September 2013 School Board News

On the Hill
House passes ESEA bill
Key elements of NSBA’s local governance bill included

With the usual tasks and surprises that accompany the beginning of a new school year, many schools boards, teachers, and administrators also will begin implementing -- or at least planning for -- the wide range of new requirements regarding their school program and teacher policies that their state had to accept in order to receive a waiver from the most onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Over the 12 years since NCLB was enacted, the federal role in education has expanded substantially, particularly by unilateral decisions made by the U.S. Department of Education to transform the educational delivery system through initiatives such as its waiver program. Much of the current debate in Congress over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been framed around the growth of the federal role and its impact on the state and local levels.

Within the House of Representatives, the majority view supports a more bottom-up approach to the federal role. The Senate committee bill supports strong direction from the federal level. The divide between the two approaches is wide and presents Congress with major decisions about how federal education policy will be made for years to come under ESEA and other initiatives

The House of Representatives recently passed its bill, H.R.5, which basically says the time has come to lift the federal footprint and provide more flexibility to states and local school districts to determine how best to prepare students for a postsecondary education and the workplace.

To support that goal, the bill continues the requirement that student performance data must be publicly reported by student subgroup. That is, the information needed will be available to hold schools accountable, especially for the most educationally vulnerable students, such as those with disabilities, or those who are poor or are English language learners. However, compared to current law, states will have more flexibility in designing their accountability systems and local school districts will have more flexibility to determine how best to meet the needs of their students, especially in low-performing schools.

In resetting the federal role, the House bill contains many elements contained in NSBA’s bill, the Local School Board Governance and Flexibility Act, H.R. 1386. These provisions were either included in the committee bill or in a successful floor amendment offered by Representatives Aaron Schock of Illinois, who sponsored the NSBA bill, and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, who was an original cosponsor. For example, the bill specifically prohibits the Education Department from mandating or using grants to coerce the adoption of specific standards or assessments for school districts, and from imposing costs that are not paid for by ESEA. These and other specific prohibitions are fortified by a general prohibition preventing the Education Department from exercising governance or authority over the administration of schools unless authorized by the new ESEA.

Further, under H.R.5, the Education Department must grant legislative waivers to individual school districts (as well as states) as long as their waiver request is reviewed (not approved) by the state. Waiver requests also must be accompanied by a plan that a peer review team determines will improve student achievement. Importantly, and consistent with NSBA’s bill, the Education Department would no longer be able to place conditions on granting waivers such as the sweeping conditions in its controversial NCLB waiver program.

The House bill also addresses how the Education Department issues regulations. This was another important point in NSBA’s bill, because it is through regulations that the department’s program requirements are established. The bill would enable local school board members and educators to have more meaningful and timely input into both the development of proposed regulations before they are published for public comment and then during the public comment period. At both times the legislation raises the standard recommended by NSBA for local reaction to be taken into account to ensure that the department’s finalized regulation will be financially, operationally, and educationally viable at the local level.

By sharp contrast, the Senate bill, which cleared committee, supports a highly structured and federally directed approach. It is based on the premise that despite public reporting, state and local school people will not produce the results needed, especially for educationally vulnerable students. Therefore, the federal government must set a framework for states to establish performance goals, the adoption of rigorous standards, assessments, and accountability measures. Locally, it tells school districts which approaches they must use to turn around low performing schools, as well as mandating increased data collection, reporting, and criteria for the planned use of federal funds in general.

The issue that underlies the differences between the two bills, and the larger debate on the federal role, is whether state and local educators can be trusted to have the commitment to reach high levels of student achievement. Those who say “no” believe that states will prefer to claim success with less rigorous standards and measures of accountability. They also believe that local school districts will try to get away with doing less than what the federal level would require of them for student success, especially for high-need students.

NSBA believes that local school boards and educators have the know-how to meet local needs and conditions, and that they are committed to the schoolchildren they serve. They will get the job done without the burdens and less effective top-down approaches. Therefore, NSBA supported passage of the House bill as it charts a refreshing and responsive direction for the federal role and the value it places on school district self-governance. The House bill does contain flaws relating to funding and public school choice that will need to be addressed as the legislative process moves forward. Correspondingly, NSBA did not support the Senate bill and is urging committee members to act quickly to bring forward amendments that remove the stifling and counter-productive mandates and operational burdens the bill currently poses for the local level.

