October 2012 School Board News

On The Hill
A look at the presidential candidates and their education platforms

By Michael A. Resnick

Throughout this election season, President Obama and Mitt Romney are campaigning on their visions for moving our nation forward. The United States faces long-term economic challenges as technology reshapes the workplace and other nations compete by growing their skilled workforce and consumer markets to attract businesses to locate within their borders.

School boards and the public need to know how the candidates will use the federal role to help educate our children for successful careers and lives in the future that lies ahead. As a non-incumbent, Romney’s plan for education is presented in a campaign white paper that understandably lacks operational detail. Obama’s policy direction is more specific as it is based on concrete proposals and executive decisions made over the past four years.

In many respects the candidates’ platforms are similar, but they differ in key areas. Obama and Romney both support high state academic standards, rigorous assessments, and using student test scores, including annual growth, for school accountability and to gauge teacher effectiveness. Both support using the federal role to promote innovation and leverage change, including expanding the establishment of charter schools, channeling a greater portion of federal education funds into school reform strategies, rewarding good teachers, and promoting alternate routes to teaching.

Their differences are significant, however. First, Romney would diminish the federal footprint by deregulating programs and eliminating the Department of Education by folding the function under another agency. Federal funding would not increase, and money for reform strategies would be shifted away from formula programs, like Title I, that he believes are ineffective.

Romney sees coupling support for private sector options with increased parent decision-making as key to improving America’s education. He supports vouchers, including allowing Title I and disabled students to have federal funds follow them if they transfer to another school district, a private school where permitted by state law, a charter school, or use funds for tutoring or a digital course. By requiring districts to provide clearer information about individual school performance, parents can determine which choice is best for their child. Romney also favors English language immersion over bilingual education.

On the subject of unions, Romney charges that they impede reform and insulate teachers from accountability. He would like to see teacher tenure eliminated or reformed and ineffective teachers removed, but does not specify how the federal role would be used for that purpose.

Regarding funding, Romney is not specific on the bottom-line or specific programs. However, he has expressed general support for the budget plan advanced by his running mate, Paul Ryan. If that plan were applied to education, it would result in a 19 percent cut (5.4 percent in 2013 and 13.6 percent in 2014), according to White House estimates.

Obama envisions a more aggressive role for the federal government, as exemplified by his Race to the Top program and the conditions states had to meet to qualify for No Child Left Behind waivers. Overall, he wants schools to improve by having high college and career-ready standards, more effective teachers, and principals, as well as strategies for turning around low-performing schools.

The president’s programs have established detailed criteria, priorities, and implementation requirements for states and school districts. Obama has opposed vouchers, but did support this year’s appropriations to expand the program in Washington, D.C. He believes in the value of pre-school programs and supports competitive grants to elevate state program standards and professional instruction.

In the funding area, Obama’s record comes into play. He supported substantial funding for education through the 2009 stimulus program, which provided some $100 billion of funding over two years on top of the regular appropriations, and followed that with a $10 billion school jobs program in 2010. Subsequently he sought $25 billion for school construction and $30 billion for hiring teachers and first responders, but Congress did not pass those measures. His funding proposals for ongoing programs have been relatively flat, with program increases being targeted to competitive grant programs to advance his reform agenda.

As to the unions, the president seeks collaboration between the teacher organizations and school districts to develop student achievement strategies. This includes contract and school personnel policies that tie academic goals with program innovations and teacher recruitment, assignment, evaluation, professional development, promotion, and removal. Incentives for engaging in that collaboration are included as conditions for receiving certain grants, including requiring the teachers unions to sign-off or be a co-applicant with the school board.

In sum, both Obama and Romney would continue a federal role that promotes rigorous standards, assessments, accountability, innovations and strategies to increase teacher effectiveness. By comparison, Romney favors less federal regulation, fewer dollars, and increased reliance on the private sector to provide alternatives to public education. Obama favors a broader scope of the federal role with more direction from Washington, D.C., and more funding, while opposing a nationally-based private school voucher program.

To find out more about what the candidates plan to offer over the next four years to advance American education, see the National School Board Action Center at www.nsbac.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.


