April 2013 School Board News

On The Hill
Address your critics with the facts

By Michael A. Resnick

At the federal and state levels, as well as among media and advocacy groups, initiatives for raising student achievement get an added boost from alarming but misleading broad assertions that public schools simply are not up to the task. Given the drumbeat, it’s not surprising that the public’s confidence has softened, although parents continue to view their child’s own school -- the one they actually know -- as successful.

Within this environment it is more difficult for school board members and other public education advocates to advance their case on a wide range of issues, from supporting local flexibility and funding to opposing vouchers and other privatization schemes that would weaken, not strengthen, our public schools.

To make their case, public school critics often cherry pick the worst data or fail to place it in context. For example, among 34 developed nations, the United States has a child poverty rate of 23 percent, second only to Romania and twice that of most of our competitor nations. Likewise, our schools serve the varying needs of a student population that is more diverse than some, but not all, industrialized nations. 

Certainly, public education advocates need to be open and willing to address the challenges they face rather than finding comfort in the excuses they readily present. But for lawmakers and the public to be confident in our abilities, boards must be prepared with facts to counter the charges that schools are not performing adequately or local districts won’t take the necessary steps to improve.

NSBA’s Center for Public Education reviewed a wide range of international comparisons and key trends that provide a more balanced and encouraging picture of where America’s public schools stand and the progress they are making. Here are a few key findings from the center’s work:

■ The U.S. ranked fifth among 37 industrial nations in eighth-grade math, and made gains in the subject more quickly than Japan and Singapore over the past 12 years. During that period, only two countries made greater gains.

■ The U.S. ranked fourth out of 35 countries in fourth-grade science and only three industrial nations made greater gains in eighth-grade science over 12 years.

■ No country outperformed the U.S. in civics.

■ On the rigorous NAEP test, the number of fourth-graders scoring proficient has tripled since 1990. During that period, the percentage of eighth-graders scoring proficient has doubled.

■ In reading, the NAEP proficiency rating among African-American students doubled over 10 years -- with significant increases for both African-American and Hispanic students at the 8th grade level.

■ On-time graduation rates rose from 66 percent to 78 percent between 1999 and 2010 -- and were even higher when students needing an extra year are counted. All subgroups improved, led by Hispanic students whose on-time graduation rate increased by 10 percent in just the past five years.

■ At 32 percent, the U.S. is second only to Norway in college graduates with a four-year degree or higher. The number of bachelor’s degrees earned increased by 33 percent over the 10 years ending in 1999, and for master’s degrees by 49 percent.

The data is clear: Our nation’s schools are progressing overall. Districts are especially making impressive strides in closing the achievement gap, including a dramatic decline in the number of so-called high school dropout factories. No question, weak public schools must be made better and boards should lead the charge in communities and with lawmakers to achieve a world class education for all children.

Student achievement is, of course, the bottom line in evaluating our schools. But lawmakers and the public also need to know about the wide range of services and programs in schools that contribute to student health, well-being, and development beyond academic studies. These include school lunch programs, counseling, health services and extracurricular activities that stimulate student interests and enhance a well-rounded education. Frequently, these important benefits are left out when considering support for schools or the limitations of alternatives. 

Likewise, lawmakers need to be reminded of the unique nature of public education as an institution that admits and retains all students. School boards also are unique because they are accountable to local voters to represent the interests of students, parents, local businesses, civic organizations, taxpayers, and the community at large in determining the direction, values, climate, and financial support of their community’s classrooms. 

The answer to improving student achievement lies in supporting our public schools, not in weakening them with unproven alternatives or cookie-cutter approaches from above. The full picture of what locally governed public schools are achieving for students and the value they offer to their communities and the nation at large must be trumpeted over the din of misplaced negativism.

As the elected or appointed officials charged with governing local districts, school board members are ideally situated -- if not responsible -- to lead the effort to make the case for public education. We urge school board members to join the efforts of their state school boards association and use the resources at www.centerforpubliceducation.org.

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

Talk About It
Our monthly topics worth discussing

N.H. district uses online classes to ease overcrowding
Budget cuts this past year have forced New Hampshire’s Manchester School District to eliminate 95 full-time teaching positions from its staff, resulting in overcrowded classrooms and complaints from parents. Manchester hopes it can alleviate the situation and silence parents’ complaints without hiring part-time teachers by expanding its use of New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy (an online charter school) and putting a “blended learning lab” in each of its three high schools, enabling some students to take courses online with a facilitator, but not a teacher present. A remote classroom with an interactive monitor will be added to each high school, so that students in undersubscribed courses will be able to participate in classes taught at other schools. But Manchester’s parents and some of its teachers are not convinced that these thrifty and technology-savvy solutions -- which still will cost the district $80,000 -- will ever be as effective as old-fashioned teacher/student interaction, according to the New York Times.

