where the wheels fall off,” Barth said. “Most of the research we found raises serious questions about the accountability and monitoring of some of these schools.”

The report also examines the funding streams of four states: Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and the researchers found that in most cases funding is not based on the actual cost to educate a child through virtual schools. Determining budgets --  and sometimes, enrollments --  of virtual schools is often difficult.

The report gives school board members and the public a list of questions to ask to ensure their taxpayer’s funds are being used by programs that produce better results for students.

Palm Beach, Fla., school board wins Kennedy Center arts award

The School Board of Palm Beach County, Fla., received the 24th annual Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network (KCAAEN) and National School Boards Association (NSBA) Award on April 23 at NSBA’s Annual Conference in Boston.

This national award, which was created in 1989 and includes a $10,000 prize, recognizes school boards for their support of arts education.

According to the Kennedy Center, the School Board of Palm Beach County was honored because it strives to provide a world-class arts education for each of its 172,000 students, using funding from community partners, grants, individual fundraising, and the school board.

In 2005, the School Board of Palm Beach County established an Arts Education Task Force that developed an arts business plan, which calls for the district to develop partnerships with cultural organizations. The district has used these opportunities for professional development, artist residencies, and curriculum collaborations.

The school board also gave funding for the district’s fine arts teachers to develop lesson plans based on the new standards in visual arts, theater, dance, and music. Hundreds of these arts-related lesson plans are uploaded to an online repository, making them available to all the district’s teachers.

Although the region faced a declining economy, the School Board of Palm Beach County not only kept all existing arts programs in place, but also pushed a tax referendum to secure all art and music teacher positions in the county. The school board plans to use the award money to expand dance education and string education programs across the district.

Darrell Ayers, vice president of education and jazz at the Kennedy Center, presented the award. “The School Board of Palm Beach County’s belief in and commitment to the arts in education is undeniable,” he said. “It is clear they will continue to serve as ambassadors for arts advocacy in their state for years to come.”

Each year, school boards are nominated by state alliances for arts education and state school boards associations. Finalists for the 2012 award include: Anne Arundel County Public Schools Board of Education, Annapolis, Md.; Caddo Parish School Board, Shreveport, La.; Durham Public Schools School Board, Durham, N.C.; Fort Worth Independent School District Board of Education, Fort Worth, Texas; Kodiak Island Borough School District Board of Education, Kodiak, Alaska; Lima City School Board, Lima, Ohio; and Minnetonka Public Schools District Board of Education, Minnetonka, Minn.

According to the Kennedy Center, school districts selected for this prize must demonstrate support for all four disciplines in arts education programs, including visual arts, music, theater, and dance. Instruction and programming must be available for all students throughout the district. Another important factor is a school district’s partnerships with the cultural resources available in its community.