Title IX brought huge changes for girls and women
Just look at the Olympics, one school board member wrote. From 17-year-old boxer Claressa Shields, who won a Gold Medal for herself and her hometown of Flint, Mich., to the victorious women’s soccer, gymnastics, and beach volleyball teams, the London Games were dramatic proof that Title IX, the 40-year-old law promising equality in sports and academics, has had a tremendous impact.

More than 70 percent of you said Title IX has had a huge impact on the opportunities available to women and girls; the rest said it has had some impact.

Some comments:

• Though it’s often overlooked, misinterpreted, or otherwise misused, Title IX has still had a huge impact.

 -- Patricia Blochowiak, board member, Ohio

• I would say it had a definite positive impact, however there are still areas where girls are not well represented, i.e.; science, math and engineering.

-- Mark Gilbert, board member, New York

• I was in high school when schools were first required to provide equal access to athletic opportunities. By the time I had finished college and was teaching in my own classroom, schools and attitudes toward opportunities for girls had completely changed. I watched that first batch of female athletes walk out of school knowing that they could go anywhere and do anything that they set their minds to accomplish. Now these former students are the parents (and sometimes grandparents) of the students I serve today. All you need to do is have a five-minute conversation with any of them and you will know that being recognized as equals in the area of athletics has made all the difference in their lives and in today’s society.

-- Randal Braun, superintendent, Wisconsin

• Clearly one of the best pieces of legislation passed by Congress in days when they could actually get things done!

-- Fred Wachtmeister Jr., board member, New York


What do you think about teacher tenure?
Want to get rid of bad teachers and upgrade the profession? Here’s a simple solution: Eliminate teacher tenure.

That may be the accepted wisdom in some circles, but Craig Waddell, an eighth-grade math teacher and adjunct professor at the University of Missouri, isn’t buying it. In his article on page 25, he argues that eliminating tenure won’t solve the problems that ail the teaching profession and would just make matters worse.

“When tenure is removed, teachers have little incentive in an individual school or district and perpetually risk termination based on an administrator’s whims and foibles,” Waddell writes. “Why would highly qualified, competent teachers bet their professional career on the chance that they could significantly improve the state of a low-performing school?”

Waddell believes that, rather than eliminating tenure, schools should identify why they have underperforming teachers -- reasons such as deficient teacher education programs, a shortage in some fields like math and science, or a high turnover rate -- and work on systematically solving those problems.

What do you think? As always, choose a response from those listed below, add your comments, and email them to your-turn@asbj.com. We’ll report the results in December.

A. Don’t mess with teacher tenure. The problems in K-12 education lie elsewhere.

B. Teacher tenure is a big problem and needs to be eliminated or at least sharply curtailed.

C. Reforms are necessary, but the concept of teacher tenure is basically sound.

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, email, 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.

Talk About It
Our monthly topics worth discussing

African immigrants sending children back home to be schooled
Some African immigrant parents, while pleased with U.S. business opportunities, are less pleased with U.S. public schools, and according to the Washington Post, they are paying as much as $6,000 per child per year, plus travel and living expenses, to send their children back home to Africa for schooling. The Post said these immigrants are not happy with expensive American child care, a public school system they view as lax (Nigerian children begin kindergarten as young as 3 years old), and the sense of entitlement that they feel American students project and that results from living in a privileged country.

Year-round falling out of favor
Some school districts that have tried year-round schools -- Salt Lake City and Las Vegas are two examples -- have not seen the gains in student achievement they expected and are returning to traditional calendars. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Salt Lake City returned to a traditional calendar when data showed that students in traditional schools were outperforming those in year-round schools.

Big district enrollment declining
Over the past five years, enrollment in almost half of America’s largest school districts has steadily declined, resulting in school closings, layoffs, and curriculum reductions in schools that provide services to America’s most needy students. Increasingly, the students remaining in these districts are English language learners, live in poverty, or have physical or learning disabilities. The New York Times reported that enrollment declines in these districts result from many factors, including the poor economy, the housing crisis -- which has forced some families into foreclosure and senior homeowners to remain in the homes in which they raised their families -- the crackdown on illegal aliens in large districts in California and Arizona, and the rise of charter schools.