Ultimately, ESEA will be written in a House-Senate conference committee where, hopefully, the differences between the two bills can be worked out. Only time will tell if this can happen, but it's an effort that Congress has a responsibility to make. If the Senate does not bring its bill to the floor, then the status quo continues with the Education Department being able to unilaterally shape national policy and to further extend its control over the educational delivery system.

So, as school opens for another year with new federally generated requirements, NSBA urges school board members to tell their Senators that a less-intrusive bill must be designed and be brought to the Senate floor for a vote. For more information see www.nsba.org/advocacy. 

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for federal advocacy and public policy. 


Q&A with Russell Quaglia, expert on student engagement

Our cover package this month is on disconnected youth -- young men and women who are not in school, not employed, and have no involvement with their community. School disengagement is a large part of the problem -- and perhaps the most easy to remedy. But how to do this? Russell Quaglia may have some answers. He is the president and founder of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and putting into practice the conditions that foster student aspirations in schools and learning communities around the world.

Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy spoke with Quaglia about what students need, why fun leads to better test scores, and how school board members can listen to and learn from their students.

According to your latest poll, less than half of the students surveyed agreed that “I am a valued member of my school community.” Why is this percentage so low?

Feeling valued as a member of the school community means believing that people genuinely care about who you are as an individual. The percentage is low because teachers do not show students that they care about them in ways that are perceptible to students. While it sounds too basic to be true, we see it time and time again in schools: Of course teachers care -- they just need to overtly transfer this understanding to students. Teachers need to know students’ names, and their hopes and dreams, and they need to show connections between their lives and the curriculum. Teachers need to care if students are absent from school -- and ask how they are doing when they return. Teachers need to have high expectations for all students’ success -- and help students develop a concrete plan for achieving their dreams. Our research has found that students who feel they are valued members of the school community are five times more likely to be academically motivated to learn than students who do not.

How can we change the disconnect between the intention to create a welcoming environment and what students actually experience?

Albeit well-intended, schools make too many assumptions. They assume that if they create an engaging learning environment, offer a multitude of co-curricular activities, and use advanced technological tools, students will feel welcome. However, without the crucial foundation of caring, this misses the mark. A welcoming environment for students is a place where their hopes and dreams are known, understood, and supported. It is impossible for students to feel school is welcoming when they don’t feel valued for who they are.

If you could change one thing to improve the experience for students, what would it be?

I would recommend that every student have an individualized learning plan, and that the students help develop the plan and remain involved in tracking their progress. When teachers and students collaborate, learning is personalized. Not only does this ensure that all students know they are appreciated as individuals, but an individualized learning plan allows schools to concentrate on student aspirations as much as they do on test scores.

Are the qualities of fun, creativity, and excitement compatible with the need to raise test scores?

They are more than compatible -- they can directly address the issue. The problem is that when schools become so concerned about raising test scores, they forget about the factors that motivate students to learn. They focus on teaching content, content, content, and forget they are working with whole people, not just their minds as machines. Students need to: feel like they belong, have a hero in their lives they can learn from, experience a sense of accomplishment, have fun in the classroom, be curious and creative, have a spirit of adventure, be provided opportunities to genuinely lead with responsibility, and have confidence to take action. When students experience this, they will be invested learners who have self-worth, are meaningfully engaged, and have a sense of purpose. Positive test scores will follow.

Is it really possible to change?

Absolutely. And critical if students are going to reach their fullest potential. Some students are going to be successful in school in spite of what we do or don’t do. However, the majority of students need us to make school much more user-friendly. We need to ask ourselves, “Are the students disconnected from the school environment, or is the school environment disconnected from the students?” I would argue the latter. It is the responsibility of schools to work with students to get to know them as individuals, demonstrate they are valued members of the school community, foster a sense of belonging, and support their aspirations.

What can school boards do?

The first thing school board members can do is examine their own beliefs. They must believe that students have something to teach them and recognize that students are the potential, not the problem. They need to realize that before students can achieve (academically or personally), they need to have self-worth, be meaningfully engaged in their learning, and have a sense of purpose. With these understandings in place, it’s important for board members to give students a real voice in the decision-making process about how to best improve the learning environment. Offer students a seat at the table ... and listen. 


NSBA Roundup

Supreme Court rules in employment case and cites NSBA’s brief
The U.S. Supreme Court has favorably cited NSBA’s amicus brief in support of an important ruling that protects employers from lawsuits stemming from unwarranted claims of retaliation.