Indianapolis starts free preschool 
Huge public support for expanded preschool has led the Indianapolis Public Schools to embark on an ambitious plan to enroll half of the district’s 4-year-olds -- 1,400 toddlers -- in a free, full-day preschool. The new preschool initiative, which commences this coming fall, will cost the district $8 million each year, and will require 51 teachers and 51 classroom assistants next year, says Courier-journal.com. Seven Indianapolis school sites and six community partner sites will participate, and some existing classrooms will have to add space. A full-day kindergarten program already in place has led to 75 percent of students starting first grade with the skills they need to succeed, up 25 percent from pre-program levels. The district believes that once its new preschool program is fully implemented, more than 95 percent of its first-graders will arrive ready for school.

GPS tracking and student rights
In the latest chapter of the ongoing saga of Texas’ Northside Independent School District’s efforts to have students wear identification badges containing a radio frequency identification device for purposes of tracking them, the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization, has filed an appeal to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. It did so on behalf of a student at Northside’s John Jay Science and Engineering Academy who had refused to wear the badge because she said it violated her constitutional rights and religious beliefs. In Texas, state education funding is partly based on attendance. The tracking system allows schools to identify students who are actually on campus (i.e., in attendance) but missed roll call. Northside estimates legal bills from the case will total tens of thousands of dollars, according to Mysanantonio.com.

Discipline and charter schools
Washington, D.C., charter schools have  expelled 676 students over the past three years, while the city’s public schools have expelled 24. These numbers reflect the freedom that charters have from school system policies and the latitude they have to decide which students stay and which students go, says the Washington Post. Washington’s public schools cannot really expel any student because of a mandate to serve all students; those who are expelled go to an alternative school for one year and then return. Some charter schools enforce discipline and weed out difficult or problematic students by charging parents fees for their children’s infractions. Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools charges  parents $5 for each disciplinary infraction, according to the Chicago Tribune

Q&A with actor and Annual Conference speaker Geena Davis
She played quirky in “The Accidental Tourist” and presidential in “Commander in Chief.” After a convincing harried housewife-on-the-run in “Thelma & Louise,” she celebrated a different sort of rule-breaker in “A League of Their Own.” 

Along the way, Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis became something of a modern-day Renaissance woman, qualifying for Mensa and taking up archery (nearly making the U.S. Olympic team) in her early 40s. 

Indeed, there didn’t seem to be anything that Davis, who will be a keynote speaker at NSBA’s Annual Conference in April in San Diego, couldn’t accomplish -- except, perhaps, shield her young daughter from the damaging female stereotypes she had so gleefully busted throughout her career.

They were watching television, she and her then 2-year-old, about a decade ago when Davis noticed just how few female characters there were in children’s entertainment -- and how limited these characters’ roles often could be. In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which has collected the largest body of research on how, and in what ways, females are portrayed in the media.

She recently talked with ASBJ Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy about gender stereotyping, playing unusual characters, and why she took up archery.

Watching G-rated movies with your daughter really alerted you to the gender imbalance in entertainment media. What did you do then? 

At first, I just wanted to mention it to people. I didn’t think I was going to make it my life’s mission or anything. But it seemed like nobody was noticing, and when I talked to people in the industry, if I happened to have a meeting with a producer or a studio executive, I’d say, “Have you ever noticed how few female characters there are in G-rated movies?” And they would say, “Oh, no. No, no, that’s been fixed.” So it seemed that everybody either didn’t notice or thought it was already fixed.

What did the institute’s research discover? 

The results were quite startling. In family film ratings -- which would be G, PG, and PG-13 -- for every one female character there were three male characters. And if it was a crowd scene or a group scene, only 17 percent of the characters were female, which is kind of mind-boggling. This is both in live action and animated films.

We also looked at the quality of the characters and found that the majority of female characters in these family films were either very narrowly stereotyped or hypersexualized. In animated films, the female characters wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as in G-rated movies, which is also extremely strange and disturbing.

Why is this important?

We are, in effect, training kids from the beginning not to notice gender imbalance in our society. We’re training them to see worlds where female characters don’t take up half the space. This is all unconscious, of course.

Did you ever find yourself pigeonholed in your film career or asked to play stereotyped roles? 

Well, my first role was in the movie “Tootsie.” I spent most of the time in my underwear. The joke was that Dustin [Hoffman’s] character, pretending to be a woman, shared a dressing room with me, and it was very uncomfortable for him. So [the part] was just all about being sexy and whatever.