Florida district bans energy drinks
Florida’s Manatee County School Board has voted unanimously to ban energy drinks from the district’s schools. The school board made the decision after middle and high school administrators said the drinks were a problem and adversely affecting student behavior and performance, WTSP.com reported. Each energy drink contains the same amount of caffeine (200 milligrams) a student would receive from drinking three cups of coffee, 14 teaspoons of sugar, and 200 calories. The ban will take effect this school year. The board has placed energy drinks in the same category as cigarettes, alcohol, and illegal drugs.

D.C. public school students paid to attend summer school
The Washington Examiner reported that this summer, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) paid 305 low-achieving students $5.25 for each hour they spent in the “Summer Bridge” program. The program is designed to assist rising ninth-graders identified by the district as less likely than cohorts to graduate from high school on time. Ninety-five other students who signed up for the “Summer Bridge” program voluntarily only received half of an elective credit. To fill the 400-student session, 305 students who had been flagged by DCPS and had signed up for the Summer Youth Employment Program were given their attendance at the “Summer Bridge” program as their summer job. Workplace simulations -- such as showing ways to use math skills to solve problems if the students were executives at a sports television network -- were part of the program. 

Q & Awith tech-savvy superintendent Matt Akin

In the rural Alabama district of Piedmont City Schools, something extraordinary is happening. Instead of letting a depressed local economy define its future, the school system charted a new path for its students by implementing the state’s first one-to-one laptop initiative in 2010. While it’s been a community-wide effort, Superintendent Matt Akin is without a doubt the driving force behind the district’s expansion and integration of technology into the classroom.

Named to the NSBA Technology Leadership Network’s 2012 “20 to Watch” list, Akin has long understood the power of technology to transform teaching and learning, and indeed, public education itself. What else would you expect from someone who began his K-12 career as a computer science teacher? Senior Editor Naomi Dillon talked to Akin about mPower, computer nerds, and the possibilities and limitations of technology.

You’ve had a long history in education technology. Tell me about that journey.
When I was a kid, I guess I was a nerd. Growing up in the 1980s, I had an old TRS-80 computer. My uncle had given me an introduction to computer programming book, so I was learning this stuff when I was 13. I received my undergraduate degree in math, but when I interviewed [for a teaching position], they needed someone who could teach Advanced Placement computer science. So I went back to that old computer programming textbook to help me. I learned early on the power of computers and technology. I felt like I was teaching kids to think logically, which would help them in their other classes. Then I became a technology coordinator and remained so for several years even after becoming superintendent, so I always had a focus on technology.

How has your perspective on education technology changed?
It seems like for a lot of years, technology in education just let us do our administrative tasks better. We could average grades quicker, have kids take tests on computers, and teach them Microsoft Word. But after three or four years of this, it became harder to look at yourself and honestly answer whether we were really impacting the lives of kids. Our approach now is totally different. Everything we do is about how we change teaching and learning.

Talk about your district’s mPower initiative.
It is a school system initiative, but it’s more than that. We’re in a small town in the south, where all of the jobs revolved around textiles -- and as they started being exported, so did our labor market. We really felt like we were in a dying community, so mPower was a way to revive the community.

How does it work?
A lot of planning goes into it. It would be typical to spend a year planning, but I felt we didn’t have a year, because that would be another senior class that would do without. We have a school system where 65 percent of the students are on free and reduced-price lunch, and I knew from experience the impact technology could have. It was not only a way to level the playing field for these kids, but also change the outlook they had of the school system and the city. At my house, and in a lot of houses, my kids know there is an expectation to go to college, but in other households, there is not that same expectation, so it was about changing those internal expectations. Aside from that, we also had to make sure we had the infrastructure in place to accommodate the technology and, most importantly, the faculty buy-in.

Putting a laptop in the hands of every middle and high school student and teacher is obviously one of Piedmont’s signature programs. Are there others?
One of things most exciting about mPower is that it has brought about the air of innovation at our schools. Last year, for example, I had a physics teacher approach me and ask if he could teach physics by teaching survival skills. And just this summer, volunteer teachers developed online classes that 300 eligible students signed up for and participated in. It was an opportunity for teachers to teach classes they always wanted to and get some professional development and for kids to learn about things they wouldn’t have during the school year, like the study of insects and snakes.

What are the possibilities and limitations of technology in education?
Technology can be the great equalizer and give opportunities to all kids, rich or poor, no matter what speed they learn at and how they learn. But you can’t do it without a teacher. You have to have teachers who are willing to change their approach to teaching and to use new tools.