The June 24 ruling in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar overrules a judgment by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that created a higher standard for employers defending against unsupported claims of retaliation.

Writing for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited NSBA’s amicus brief for the proposition that it would be against the intent of federal anti-discrimination laws to place economic and reputational costs on employers who did not discriminate.

The decision is particularly relevant for school districts because they often assign or transfer employees to improve teaching and learning and to comply with federal and state mandates. Those actions can elicit lawsuits based on a perception of retaliation, NSBA noted in its brief.

In its amicus brief, NSBA argued that a ruling to change the legal standard would have a severe impact on school districts across the country and their more than 6 million employees, encouraging more lawsuits and stifling school leaders’ abilities to make decisions related to employee assignments.

NSBA pleased with Obama administration’s decision to delay Affordable Care Act employer mandate

NSBA applauded the federal government’s decision to delay the implementation of IRS rules for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) until January 2015, based upon the “complexity of the requirements and the need for more time to implement them effectively.”

On March 18, 2013, NSBA filed a comprehensive response to the IRS’s proposed rules for implementing ACA to apprise the agency of the “unanticipated impact certain provisions of the proposed rule may have as public school districts across the country wrestle with questions.” These questions range from calculation of service hours to the so-called “large employer” determinations.

In its comments to the IRS, NSBA raised concerns about the challenges the proposed rules would have on school employment arrangements such as long-term versus short-term teaching substitutes with consecutive assignments, independent contractors, additional extra-curricular duty providers, re-hired retired employees, and pay for school board members.

NSBA secures time to assess school district impact of new regulations for food sold in schools

Following the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) release of its Interim Final Rule on Nutrition Standards for All Foods Sold in School, NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel issued a statement, from which this is excerpted:

“America’s school boards are deeply committed to fostering a healthy and positive learning environment for children to achieve their full potential. Most school districts have already taken meaningful steps to improve the quality of foods available from vending machines, a la carte lines, and other non-National School Lunch Program sources.

“Yet, we must acknowledge the budget and labor constraints that school districts already face in light of sequestration and the ongoing fiscal crisis for our schools, communities, and states. At a time when education is acknowledged as a priority for America’s success and competitiveness, it is imperative that federal policy -- including implementation of the child nutrition regulations -- assures that educational systems are supported, not undermined by unfunded mandates or under-resourced requirements. School nutrition programs simply cannot be successful unless the school districts providing them have sufficient resources and local authority to administer them effectively.”

You can find more NSBA news and information at School Board News Today.

Talk About It
Our monthly topics worth discussing

Insurance companies foil schools’ plans to arm employees
Schools arming or planning to arm employees as part of their security plan are finding themselves at odds with their insurance carriers, which are responding with threats to raise premiums or even revoke district insurance. Seven states have passed laws allowing districts to arm administrators and teachers. The laws in Kansas, South Dakota, and Tennessee went into effect this past July. Kansas’ EMC Insurance Companies, which provides liability insurance for 90 percent of Kansas’ schools, quickly responded by announcing that any school allowing employees to be armed would have their coverage denied. Plans to arm employees in Indiana’s Noble County fell apart when an insurer decided to refuse workers’ compensation to any school where employees were armed. Tennessee’s Risk Management Trust, the state’s largest school insurance provider, has not yet decided whether it will raise school’s premiums if employees are armed. Liability concerns in the event of a gun-related accident on school property, as well as insurance difficulties, are leading schools to investigate other security measures, according to the New York Times.

Yoga exercise, not religion, judge decides
San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer has ruled that California’s Encinitas Union School District’s yoga program is secular -- physical education and not religious -- and is not in violation of the Constitution’s separation of church and state provision. Judge Meyer said that, when he applied the three-pronged “Lemon test” for determining violations of the separation of church and state provision, he found no violation. He also said that the children of the plaintiffs in the case had never attended the yoga class, and that the plaintiffs’ arguments against the program seemed to be based largely on Internet research, which Meyer likened to “a trial by Wikipedia,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Substitute teachers
From kindergarten to high school graduation, the average American student will have spent more than a year of school learning under the auspices of a substitute teacher. Qualifications for substitute teachers vary from state to state. Twenty-eight states say that a substitute teacher only needs to have a high school diploma, seven states require some college, and only 15 require a college diploma. National rates of teacher absenteeism range from 8 percent to 10 percent, with some states’ averages even higher. Washington’s Spokane Public Schools’ daily teacher absentee rate ranges between 11 percent and 13 percent. To provide consistency and continuity to students taught by substitute teachers, the district plans to hire eight or nine permanent substitutes, a practice that is common in larger districts, reports the Spokesman-Review. The permanent substitutes would be assigned to specific buildings.