But, you know, I’ve been very lucky -- part of it is by planning and part not -- but I’ve always wanted to play unusual characters, characters that aren’t just the girlfriend. Certainly, I was offered those parts, but I really always wanted to say, “Yeah, but what do I do? What do I actually do?” So then, I ended up in kind of unique movies, like “The Fly.” And eventually I got to be a baseball phenomenon, and a fire captain, and a kind of road warrior in “Thelma & Louise,” so I feel like I escaped a lot of that from pretty early on.

How did you get into archery?

I know -- it seems so random. It was just from watching the Atlanta Olympics on TV. There was a lot of coverage of archery because the American men were doing extremely well. I just was kind of taken with it, and said: “Wow, that’s so beautiful and dramatic. I wonder if I could be good at archery?” I took it up at 41, and two and a half years later I was a semifinalist in the Olympic trials. So that was pretty crazy to find myself at 43 at the Olympic trials. 

You said your talks with producers and studio executives have been very positive -- that they’ve been genuinely concerned about gender imbalance, their works, and want to do something to help. Where would you like to see this lead?

Basically, what we’re trying to do is change what kids see from the beginning. The ideal would be that, if they could grow up seeing boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally, then that’s the ratio they will come to see as normal and expect in their work environment.  

Do you have uneven funding in your district?

Reader Panel members are aware of inequities -- some inside, some outside their schools

People run for school board for a number of reasons, but it’s a good bet that one rationale at the top of everyone’s list is this: To give all children the shot at a good education. 

It may come as a surprise, then, that disparities in funding can occur not only between districts, but within schools in the same district, as Senior Editor Del Stover points out in this month’s cover story (Page 10). The reasons for these discrepancies are varied and include such things as the vast variety of school funding sources and the fact that more experienced, better-paid teachers tend to gravitate toward schools in more affluent areas.

Interestingly, nearly one in five Your Turn responders (18 percent) said that an unequal education is being offered in their schools. You could look at this (admittedly nonscientific) statistic two ways. On the downside, well, that’s a pretty high percentage. But on the plus side, it shows that board members in affected districts are aware of the problem -- and are not afraid to point it out. And that’s the first step to solving it. 

Some comments:
■ I can see how inequities within a district can happen due to the effects of seniority-list layoffs and how parental donations skew toward schools in more affluent neighborhoods. Fortunately, Title I funds do provide critical funding for students of poorer means. In our district, many highly effective and motivated teachers and administrators are inspired by the challenges. In fact, we're fortunate that their work is the greatest equalizer.
 -- Kevin Martinez, board member, California

■ Unfortunately, yes. Due to the funding cuts at the local and state level, we find that more and more is being asked of our community to privately fund, or many things must be eliminated. While our school system administrators and staff try very hard to provide an equitable distribution of services and opportunities to students in each of our schools, it is evident that this is getting increasingly harder to accomplish. Technology, field trips, extra-curricular activities, supplemental teaching tools, facilities maintenance and upkeep, professional development, and the arts (to name a few) suffer due to inequities of funding and inadequate funding. -- Jackie Cole, board member,North Carolina

■ Not in my school district; but true within the state and United States. -- Marie Urso, board member, Illinois

■ In our state, we have established a task force to eliminate the cap on our 15 percent bond capacity and return it to local control. Through a Missouri School Boards Assocation survey, we have identified over $9 billion in shovel-ready projects for new construction or renovation within 330 school districts. We believe this is truly a job stimulus bill that would put a lot of people to work and would relieve the overcrowding problem at the same time. We are gaining support for the legislative bill from co-sponsors in both houses of the General Assembly and are anxiously waiting for discussion of the bill this session. -- Peggy Taylor, board member, Missouri

■ The schools within our district are on an equitable basis with each other; however, funding in our state creates school districts of haves and have-nots. While we are far from the wealthiest district in our state, we are not among the poorest either. Our community has never turned down a school funding referendum and two years ago we passed a referendum with an 80 percent yes vote. Our middle-class community places a high priority on education and supports our schools. Unfortunately, our property tax rate is very high -- among the highest in our county. This is the cost of having excellent schools in our community. -- Shelly Marks, board member, Illinois

■ There are not inequities in our district, but there are inequities across the state of South Carolina. Local referendums usually pay for construction, and schools in districts where there is economic distress are sometimes in shambles. The maximum we can tax locally for operations is less than 2 percent of our budget. In the past, most of the local property tax went to schools, but six years ago property tax on homes was eliminated. This severely reduced state income and negatively impacted revenues for schools, resulting in layoffs and furloughs, among other reductions. There are very complicated formulas for making school funding more equitable, but none have proven to be acceptable in a State Assembly more concerned with other matters than school funding. -- Ginny Moe, board member, South Carolina