Law supports state’s K-4 reading intervention
In more news from Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee has signed into law a measure taking effect in the 2014-15 school year requiring that all report cards for students in kindergarten through fourth grade indicate whether or not the student is reading on grade level. If a student is not reading on grade level, the student and the student’s parents must meet with school administrators to determine an appropriate intervention. Struggling fourth-grade students will be given extra help by schools beginning with the 2015-16 school year. Schools with more than 40 percent of students reading at “basic” or “below basic” on the state’s third-grade reading test will be compelled to follow a state-approved reading improvement plan. The new legislation has evolved from proposed legislation requiring that all students not performing well on the third-grade reading test be automatically held back from grade advancement, says The Olympian.

NYC charter school growth under Mayor Bloomberg
Money allotted by New York City for charter schools has increased from $32 million to $659 million -- more than half a billion dollars -- in the decade since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002. The number of New York City charter schools has grown in that decade from 17 to 159, with 24 more expected to open this fall. At capacity, these schools would enroll 10 percent of the city’s school children, the New York Daily News reports. While 66 percent of New York’s charter schools operate within traditional public schools, moneys budgeted for teachers in traditional public schools have dropped, from 40 percent of the education budget in the 2001-02 school year to 34 percent of the budget in the 2010-11 school year. The education budget comprises one-third of New York City’s overall budget, says the Daily News.


YOUR TURN
Many Factors lead to disconnection
You say your schools are working to keep students engaged

W
hen asked what factors were contributing to the record number of disconnected youth in America, you said: “It’s complicated.”

More than half of you said it was a combination of problems: poverty, family dysfunction and lack of parental involvement, and achievement-focused schools. Just under 39 percent said family dysfunction alone was to blame. A few readers (3.8 percent) blamed poverty.

Tellingly, none of you said that school climate was solely to blame. As survey comments show, most everyone involved in public schools cares deeply about the children in their charge, and all are working hard to provide them with opportunities for success in school and in life.

Some of your comments:

• Our alternative school has reached out to our dropouts and pulled them back to school for a second chance on earning their high school diploma. In a smaller building and a closer-knit atmosphere, these students learn to trust again and realize they can make a change. To date, 237 students have graduated from the program. -- Peggy Taylor, member, Missouri

• We are trying to get students more involved with technology/project-based learning. Our feeling is that this will help to keep students more connected. -- Ronald Pierce, board member, Delaware

• We offered an incentive program for academic performance that consisted of travel to exciting places: Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, etc. It drove our performance up immediately. -- Paul Vranish, retired superintendent, Texas

• Our district is increasing its use of data to identify “at-risk” students and then teachers are taking extra steps to work with students directly. Additionally, our community is increasing its efforts around mentoring with academic supports merged at times with athletic programs. -- James Butt, board member, Pennsylvania

• At our high school, the principal has made sure that every student in the building has a positive relationship with an adult. If a student has no one, the staff makes it happen by actively pursuing those students who may not have established a positive relationship on their own. There is power in these relationships, as students feel that someone cares that they are there, and is there to help them through challenges, both academic and personal. -- Diane D'Angelo, board member, New York state

• One thing we are doing is emphasizing relevance. That includes a 1:1 initiative at the high school level, as well as alternative diploma completion paths, programs that pre-qualify the student for junior college funding, engaged education delivered off-site in work sites, and a more attentive counseling staff. -- board member, Missouri

• Not enough has been said about the impact of the quality of health care, social, economic, cultural and environmental factors that in effect determine the foundation for education. -- Philip Cooper, lead researcher for Smiles Are Meaningful Inc., Georgia

• If schools do not shift their current mindset to one that places a value on student success through focused efforts to ensure that engagement and success, educators (and educational leaders) will find themselves quickly replaced with less costly and potentially more rigorous private, charter, online, virtual, or alternative programs that college and the workforce find produces capable applicants. -- superintendent, Illinios